First published in Workforce on 5 February 2016.

In what could be a circuit-breaker in more than three years of bargaining, employees of two vessel operators in the offshore oil and gas sector have voted up employer-proposed enterprise agreements (EAs) despite union opposition (WF 27/11/15).

About 20 vessel operators have been in protracted negotiations with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers since January 2013 with multiple strike threats but no outcome in sight.

That could change after officers and engineers at Swire Pacific and DOF Subsea yesterday voted yes to four agreements covering their conditions.

The conditions include a 7% wage increase over four years, and removal of the $215 a day “PAB allowance” intended for construction-related work. It also involved 14.5% superannuation payments.

Meanwhile, three other EAs – covering Maersk Crewing Australia, MMA Offshore and Swire Pacific ‘integrated ratings’ workers (eg. deckhands, cooks, catering, covered by the MUA) – were voted down.

Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) policy and public affairs executive director Scott Barklamb said the four successful EA votes were “a very positive development”.

“This demonstrates that Australia’s maritime employees understand and appreciate the difficult conditions facing the offshore resource industry, and that the best way to support job security while also securing a pay rise is to work with their employers towards a sustainable outcome.”

The 7% wage increase over four years contrasted to about 30% over the previous four years, reflecting the conditions of the industry at the time.

Split could have domino effect

It is understood in previous industry bargaining rounds, once a few groups of employees reach agreement it can act like a domino effect for workers in the rest of the companies.

The votes could also indicate a split between the workers and their unions as the former opt for job security over substantial pay rises following the end of the mining boom. All three unions led a concerted ‘vote no’ campaign in this latest EA vote, with all MUA-covered workers voting no.

The four successful EA votes also follow a smaller breakthrough late last year when small vessel operator Smit Lamnalco achieved an agreement with all three groups of its workers (engineers, officers and ‘integrated ratings’ workers). However, the MUA is appealing the Fair Work Commission’s approval of that EA, with a hearing listed for later this afternoon.

AMMA says many of the unions’ claims could not be agreed to, particularly retention of the ‘PAB allowance’ given most vessel operator crews no longer perform construction work and the allowance acted as a “disincentive to future projects”.

The MUA did not return requests for comment before presstime. Late last year, the union said its key claims had been an up-front $3k, provisions securing ‘Australian’ employment, mandated levels of permanent and ‘integrated rating’ crew members and redundancy provisions replacing seniority with merit selection (WF 27/11/15).