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  Issue No 63 Official Organ of LaborNet 21 July 2000  




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War in the West

By Brenda Finlayson

Only six months after signing individual staff contracts, the gloss has worn off for some of BHP's Pilbara iron ore workers.


A Nelson Point production operator who signed a contract has worked 300 extra hours since January. He calculates that under the collective agreement, he would have been paid $11,000 for that work. 300 hours overtime over six months has cost that worker $11,000.

When he contacted the WA Workplace Agreements Commissioner, he was told an employee was required to work a 'reasonable' amount of overtime under a staff contract. So far, he has not been given a definition of 'reasonable'.

The definition of 'reasonable' is also a key aspect of negotiations between the unions and BHP for a collective agreement. This employee is only one of several operators who are clocking up extra hours for less than they were paid under the EBA.

The unions representing Pilbara iron ore workers are the AMWU, AWU, CEPU, CFMEU, and the TWU.

34 witnesses appear for unions

The case over the introduction of individual staff contracts by BHP to its iron ore workforce in the remote Pilbara started in the Federal Court in Melbourne on July 10.

During the first days of the hearing, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet told the court that BHP discriminated against union members by offering pay rises and sign-on bonuses to iron ore employees who accepted individual staff contracts.

The unions are arguing that BHPIO has attempted to illegally de-unionise its workforce by offering inducements for workers to sign staff contracts and give up their right to bargain collectively, and access collective union representation.

The final union witnesses gave evidence in the Federal Court in Melbourne this week. The unions called 34 witnesses, all BHP employees and union members. BHP has listed 58 witnesses.

The first witness for BHP was Iron Ore human resources vice-president Jeff Stockden, who said that BHP had introduced individual staff contracts to exclude "third parties" in the workplace.

Mr Stockden agreed under questioning by union lawyers that the lesson learned from operations at Hamersley Iron was that excluding "third parties" lead to the prospect of better flexibilities and greater productivity.

When asked if by third parties, he meant unions, Mr Stockden replied "Yes."

The case is set to run until July 28.

What is the case about ?

Under Australian workplace law, it is unlawful for an employer to induce an employee to leave a union.

The unions say that when BHP offered better wages and conditions only to workers who signed individual workplace agreements, and at the same time refused to bargain collectively, BHP induced workers to leave their unions.

So, the unions are saying that BHP has acted unlawfully.

Both sides agree

It appears that both sides agree that BHP refused to negotiate a certified agreement with the unions covering iron ore workers in the Pilbara.

How does BHP defend this case?

BHP says that:

Implementing a system of individual contracts does not mean the company is trying to induce workers to leave the union. It does not care whether workers join a union or not. If workers have left the union, they have left for other reasons

What do the unions say?

The theory behind an individual contract is that an employee negotiates directly with their employer on an equal footing - but the practice is a different story. Last year, when BHP offered individual staff contracts to its iron ore workers, the offer was made on a take-it or leave-it basis - there was no negotiation.

On the other hand, a worker who is covered by a collective agreement joins with their work mates under the umbrella of their union. Negotiations are carried out by union delegates from the job and their union officials.

The unions covering the BHP iron ore workers say that if workers are prevented from bargaining collectively, you remove the main reason for being in a union, and people will leave.

It's a bit like saying that if you ban a football or netball club from playing in competition, that club is soon going to lose its members. You join a sports club to play sport. Who would join a club that could not play against other clubs?

You join a union to be part of a collective process . . . to be part of collective bargaining. That's what the word "union" means. So why would people join a union that can't bargain collectively?

So, the unions say that BHP induced people to leave their union by offering superior wages and conditions only to those people who signed an individual contract and, at the same time, refusing to have a collective agreement. Therefore such a strategy is unlawful.

What you can do?

The Pilbara is a remote region in Western Australia. You can let the workers there know that they are not alone.

Send messages of support and solidarity by fax: (08) 9177 8107 or mailto:[email protected]


*    Visit the Pilbara Campaign Page

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 63 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Paul Keating's Big Picture
The former Prime Minister is still painting on a broad canvass. He talks to Workers Online about the new economy, fair trade and political chi.
*  Unions: War in the West
Only six months after signing individual staff contracts, the gloss has worn off for some of BHP's Pilbara iron ore workers.
*  Environment: Farmers Fudge DNA Dangers
Farmers have missed the chance to have a meaningful debate into the use of genetically modified crops.
*  International: 'Dot Union' Proposal on the Table
ICANN, the global governing body of Internet domains, has released the following expression of interest in proposing a top-level domain for trade unions
*  Economics: Edge of the Abyss
Political economist Frank Stilwell argues that a constellation of events gives good reason to be worried about the Australian economy.
*  History: Taming the Tigers
Prominent labour historian, Dr Ming Chan, is visiting Australia to report on how workers are faring in the new Hong Kong.
*  Review: Music is Crap
It's already the second half of the first year in the new millenium. Who would have ever predicted a crisis in the popular music industry when we are at such an advanced stage ?
*  Satire: Last Kosovars Found Behind Couch
State Emergency Services personnel were called to a house in Brighton this morning, where the last five remaining Kosovar refugees have been found wedged behind a couch.

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»  Downer's Fiji Muddle Deepens
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»  BHP Holds Gun to Kembla's Head
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»  Garbos Forced to Ditch Early Start
»  Telstra - Making it Sleazier For You
»  Inquiry Blows Lid on Long Distance Trucking
»  Cab Company Highlights Labor Hire Quandry
»  What Olympics Jobs? Asks the AWU
»  Republican Elections Called for August
»  STOP PRESS: Landmark Legal Ruling on Asbestos

»  The Soapbox
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Fair Go on Fair Trade
»  Fair Trade a Protectionist Smokescreen
»  Maxine's Tool Time
»  Telstra Rats
»  Man in a Handmade Suit
»  The Ideological Sound

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