Hutchison Ports Australia (HPA) has claimed that “severe financial pressures” forced it to make “hard decisions”, which included the redundancies of 97 port workers, who were initially informed by text message.
Ahead of a Federal Court hearing on 1 September, the terminal operator has faced stinging criticism from workers and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) for its handling of the process.
Ninety-seven of its 224 port workers in its Sydney and Brisbane terminals were sacked by text message and email on 6 August, although a Federal Court judge has since granted temporary orders to prevent the redundancies being implemented until the hearing.
The company said that it had “been incurring substantial losses in Australia after finding it extremely difficult to break into the current duopoly in the Australian market”.
HPA has invested AU$700m (US$496m) in the Australian operations since June 2013 and made an AU$87m (US$62m) loss for the 2014 calendar year.
General manager of human resources at HPA, Harriet Mihalopoulos, said: “The company has maintained its position that unfortunately due to severe financial pressures it has had to make some hard decisions about the Australian operations.”
She added that the company is still prepared to engage in a dialogue about the redundancy program in an attempt to rebuild its operations in Sydney and Brisbane.
Mihalopoulos also said that extensive consultation with staff and unions regarding possible redundancies had dated back to 26 June. According to her, there were several face-to-face meetings and written communications to staff and the MUA during the period between 26 June and 6 August.
She disputed accounts of the text message sackings, adding: “Staff were informed in a text message to check their emails for details on the next steps in the process and the face-to-face meeting about the redundancy program. The company took feedback from employees and employee representatives regarding the selection process for the redundancy program and modified the program accordingly.”
Mihalopoulos stated that an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) negotiated by HPA and the MUA had made text message and email an agreed means of communication between the company and staff.
She added: “The texts and emails were not sent in isolation, they were preceded by lengthy consultation and followed by proper processes. In addition to the text and emails, letters were also posted to the workers on the same date.”
In response to the sackings, the MUA have launched a high profile campaign featuring more than 30 YouTube videos and an endorsement from contender for the British Labour Party leadership, Jeremy Corbyn.
Speaking when the court hearing was announced, MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said: “Hutchison should know better than to treat their workforce like this. They are a major global player in container terminals and they know that mutual respect with your workforce delivers the best results.”
On Tuesday (25 August), it released the video below, featuring its members employed by DP World, saying: “Hutchison wharfies here to stay”.