Editorial: Port's misuse of private files lamentable

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Ports of Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ports of Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Whoever at Ports of Auckland decided to leak a worker's personal details to a pro-company blogger during the waterfront dispute needs to be locked out. This was an industrial own-goal seldom seen in the age of purported "good faith" bargaining. It says much about the standards of those involved and highlights a creeping relativism over obligations to confidentiality.

The company has effectively acknowledged that information on worker Cecil Walker came from his employment file. Without directly admitting its role in the leak, Ports chief executive Tony Gibson has written to the Maritime Union and apologised to Mr Walker "for any distress he may have felt". Further, he says "the release of the information was intended purely as a direct response to Mr Walker's commenting negatively" about the port company. To know the "intention" of that release is, of course, to know the identity and motivation of the leaker. But a "he did it first" attitude is not a mature basis on which to make managerial decisions.

Mr Walker had been mildly critical of the port company on radio at a highly charged time. His comeuppance was to have information on compassionate leave that he was afforded by the company around the time of his wife's death made public through the Whaleoil blog. The implication was that he was ungrateful. The level of detail published could leave no doubt as to its origin. Indeed, it followed a similar personal information leak days earlier to the same blogger about another worker who appeared on television with family members and commented on the company. Cue leaked details of accident compensation issues involving the worker. And another whose daughter said on video her dad was not a troublemaker only to see his disciplinary issues at work aired on the blog.

Someone within the company had decided to hit back at unionist critics by way of the personnel filing cabinet. Someone on the industrial, human resources or public relations strategy teams, no doubt. Someone sufficiently senior to risk ethical and legal breaches to send a message to the union that fire would be met with fire.

The port's actions played into the hands of those who say employers are attacking unions because the Government has given them a green light. The port company's misuse of an individual's private information in response to that individual's public criticism of it has no clearer inspiration than the actions of welfare minister Paula Bennett. In that case an "ungrateful" beneficiary who criticised a policy found her own benefit payments made public by Ms Bennett. The minister faces proceedings under the Privacy Act, and no doubt the Maritime Union will be taking Mr Walker and possibly some of his colleagues' cases down the same path.

If companies or state departments or governments feel individuals are damaging them or wronging them in public, they have every opportunity to argue the issues in private or in public rather than breach confidentiality undertakings. It cannot be right to claim an individual voids his or her claim to their information being held in confidence purely because they publicly challenge the holder. Imagine the room for coercion should the Inland Revenue Department or Child, Youth and Family or district health boards adopt the law of the personal counterpunch.

The port company will soon move to "facilitation" before the Employment Relations Authority of its dispute with the union. Mr Gibson's letter on the Walker leak could not rule out using "corrective information" in the public domain if union members' future claims damage the company. No matter how stinging or inaccurate the claims made by a picketing worker, and no matter how galling and provocative these may be, two wrongs do not make a right.

- NZ Herald

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