ERMS raises its head again
Summary: Something of a mystique has grown around ERMS Solutions (the initials stand for electronic resource management system), a logistics company that maintains an electronic database. Union officials insist this database is being used to black-ban union delegates or vocal workers who have raised concerns about safety issues.....
But friction arose over a new occupational health and safety policy the company introduced last year. Rather than employing someone to do risk assessments before work began, he says Botany Cranes asked employees to do it. Hemsworth objected on the grounds that this added to the dangers inherent in the work, as crane drivers lacked the expertise to make risk assessments. He took it up with his union, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union.
When Hemsworth refused to go to a meeting about it called by the company, he says, he was suspended, then sacked. He has since picketed the company site in the Sydney suburb of Banksmeadow.
Company director Ann Bradstreet, whose family owns Botany Cranes, denies there was a legitimate safety concern. "We're known as a safety-conscious company," she says. "But he is a diehard union man who has tried to make it into a political issue."
That may be so. But union officials say that union delegates or any other employees who raise safety issues may struggle to find subsequent employment, especially in the booming resources sector in Western Australia. If BHP, Alcoa, Woodside, Rio Tinto or another big mining company is embarking on a construction project, the work is parcelled out through project management companies that, in turn, engage the contractors who employ tradespeople.
Says Steven McCartney, West Australian secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union: "When you apply for any job on any project in Western Australia, you might have to tick something that says you agree to have your work history and the information you've put on the application form provided to the client and to ERMS Solutions."
Something of a mystique has grown around ERMS Solutions (the initials stand for electronic resource management system), a logistics company that maintains an electronic database. Union officials insist this database is being used to black-ban union delegates or vocal workers who have raised concerns about safety issues.
"Heaps of people have had trouble" despite the famed resources jobs boom in the state, McCartney says. "That means they can't get work on a major project."
Declan Hall, general manager of ERMS Solutions, forcefully denies the company is vetoing union activists who end up on some kind of black list.
He would have trouble convincing the union delegates and safety representatives among a 120-strong former workforce at an Alcoa refinery site at Pinjarra, south of Perth. They were employed by the construction company Thiess to put in a new ball mill and conveyor system. There were safety issues on the site, says one former delegate.
"There were people working in steam that had mercury levels 14 times greater than the maximum allowable Australian standard. That led to issues about caustic spills," the ex-delegate claims. The workers refused to work where mercury levels were known to be high and held sit-downs following caustic spills. In December 2005, almost 100 people were made redundant. "Fifteen to 20 of us have had trouble getting work since," says the former delegate, who believes his name went on a black list. Thiess did not return repeated calls about it.
But a spokesman for Alcoa of Australia tells Inquirer: "Alcoa's recruitment process does not include the use of ERMS. The recruitment methods undertaken by organisations contracted at Alcoa sites is the business of those organisations."
This is cold comfort for Tommy Armstrong, 49, a boilermaker who was working as a supervisor on the Pinjarra site. Armstrong says he was sacked over his interpretation of a safety issue. He was reinstated when the matter went before the WA Industrial Relations Commission, but made redundant when the others were, less than a month later. He spent the next 18 months looking for work.
"One job I had two interviews, then they said, 'We're going to forward your application to ERMS,"' Armstrong alleges. "I thought I had the job. I'd already been told my rate and how long the job would take. Next day I got a phone call to say they couldn't start me. The only place I can get a job now is in remote areas, working for companies that know me."
Some experienced workers are rejected again and again despite the labour shortages, says Les McLaughlan, WA secretary of the Electrical Trades Union. "People would say: 'I never had a problem getting a job before and now I'm getting the runaround.' You can't find out on what basis people are excluded. They're just told: 'The resource company doesn't want you on the site.' Some employers have said we can't get the clearance through the ERMS system."
ERMS's Hall insists the issue of union membership does not come up on the database his company maintains but declines to specify what an applicant's previous employers are asked. "That would depend on the circumstances," Hall says, adding he doesn't know why some people believe his company passes information to clients that results in them failing to get a job.
In the past year, hundreds of workers have written to the company saying they want their details expunged from the ERMS database, McLaughlan says. By now the labour shortage lamented at every meeting of the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry means that tradesmen who spent a futile year or 18 months applying for jobs can probably get work through labour hire. But that industry can also black-list union activists or even vocal workers, alleges a man who worked in the NSW offices of a large labour hire company.
"On the computer they had a database of everyone they'd employed," he says. "Once someone had worked for the company, they were entered into the system. If someone was a troublemaker they would put DNR, for do not re-employ, against the name. It could go on there if their work wasn't up to scratch, or if they questioned the system, demanded their rights or raised safety issues."