May 12, 2022

Two New Zealand port workers killed in one week

The abysmal safety record of New Zealand’s semi-privatized port operations was highlighted last month when two workers were killed in separate incidents in the same week.

The first fatality was a young worker, Atiroa Tuaiti, at Ports of Auckland (PoA) on April 19. The 26-year-old, who was working alongside his father at the time of the accident, leaves behind his partner and two young children – his youngest born last October.

Auckland Ports worker Atiroa Tuaiti and his partner [Image source: Facebook]

Tuaiti reportedly fell while working on a container ship, Captain Tasman. A video posted on Facebook showed the grieving and shocked father, supported by colleagues, with his hand on the covered body of his son.

Tuaiti, a recent immigrant from the Cook Islands, worked for Wallace Investments, the port’s largest private operator. Wallace Investments chief executive Felix van Aalst confirmed that Tuaiti fell from a high, but said it was too early to determine what happened. An investigation is ongoing, led by Maritime NZ. It is the agency responsible for occupational safety on ships and at sea, while WorkSafe oversees safety in land-based workplaces.

Tuaiti was the fourth fatality involving the PoA since 2017 and the sixth fatality in six years at New Zealand ports nationwide. Former PoA chief executive Tony Gibson resigned under pressure in May last year following a scathing independent review of the health and safety of operations at the port. The examination was ordered by Auckland Council, which owns the PoA, after multiple injuries and two deaths at the scene.

The report, published in March 2021, revealed several major security failures and blamed management. Among other issues, he noted that line management often failed to follow up on health and safety issues, firing workers who raised issues as “troublemakers.” The report recommended that the CEO “put safety before productivity and profitability”.

Nothing has changed. Of the 45 areas for improvement recommended by the report, the PoA had completed less than half of them as of last month. The latest board-to-board update showed the port had already missed its target of halving lost time injuries. There were 12 in the last three months of last year, compared to nine in the previous quarter.

Last August, Gibson was charged with the death of longshoreman Pala’amo Kalati the previous year. Last June, worker Janesh Prasad was killed at the port’s transport hub in south Auckland during a tornado. In December 2020, a judge fined PoA for the death of young father, Laboom Dyer, who was seriously injured after a crane overturned. In July 2020, PoA was again fined for the death of a swimmer who was struck by a port-owned pilot boat.

Six days after Tuaiti’s death, the second worker was crushed by coal while loading the ETG vessel Aquarius, moored at Cashin Quay in Lyttelton, near Christchurch. Lyttelton Port Company Acting Managing Director Kirstie Gardener confirmed the man died while the ship was being loaded with coal for export. The 70-year-old worker was preparing for retirement. His family applied to the coroner for a publication ban on his name.

Quays 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 at Lyttelton Harbour. In the background on the left is part of the oil terminal. [Source: Matthew25187 via Wikimedia Commons, 2009. CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Port of Christchurch came to a halt on April 28 as more than 100 port workers marked International Workers’ Memorial Day with a solemn service. The workers were a close-knit group and those who witnessed the fatal incident were said to have been particularly traumatized.

Lyttelton Port Company has also overseen previous deaths, with three workers killed in 2014. The company was later ordered to pay a paltry $138,000 fine. In one case, father-of-three Bradley Fletcher died when a scissor crane overturned after he was asked to climb it. Fletcher was not trained to operate the elevator. No risk assessment has been carried out and the lift has not been maintained and used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

A Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) investigation into the two recent deaths at ports will now take place with investigators starting in Lyttelton, before traveling to Auckland. The TAIC is not responsible for “blaming” fatalities, but for addressing the circumstances and causes of accidents, and identifying safety “lessons”.

The Maritime Union, backed by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, is calling for an inquiry into port security and the establishment of national operating standards. Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood told Radio NZ he was “seriously considering” this but wanted a formal proposal from the union.

Wood also claimed: “The unions have confirmed that positive work on safety has taken place in the ports.” This is nonsense and underscores the unions’ longstanding collaboration with governments and port managements to keep the lid on an unfolding disaster, despite alleged ‘fractured relationships’ between management and union leaders, particularly at the PoA.

While industrial action on health and safety is a legal area under the restrictive Industrial Relations Act, passed by the Labor Alliance government in 2000, union-led strikes have been rare. Workplace fatalities over the past three years totaled 110 in 2019 (including the White Island volcano disaster), 66 in 2020 and 52 in 2021, despite pandemic shutdowns. That is to say, on average more than one worker is killed on the job each week, the number being double that per capita in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Under the privatization mania initiated by the Lange-Douglas Labor government of 1984-1990, and intensified by subsequent governments, the ports were transformed into competing entities with stock listings, driven by the demands of profit. Private companies such as shipping giant Maersk Line and Fonterra-backed logistics company Kotahi took financial stakes in the ports they used.

Jobs, health, safety and working conditions have inevitably suffered. At PoA, the restructuring that began in 2011 saw a series of major attacks. In 2011, workers went on strike against the company’s plan to introduce a flexible roster, with management saying the changes were necessary to provide an “adequate financial return” to the board. The company’s corporate statement of intent set a return on equity forecast of 12% by 2016.

Under ‘centre-left’ Auckland Council and Labor-aligned Mayor Len Brown, a massive redundancy package was presented and proposals were sought from five handling companies to replace the workforce work. The Maritime Union sought to respond to the PoA’s demands, indicating that it was prepared to discuss ‘flexibility’ and ‘productivity’ improvements as long as they did not affect union coverage and dues.

In 2014, the company boasted that 60% of the workforce was on a flexible roster and that it had reached its financial return of 12% two years ahead of schedule. It reported an annual net profit of $74 million thanks to record productivity and a dividend of $66.6 million up 126% from the 2012-13 dividend.

Attacks on workers have continued since then, and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global supply chain crisis, they have intensified. In 2020-2021, frequent disruptions and closures caused significant backlogs at the docks. After Ardern’s Labor government abandoned its strategy of eliminating COVID-19 last October under pressure from big business and the media, the pursuit of profit has resumed with renewed vigor.

Undercapacity at the docks and “just-in-time” delivery requirements have intensified the speed and performance pressures on portworkers. It is no coincidence that deaths and injuries have reappeared since the lifting of COVID-related restrictions. Unions have acted throughout the pandemic crisis as staunch partners of the Labor government, enforcing the “back to work” campaign, regardless of the health and safety hazards to workers.