THE Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) has called for reform to federal anti-bullying laws after three port workers allege they were victimised by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) following a sexual harassment complaint which led to the dismissal of a union delegate.
Recently revealed by The Australian newspaper, DP World employees Sharon Bowker, Annette Coombe and Stephen Zwarts have filed complaints against the MUA alleging ‘aggressive and intimidating’ conduct leaving them fearing for their safety in the workplace.
The conduct is said to have intensified after Ms Coombe complained to DP World management about comments suggesting she was in a sexual relationship with a supervisor, which resulted in the dismissal of union delegate Mark Johnston.
Ms Bowker, as the informant to Ms Coombe regarding the comment, was also subject to bullying, and Mr Zwarts became embroiled in the issue when he voiced support for Ms Bowker and resigned from the union.
During the investigation, Ms Bowker was allegedly warned by MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith that ‘if there are any ramifications for Mark Johnston, I can’t guarantee your safety in the workplace’.
Mr Zwarts said his work overalls had been defaced with the words ‘give up, dog f***head’, while all three employees also complained of harassment through social media channels.
The case, which will be heard by the Fair Work Commission under its new bullying jurisdiction implemented by the former Labor government, is the first bullying complaint levelled at a union under the new laws, as opposed to individuals.
AMMA chief executive Steve Knott said it was only a matter of time before a union came under the spotlight for bullying allegations.
“It is unsurprising that in a heavily unionised part of Australia’s economy with a long history of aggressive union cultures, some employees have lodged a legal claim directly against the MUA,” he said.
“This is not an isolated case of individuals allegedly being intimidated and bullied in relation to union matters. It is a mere glimpse into a workplace culture stuck in the past in which unions attempt to control not only the conduct of work but also how employees think and act.
“The claims referenced in today’s press, coupled with previously reported cases involving assaults and verbal abuse on the docks and at sea, have no place in a modern working environment.”
Fair Work Act needs clarity – AMMA
Section 789FD(1) of Australia’s workplace laws, the Fair Work Act, states that workplace bullying can be carried out by ‘an individual’ or ‘a group of individuals’, but Mr Knott said recent bullying and intimidation relating to industrial matters underscored a need for anti-bullying laws to also explicitly apply to unions.
“Unions should not be able to hide behind legitimate protections of rights of association and representation to make themselves immune from responsibility for bullying conduct,” he said.
“Simply, if someone is harassed, bullied or threatened by a union representative or member in relation to a union matter, agenda or position, the union should be held accountable or at least scrutinised as to whether it endorses or encourages such behaviours.
“If the MUA’s leadership is serious about supporting efforts to clean up the stevedoring sector, it should support this proposed clarification in our anti-bullying laws and not allow thugs and bullies on the wharves to hide behind a closed culture of militancy and industrial intimidation.”
AMMA, as the national resource employer group, will pursue amendments to the national anti-bullying laws through the Productivity Commission review into the wider operation of workplace laws, taking place in 2015.
To view coverage from The Australian on the recent bullying allegations against the MUA, click here.