The Legacy of the Hungry Mile
The Reality of the Waterfront
Recently I met a group of visiting Russians who told
me: 'You know, the three worst ports in the world for
our ships to go to are Sydney, Melbourne, and Genoa.'
The problems of Melbourne waterfront are well known,
but I am going to talk about what Genoa has done about
their problems over the last six months.
Ports in Europe are aware of the opportunities which
will arise in 1992, when the Single European Act will
abolish all remaining customs and technical barriers
to trade between the member states of European Communities.
So Genoa has modernised its corporate structure and
it has set up a network of international services with
container terminals set at the heart of the rail and
freeway network. They have built a new container terminal
which has a fully computerised system for customs stacking
and truck entry. There will be over five kilometres
of optical fibres that will transmit full information
to the freight forwarders and shipping agents. They
will be the first European port linked by satellite
to the rest of the world. All these measures will improve
Contrast that to what is happening on Melbourne's
waterfront. At time of writing, there is literally
nothing happening; they are all on strike. They have
been sporadically on strike for the last three weeks,
and the export momentum which is fundamental to our
survival is being interrupted.
Work practices on the waterfront are an old scandal,
but let me tell you about the wheat situation down
in Geelong. I went to a ship a couple of weeks ago
and was told: 'We are not sailing now.' This was Friday
afternoon, so I asked when they were going, thinking
it would be tomorrow morning. But it was Tuesday afternoon.
I asked what had happened, had they had a cargo of
peas or something. Sometimes they get peas instead
of wheat into the hold and have to dig them out. But
they told me: 'No, no; we don't work over the weekends,
and Monday is a Rostered Day Off.' So here is this
shipload of wheat left alongside from Friday afternoon
to Tuesday afternoon because of inflexibility in management
practice. It's not the workers fault that there is
an RDO then, but why can't managers roster the RDOs
for when there is no ship there?
While we wait for our waterfront to get on with reform
what is happening around the world. In Britain lobbying,
lead by the Centre of Policy Studies, for the National
Dock Labour Scheme has resulted in the freeing up of
the workplace on the docks. Private enterprise is now
moving in to take advantage of those opportunities.
One company, called Highland, has purchased a redundant
refinery close to the entrance of the River Thames
and it is going to turn it into a container terminal.
(There is a redundant oil terminal at Westernport which
might be suitable for a similar operation here.)
In Spain, France and Italy they have already introduced
schemes similar to the Interstate Shipping Commission
Report. New training, job flexibility, and smaller
gangs all mean that those European ports are now ready
to take advantage of the single European markets after
1992. Canada and the US have signed a freight agreement
that will severely test our ability to maintain Victorian
exports of dried fruit and aluminium. In Rotterdam
there has been a new agreement covering the twenty
years after 1993. That agreement will call for the
construction of new container terminal that will remain
head of the competition through the twenty-first century.
The terminal will use state-of-the-art unmanned technology,
creating an almost people-less land side operation.
The world's twenty leading container lines carry 70%
of the high value cargo moving between Asia, Europe
and North America. A lot of statistics came out of
this waterfront debate, but one to keep in mind is
that 5% of all Australia's exports are carried in these
container ships but that that accounts for 55% of the
total value of all Australian dollar exports.
The total distribution cost of a manufactured item
often accounts for 50% of this total cost and if nothing
is done it creeps upwards. Volvo discovered that distribution
costs increase in percentage terms as soon as the product
became more automated. So they introduced a just-in-time
inventory system which cuts costs, providing the components
are delivered in the right place at the right time
and in the correct quantity. The tragedy for Australian
manufacturers who need imported parts is that the unpredictability
of our waterfront interrupts that justin-time system.
As a consequence, Australian manufacturers must keep
higher stock levels than any one else in the world.
Then when they have put the parts into something and
want to export it there is a Russian roulette situation:
will the ship get away on time?, will the wharfies
do the work?, and so on.
Loading a given cargo in Australia takes twice as
long as it would in European ports. Indeed, International
Cargo Handling Co-ordination Association (ICHCA) has
found that Australian container terminals are the least
efficient of all the ports surveyed throughout OECD
countries. In Melbourne and Sydney the exchange rate
of containers on and off the ship is about twelve per
hour. Ports in Europe handle twenty-four containers
per hour. In Asia it is even more: thirty-six per hour.
That's a terrible indictment of what's happened on
the waterfront since the seventies when we looked to
technology and mechanisation to improve things. We
spent a lot of money, made a lot of people redundant
and made a lot of people rich, but nothing much has
changed. It still takes three and a half months to
send that suitcase to your Aunty in England, just as
it did in the sixties.
Analysis of the container delays by ICHCA pointed
to substantial time losses as a result of award conditions.
That was expected, but of greater concern was the fact
that 50% of all time lost was put down to mechanical
breakdowns. Abuse of machines is common on the waterfront,
both because of lack of skill and pure bastardly. I
know of workers deliberately damaging a machine because
they have been assigned to the 'old' machine, not the
'new' one. Trivial things like that can put a machine
back in the workshops.
The workshops are hot beds of strife. In some places
there are so many foreign orders, jobs for home called
'foreigners' or 'homers', that there is not time to
repair the machinery as well. Over the years the waterside
workers have absorbed some tradesmen. At first there
was a bit of tension because some of the tradesmen
were not too bad, they merely wanted to do a day's
work. But it's a hard place to do a day's work because
you are considered to be a bit of dogsbody if you do.
They want you to be as disruptive and obstructive as
possible; that way you are a real little Aussie battler.
That is the environment that these decent workers found
themselves in and it's little wonder that with management
turning a blind eye they quickly said: 'What's the
point, we'll be like one of them.'
On the waterfront, a maintenance crew attends every
cargo operation, standing by waiting for something
to break down. That maintenance crew is made up of
one fitter, one electrician, one general hand, two
trade assistants and a supervisor; six men standing
around waiting for a breakdown. And it breaks down,
don't worry about that. There is a machine called a
spreader which lifts up containers. A different size
spreader is fitted for a 20ft container then changed
for a 40ft container. This is a slow process, so the
engineers developed an hydraulic system that would
do the job much more quickly. What happens to these
state-of-the-art hydraulic arms? They get broken and
spend a lot of time getting repaired. Where do they
get repaired? In the work shops where they are all
doing the foreign orders. So the maintenance crews
are still on the waterfront because the workers are
breaking the technological advances that have been
The Interstate Shipping Commission Report called for
change. They are suggesting that over a three year
period we change from the present national employment
scheme to enterprise based employment. Three years
is far too long. It has got to be done much more quickly
than that. The waterside workers should withdraw coverage
in ports where integrated workforces are established
and stevedores should continue to operate under new
enterprise agreements. What is happening around the
world is that machinery is making things better, but
not in Australia because the workers are breaking the
machinery as quickly as it's being developed. But any
of the ships that come to Melbourne have their own
lifting gear, their own cranes, and we may not be able
to match the exchange rates in Europe or Asia with
cranes but you can certainly match and usually better
the Australian rate of 12 containers per hour using
the existing ship's gear. Ship-board cranes have significantly
improved and a minimum cycle of 25 loads per hour is
Why must a ship that comes to Melbourne use those
Port of Melbourne shore side container cranes and waterside
labour? Why have all that cost, all that infrastructure,
all the maintenance, all the bother and frustration,
when the ship's own gear can move the cargo twice as
fast and maybe even use their own fully paid crew members
who are just standing around anyway? Why have the wharves,
why don't the boxes just go straight off the ship onto
the back of the Coles Myer truck and out to depots?
There is a cultural environment developed on the waterfront.
There is a reluctance to work. Management is turning
a blind eye. The criminal elements on the waterfront
break down all codes of discipline; don't ever be frightened
to say that, the crims on the waterfront are stopping
the reform. There is a stop-start style of work; no
momentum is generated.
The control of the group is maintained by the unions.
Management left a vacuum and the unions have filled
it. Nineteenth century class myths are maintained.
There is an enforceable code of silence. It is enforceable;
l know stories of men who may have been murdered on
the waterfront as a result of that code of silence.
And there is the business of 'don't break down the
conditions', 'don't work an extra five minutes', don't
do this don't do that. The Unions have protected the
dodgers, the drunks and the bludgers. Managers have
not been backed up. Discipline is lax, morale is poor,
there is high absenteeism, there is sickness. We all
know what that means; there is a terminal condition
on the waterfront.
Whose responsibility is it to fix it up? All the industries
that use the waterfront have that obligation: exporters,
transport companies, and reluctantly I would say the
Government. I am not a believer of government intervention,
but they are responsible for the maintenance of law
and order and they pull the basic levers of the economy.
What should be done? The Interstate Shipping Commission
strategy is well known: basically, they want to introduce
more competition. What disappoints me most is having
waited so long for the Report and read all the words
and been involved in some of the discussions, and at
the end of it all the government has formed WIRA, another
committee. Ralph Wlllis is running backward and forward
from the ACTU like an errand boy. John Button looks
like he has put it all in the 'too hard' basket. One
of the tragedies for us and for Australia is that the
Government is being forced to face this critical economic
test when its senior warriors are tired and shell shocked.
Unless we really keep the pressure on, nothing will
change. I suppose you could say, it's a gloomy outlook
but we must keep the pressure up because we know the
problems and we know the solutions.