On the Tauranga Waterfront

Unpacking the casualising of how and when you work

by Alison McCulloch
Photos by MUNZ and by Alison McCulloch

Chris has been a “seagull’ at the Port of Tauranga for 12 years, and knows first-hand what it’s like working on a waterfront lauded by many as the “model” for the Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) in its current dispute with its workers. Just like the birds they’re named after, the “seagulls” get to pick up the leftovers – the shifts and hours unfilled by the permanent and guaranteed-hour workers. Like hundreds of other seagulls, or casuals, Chris is on-call and can be asked to work at an hour’s notice, never knowing when – or whether – the next shift is coming. Say “No” to an offer of work because you have other plans, and you might not be called back. Sure, Chris would love to get some guaranteed hours, or better yet be made a permanent – or a ‘perm’ as they’re called – but under the Tauranga “model” of efficiency, competitiveness and lower cost, that’s not likely to happen.

“You’ll probably never become permanent on the ports,” Chris says, “but guaranteed hours would be good. If they could guarantee you 28 hours, if they could guarantee you 35 hours. It doesn’t happen, and there aren’t any opportunities to apply for that”. It can be tough to plan a life, and, for those with families, even to make ends meet. “I get by,” Chris says. “Generally you’ll pick up a shift or two and generally you’ll pick up as many hours as the perms, but I don’t have children to feed and I don’t have a mortgage – for anybody looking for a job that’s going to cover a mortgage and a family they’re looking in the wrong place”.

For Chris, it’s not just a local Tauranga issue, or even one limited to the waterfront. “It’s not the port’s fault,” Chris says. “They’re taking advantage of what the government – or the employers association – did years ago: casualization, everywhere in New Zealand”. Chris is not this worker’s real name. It turns out that it’s not so easy to find casuals at the ports of Tauranga willing to talk. And not so hard to understand why. Tauranga is a competitive place to work – get on the wrong side of a stevedoring company, and your career on the wharfs might be a short one.

Casualisation has been the norm at the Tauranga for years now, and it’s really only the old-timers, and the port’s dwindling number of permanents, who know what it’s like to have a reliable, stable job on the waterfront. Jim Gibson was a wharfie for 32 years, and held posts in the old Waterfront Workers Union, a precursor to the current Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ). Back before 1989 under the Waterfront Industry Commission, a government body that registered and employed waterfront workers – and before the Employment Contracts and Employment Relations acts of the 90s – Gibson and his fellow wharfies had a guaranteed 40 hours work a week, earned different rates for things like dirty or extra dangerous work, and had benefits including a superannuation fund subsidized by the employer.

Gibson knows a young wharfie for whom that kind of job security is hard to imagine. He sometimes works as much 126 hours in 10 days which, at just over $20 an hour, is definitely good money – while it lasts. And not all casuals get that rate, with some on around $16 an hour.

“They’ve kept their casuals with the false promise you’re going to be made permanent next month- next month – next month,” Gibson says. “They don’t become permanent because the employer is quite happy, he’s got shipping, the guys are there, but what was happening was they over-supplied the casual labour, and people were only getting maybe $20 or $30 more working for a week over there than they were by being on the dole”. Unsurprisingly, Gibson – an honorary lifetime member of the union – backs the Auckland’s Local 13 in their contract dispute aimed, in part, at keeping the Tauranga model at bay. “They’re not arguing for more money,” he says, “All they want is a permanent condition of employment and believe you me they’re entitled to it – anybody is”.

So how did Tauranga end up with such a different waterfront than Auckland? Professor James Reveley, of the School of Management and Marketing at the University of Wollongong, has been researching and writing about New Zealand port labour relations since 1990. He says it’s mainly because Auckland’s union was simply stronger. Although obliterated after the 1951 strike, the union managed to rebuild itself into one of the strongest in the country. “In fact the term often used in employer circles and also within union circles is ‘Fortress Auckland’,” Reveley says, “because they’ve been very successful at keeping rates of casualization/casual labour low and keeping their workforce unionized, whereas Tauranga’s been a lot less successful”.

‘Company’ Unions
Indeed, even Tauranga’s unionized workforce is dispersed across four unions, two of which are widely seen as “company” (or less politely – “yellow”) unions, and which aren’t affiliated with the Council of Trade Unions (CTU). These unions, the Surfside Employees Association (SEA) and the Amalgamated Stevedores Union (ASU), both formed in 2000, prefer to limit their memberships to workers at particular companies.

The rules of the Surfside Employees Association, for example, state that “membership of the Association shall be open to any person who is employed or engaged to be employed as a stevedore by the firm Independent Stevedoring Ltd (ISL) and as the Committee shall from time to time decide”. The ASU, meanwhile, is linked to another major stevedoring firm, ISO, which said in a submission to the Productivity Commission that it has more than 400 workers under contract with New Zealand Associates Limited, “who are members of the independent Amalgamated Stevedores Union”.

According to membership returns, which every union has to provide the Department of Labour, Surfside had 82 members last year while the ASU had 308. (Nationally, MUNZ had 2,580 and while the biggest union at the port of Tauranga, the CTU-affiliated Rail and Maritime Transport Union, had 4,747.)

The two non-affiliated unions are hard to pin down. Werewolf could find little to no information online or elsewhere about them. We did reach the president of the ASU, who said he was headed out of town and wouldn’t be able to comment until he returned in a couple of weeks. In an effort to find a contact for Surfside, we called the offices of ISL, which states on its Web site that its staff “decided to form their own union, the Surfside Employees’ Association, more than nine years ago”. A staff member at ISL said he did not know how to reach the union, adding that the company had nothing to do with it.

According to Garry Parsloe, the president of MUNZ’s Auckland Local 13, unions like the Surfside and ASU aren’t represented on the Auckland waterfront – another of the things that would surely change if MUNZ loses its current dispute there. One reason to set up boutique unions is to enable company-wide collective employment agreements – something for which you need a registered union. For smaller outfits without big HR departments, being able to set wages and conditions across the company’s workforce has obvious advantages. Other less benign reasons include having better control of the workforce, weakening traditional union power, and, in some cases, helping employers win the public relations wars that are so important in industrial disputes.

Reveley expands on this latter point in a 2002 paper he wrote on the impact of the Employment Relations Act on the waterfront. In a 2001 dispute at South Island ports that involved the ASU and the then Waterfront Workers Union, he explained, “employer interests were able to define the confrontation variously as a ‘classic example of a demarcation dispute’ between two unions”. Reveley quoted the National Business Review, which described the dispute as being “about an entrenched union trying to muscle aside another union and hold back progress on New Zealand wharves”.

Among the things Werewolf was interested to ask the company unions, if we’d managed to get hold of them, was what percentage of their members are casuals and what percentage are permanents, or have guaranteed minimum weekly hours. As with so much about the ports, getting data on things like casuals isn’t easy. A spokesman for the Port of Tauranga Ltd said the company didn’t gather hard data on port-wide casualization rates, and those cited to Werewolf ranged from 80% casuals (from a union member) to an estimated 12 percent -20 percent (from the Port of Tauranga Ltd). The port company’s own workforce of about 160 includes roughly 12 percent casuals, the port said, while according to the CTU, the national figure for CTU affiliated members working the waterfront is 25 percent casual. The levels of casualisation among non-union workers and those who are members of the company unions are likely to be higher.

Reveley suspects that a lack of information on issues like casualisation is actually a political and economic strategy. “Any government is going to be concerned about a core industry like that … about how much casualization there is on the waterfront,” he says. “And firms aren’t going to give it out because it’s commercial and confidential information”.

Whatever the number of casuals among Tauranga’s roughly 1,200-strong workforce, it’s clear that it’s been rising over the years. Under the Tauranga model, there’s no cap on the level of casuals, something that is in place in Auckland where, according to MUNZ’s magazine, The Maritimes, the maximum is 20 percent. (Another 27 percent are permanent but only guaranteed 24 hours a week, while 53 percent are permanent full-timers.)

In the late 1970s, according to Reveley, there were almost no casuals on the waterfront – a situation that was to change dramatically in the wake of port reform in 1989 and the subsequent labour relations overhauls. In the four years to 1997 he wrote in a paper published that same year, “numbers of casual workers have increased dramatically, casuals are now being utilised in skilled positions (like operating forklifts and shipboard cranes), and the level of unionization of casuals has declined”. But Reveley, too, found reliable figures hard to get, pointing out that since the abolition of the Waterfront Industry Commission in 1989 “no figures are kept by any government agency that could be used to indicate the numbers of casuals”.

All sides agree that port work has special flexibility requirements, with labour needs dependent on the unpredictable arrival and departure of ships. Werewolf asked the Port of Tauranga Ltd if it saw itself as a model or example for other port operations like Auckland, and while the company didn’t offer a yes or no answer, a spokesman, Terry James, said it was “satisfied” with its current model, “which is in our view best suited to handle the vagaries of work demands within the shipping industry”. James continued: “We understand Ports of Auckland still work traditional roster patterns so we assume that they incur significant downtime, which is ultimately a cost borne by the importers/exporters using Ports of Auckland”.

For its part, MUNZ says its Auckland agreement already allows for the kind of flexibility the port needs, and what POAL really wants is to take away guaranteed weekly hours. As well as the impact on the incomes and quality of life of its workers, Local 13, like its branch in Tauranga, worries about the health and safety implications of allowing more and more casual workers onto the wharves.

‘A Very Dangerous Environment’
For Chris, the Tauranga “seagull,” safety is a huge concern. “Always new casuals,” Chris says. “It makes it dangerous for the people that work there … they’re barely there long enough to be called experienced”. When the company is busy and short on staff, Chris says it brings in inexperienced labour hire workers – and the port “is a very dangerous environment to be in even if you are experienced”.
The issue is a sensitive one on both sides, and in Tauranga it has been at the centre of a very public disagreement between MUNZ and the port company, with claims and counter claims filling the pages of the local daily, The Bay of Plenty Times. MUNZ’s Tauranga organizer, Selwyn Russell, told the newspaper in February that casual workers were too scared to report accidents, and it was not uncommon to have incidents involving “digits, little bits of fingers, arms and sprained ankles”. The newspaper also reported that according to the Department of Labour, there had been five serious harm incidents at the port in 2011 and it went on to quote an anonymous casual worker who said that when faced with reporting an injury, the consensus was “oh nah, keep your head down and do the job”.

The port company hit back, issuing a press release disputing the union’s claims and arguing that it was using the issue to “advance their position on the current dispute with Ports of Auckland”. The port told Werewolf something similar: “We are convinced that this ‘revelation’ from MUNZ was designed to remove the raison d’etre of POAL’s campaign to move to the Port of Tauranga model”. The port gave several reasons for this conclusion, including that MUNZ had not mentioned this issue at the port’s monthly health and safety forum. “We don’t see why a worker would not wish to report an accident to his supervisor and we reject the notion that any employee should feel intimidated in doing so,” the company said.

Russell stands by his comments, describing the situation as a vicious Catch 22: if a contractor or worker sticks their head up, they might lose contracts or work. He said it wasn’t just casuals who had suffered injuries that weren’t recorded – to digits, ankles, arms and legs – and that an independent inspection regime was needed. “[The port company is] saying, ‘we don’t have any of this information, we’ve never heard of anything like this going on’, and I say, ‘of course you haven’t, why would they?’”

‘Horribly Efficient’

Another major focus in the war of words over the “Tauranga model” has been productivity – that, and the other watchwords of the business side like efficiency, flexibility, profitability and lower costs. On those points, the union doesn’t necessarily disagree that Tauranga rates highly – but it has questions about the price. “It is horribly efficient,” Russell says, “but at the detriment to the workers”. The CTU agrees. It has challenged both the philosophy and draft findings of the government’s Productivity Commission on international freight transport services – findings that have been heralded in the news media as more evidence of the superiority of the Tauranga model. ( The Commission’s report and the various submissions are available here ). In its submission on the commission’s report, the CTU criticized both its analysis of productivity data and its “single-minded” focus on efficiency and profit. In adopting the narrow focus that it has, the CTU says, the commission:

walked away from its ostensible mandate to focus on ‘the wellbeing of New Zealanders’ and has instead allied itself with the most reactionary elements in the business community. The result is more a political document than an economic analysis, and while this may well coincide with the outcomes the present Government seeks, it represents a missed opportunity to establish the Commission as a professionally-detached analytical agency providing genuinely disinterested advice based on economic analysis of international standard.

The CTU is particularly scathing about the chapter on employment relations, arguing that it shows “capture” by “extremist anti-union submitters – most notably the stevedoring company ISO”. Instead of analytical detachment and balance, the CTU says, “the report exhibits only a zealous desire to promote casualisation of labour and weaken CTU-affiliated unions”.

And however flexible and productive the Tauranga model, it’s clear from the submissions that employers would like to go even further. In its August 2011 submission, the Port of Tauranga Ltd says “inflexible labour practices and difficulties in employer-union relationships” are a significant obstacle to increased efficiency and productivity, noting that “a number of Unions [are] currently pushing the boundaries of the freedom of association principles of the Employment Relations Act”. ISO agreed, telling the commission that “inflexible labour practices and
certain union activities” were hampering productivity improvements. ISO is particularly critical of CTU-affiliated unions, accusing them of causing “economic harm and reduced competition”, and urging the Commission to investigate.

Of particular interest to workers in Auckland, ISO included in its submission an excerpt from the collective employment agreement with members of the ASU, or Amalgamated Stevedores Union, in which it details some of the conditions enjoyed by workers classed as “regular hourly associates” and “casual associates”.According to the excerpt, a “casual associate” is “an Associate engaged and paid by the hour on an ‘as and when Required’ basis pursuant to an individual casual employment agreement for each job with no guarantee as to the period of engagement or of any subsequent engagement(s)”. Regular Hourly Associates, or RHAs, have a “minimum guarantee or retainer”, but even they can be stood down, albeit “on rare occasions”. ISO says its workers are free to turn down work “to accommodate family life”, and that guidelines on minimum notice and maximum days worked are in place.

As far as Jim Gibson is concerned, the push for the kind of lower costs, greater efficiencies, and higher profits sought by port companies represent little more than a race to the bottom. If Auckland has Maersk, Tauranga undercuts them, he says, so Auckland undercuts Tauranga, and so on. “They’re diving headlong into a bottomless pit, where no one is making any money”.

For now, port jobs remain sought after, and a lot of wharfies love the work they do. But casualisation is having an impact. “You know everybody wants to work on the wharf,” Chris says. “I suppose the money’s a bit better than the New Zealand wage, and it’s easy enough to get in, but you’ll never be anything more than a casual and they have no obligation. … You’re called in for your shift, you do your shift, once you drive out of that gate, you’re not employed by them any more. Even if you could pick up a bit of medical insurance or superannuation – casuals don’t have any rights whatever”.

Images by Alison McCulloch and from the MUNZ Flikr photo stream

James Reveley. “Waterfront Labour Reform in New Zealand: Pressures, Processes and Outcomes”. The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 39, No. 3, September 1997.

James Reveley. “Contradictory Rights and Unintended Consequences: The Early Impact of the Employment Relations Act on the New Zealand Waterfront”. The Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 44, No. 4, December 2002.

James Reveley. “From ‘Supplementary Seagulls’ to ‘Cut Price Casuals’: Changing Patterns of Casual Employment on the New Zealand Waterfront 1951-1997. Labour & Industry, Vol. 10, No 1, August 1999.