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John Passant

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January 2010
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Striking workers defy Government

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has told thousands of mistreated construction workers at Woodside Petroleum’s $12 billion Pluto gas-processing plant to “get back to work”.

Workers have undertaken a series of rolling strikes at the Karratha site since late last year but escalated their action on Friday 22 January. A spokesperson for the workers was reported as saying that a section of the workforce had barricaded themselves into their rooms the following Sunday. On Monday there was a march through Karratha to highlight the treatment they are receiving.
The strike has been sparked by a dispute over accommodation arrangements. Workers operate on a “fly-in-fly-out” basis. Most of their time is spent working in a geographically isolated area, six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day in scorching heat. They are away from friends and family for 80 per cent of the year.
Traditionally, they have had permanent accommodation units at the worksite. They can decorate and accumulate belongings in these units. Such accommodation affords a measure of comfort and can be a “home away from home”.
Yet Woodside has moved to strip away these arrangements. The company is trying to force employees on to a system where they may have to change accommodation every time they come back to work – thereby depriving them of some sense of stability in the midst of the constant upheaval between work and home.
The company has refused to meet with union delegates. It reportedly threatened to evict workers from their living quarters if they didn’t agree to the company’s plan. Other issues, which the workers have been trying to have addressed, remain unsettled.
One worker reported to the ABC that:
“Most of us are spending 12 hours a day on the job and we’re only getting paid for ten… We’ve been losing conditions over the last couple of years due to John Howard’s Industrial Relation Laws and Kevin 07 doesn’t seem to be helping much, so it’s just come to a head where we’ve just got to either stand up or just lie down.”
Fair Work Australia, the federal government’s industrial tribunal, issued an order over the weekend to end the strike, but the workers have defiantly continued their action. The Federal court then intervened, but its return to work order was also defied.
The workers now face massive fines and possible prison sentences for failing to comply with the directives. Yet as of Thursday 28 January, they had not backed down. Gillard has said that the workers have “no excuse for unprotected industrial action”. Actually, there is a very good excuse for action.
Figures from the Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics show that around $220,000 per year is created for every worker employed in the oil and gas extraction industry. According to Gillard and her mates at Woodside, a half-decent spot to live while creating all that wealth is too much to ask.
Instead, the workers should be shipped in and out like cattle and moved around at the company’s whim. The workers deserve to be treated like human beings, rather than animals. They have every right to strike for as much as they can get.
Neither Gillard nor the company executives would last a week in such conditions as they expect these workers to endure. As a point of fact, neither Gillard nor the company executives create anything of comparable use as the workers produce – let alone create any value for the economy. But you can guarantee they get paid more than these workers. And they don’t have to live in some shanty camp to justify it.
The unions whose members are on strike – reportedly the CFMEU, AMWU and CEPU – have remained tight-lipped about the whole affair. There seems to be a strategy of unions publicly distancing themselves from strikes to avoid possible financial penalties at the hands of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which is investigating this action.
While this may be a clever tactic to avoid fines and litigation in the short term, it is problematic in the long run.
All around the country, unions – particularly those involved in construction – have been kept in a straitjacket by the Labor government’s industrial relations laws. Yet dodging and weaving around the laws and finding legal loopholes to allow action that would otherwise attract penalties does nothing to actually challenge the pro-business agenda of Rudd and Gillard.

Only more strike action like that of the workers at Woodside can challenge the bosses and the government’s laws. Workers’ power is at the point of production, where the work is done and the wealth generated. When the fight is taken up here, the bosses can be hit where it really hurts them – their hip pockets. 

This article first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Cootha
Time January 29, 2010 at 11:55 am

Interesting thoughts, but I have to disagree with you. Am not sure where the idea of mistreatment comes from when this ‘hotelling’ style of accommodation is very common in construction and contractor camps all over WA in the resources sector. Having been a FIFO worker in the past I do not accept that this type of accommodation arrangement constitutes mistreatment when these workers are paid huge salaries, are fed, watered and accommodated at no cost to themselves, and flown to their workplace. They don’t have to work on construction sites in the Pilbara. Perhaps they should jsut get back to work and stop carrying on like a bunch of spoiled children.