Alison McCulloch: Port 'flexibility' works one way

In his recent announcement of the Port of Tauranga's record profit-making year, chief executive Mark Cairns had great praise for his port and its "can-do" culture - praise he later extended to all the "can-do" businesses across the Bay of Plenty. Just a few weeks earlier, the CEO of Tauranga's big rival, Ports of Auckland Ltd, had used exactly the same phrase. Not to praise his own port, though, but ours. Describing Tauranga as "a hell of a lot more successful" than Auckland, Tony Gibson said he believed that was because of "their can-do attitude".

In some circles, being a booster for your competition might be considered disloyal. And it wasn't the first time Mr Gibson had lauded his competition. In an opinion article in the New Zealand Herald last December, he spent a lot of space detailing Tauranga's achievements before moving on to discuss the need for Auckland to resolve "once and for all" the "labour issues that have dogged the port for decades" - like the "inflexible work practices" that are "a drag on efficiency". When it comes to busting a union, being the champion for your own team seems dispensable.

To my mind, it's a testament to a different kind of can-do attitude among the unionists in Auckland and their supporters that they're still on their feet and fighting in a struggle that's now almost a year old.

The dispute at the port may have dropped from the headlines, but it's far from over, with the workers, represented by Local 13 of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, still locked in facilitation in an effort to secure a decent contract.

And though the dispute never directly involved Tauranga, the comments by the CEOs make it clear the so-called "Tauranga model" has been at its centre from the start, cited as the gold standard for how a port should treat its workers. Under that model, casualisation is the norm, with many workers not knowing where their next shift is coming from. Presumably, they're part of the "extensive latent capacity" that Mr Cairns referred to in his discussion of how Tauranga dealt with the extra traffic that came its way when the Auckland workers went on strike or were locked out.

I have absolutely no doubt that Tauranga's CEO is right about workers at the port having a can-do attitude. But they'd probably also like to have some of the things the Auckland watersiders are fighting for, like more job security and guaranteed hours. It's not a lot to ask. A couple of months ago, I spoke with one of Tauranga's "seagulls" - the workers who get to pick up the leftover hours - who told me how hard it was to have a family life when you needed to be always on-call and ready to work at a moment's notice.<inline type="recurring-inline" id="1003" align="outside" enforce-sites="no" />

Labour "flexibility" only seems to work one way. It's one of those euphemisms that get trotted out every time there's an effort to crack down on workers. We all know what it really means. But if you want it spelled out, just take a look at how the World Economic Forum worded a question in its latest global competitiveness report. The question, part of an "executive opinion survey", went like this: "How would you characterise the hiring and firing of workers in your country? 1 = impeded by regulations; 7 = flexibly determined by employers".

Maybe what "can-do" really means is "can do" exactly what the boss says and exactly when. Oh, and on that survey, New Zealand was in the middle of the pack, with a score of 3.7. Can do better.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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