Cargo owners were not part of a plan to improve health and safety at ports, despite the customers being instrumental in tendering for low prices – something that has driven a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality in the past.  

Maritime Union national secretary Craig Harrison said cargo owners had a huge amount of skin in the game. 

Inconsistencies costing lives in port businesses
Courier firm ordered to make driving safe

“They’re the ones that create the environment, the tendering process and the price models based around what the cargo owner wants.  

He said owners of freight indirectly had a big influence on worker wellbeing. 

“They put the pressure on and are demanding results. So really while we’ve got the employer here, the unions here and the Government, the people who are not here and have to get their heads around it is the cargo owners.” 

The action plan was unveiled formally by Transport Minister Michael Wood, who also holds the Workplace Relations and Safety portfolio, alongside the Port Health and Safety Leadership Group. 

The group was assembled following the deaths of two workers in 2022 and is the first time port companies, unions and regulators have joined forces to establish a baseline for safety and the reporting of incidents.  

A major component of the new plan was action on fatigue management.  

“Unpredictable work [patterns], casual workers who may have other jobs, broken shifts, long hours per shift, and workforce shortage issues all appear to contribute to the risk of port workers being fatigued while at work,” the plan said.  

“Some workers reportedly feel pressured to come back to work early or do extra shifts because of skills shortages and don’t want to let colleagues down.” 

Harrison said cargo owners had a responsibility to ensure securing a low price did not come at the cost of health and safety. 

“The cargo owner, they could be asking the stevedoring companies, what’s your health and safety policy, what does your work safety look like?” 

He said the prospect of paying workers more so they did not have to work so many hours, and hiring more workers to fill the shortages was a confronting prospect for companies. 

And it’s those commercial tensions that some are worried will derail plans to put worker safety ahead of profitability. 

“There is always that commercial pressure… you’ve still got to make money, you’ve still got to try and look after your people, you’ve still got to service your customers so you’ve always got that tension.”
– Roger Gray, CEO Ports of Auckland.

Council of Cargo Owners chairman Ant Boyles said customers were fully onboard with the plan but admits if they had been around the table, it may have slowed things down.  

“I think if we had commercial interests involved it may not have gone so quickly, [but] in looking at the outputs I don’t know that we would have got to a different space.  

“To be honest, a lot of the focus here is consistent with what cargo owners are advocating for as well around the safety and quality of our infrastructure and equipment that’s been used.” 

In particular the idea there could be a focus on increasing the number of workers overall on the ports was good news.  

“We certainly welcome more worker numbers onto the ports because it is certainly an area of concern for everyone and obviously, if people are working longer hours than what they necessarily would be, it does put the health and safety at risk.” 

He said cargo owners were after more than just the lowest price.  

“Good practice would dictate that you’re not just looking at price or commercial aspects, but you are looking at things like health and safety, environmental management and a wider group of performance areas.”

However he said the group would welcome involvement in the plan down the line.  

Michael Wood said including cargo owners at the initial stage was unnecessary.

“The focus of the work has very much been on work that occurs on ports, where we directly have PCBUs – that is companies who are running that work who have direct responsibility. 

“Of course as part of the broader work that Maritime New Zealand and WorkSafe do, they do look through whole supply chains and try and make sure that we are engaging with those companies as well, because those commercial pressures can have an outcome … but ultimately, on the port it’s going to be the workers, the unions, the companies who are directly there who make the most consequential decisions.” 

Ports of Auckland chief executive Roger Gray said commercial imperatives had been more important than worker safety in the past, but that culture was changing.  

I’ve certainly flipped that – well trying to flip it – these cultural changes take time.” 

“In previous lives, I’ve run procurement for big organisations and one of the things that I think you’ll see now is a move away from race to the bottom … but also looking at supply sustainability, ethical sourcing and these sorts of things.

“Shareholders are wanting to say I’ll only invest in a company that I think’s got ethical behaviours and there’s a growing awareness within leaders that it is just the right thing to do.

“I think all of us have grown in the last 30 years from where we probably were to where we are today. It’s not all just about making money, it’s that it’s having a healthy environment, it’s looking after your people.” 

Although, Gray admits there’s no shying away from the fact commercial pressures are a reality. 

“There is always that commercial pressure … you’ve still got to make money, you’ve still got to try and look after your people, you’ve still got to service your customers so you’ve always got that tension.” 

He said not including cargo owners in the action plan wasn’t a lost opportunity, but it was important there was buy-in and they were brought along with the changes.  

He said any pressure to offer low tenders at the risk of compromising on safety should be pushed back on by the port and stevedore companies.  

“Do I think we missed a trick by not having them involved? Potentially, by not understanding their demands, but I think it’s the stevedoring companies and the port companies’ responsibility to actually deal to that pressure, and not let it become the priority.” 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

Leave a comment