Wage battle breaks out on Bass Strait oil fields
Summary: A hostile industrial battle is brewing in the Bass Strait, with workers infuriated over "legal tricks" they claim are being used to drastically reduce wages.....
Unions for the workforce of about 200 contracted maintenance staff on Esso Australia's massive oil and gas fields, off the coast of Victoria's Gippsland region, have blasted a push to cut pay and conditions as "sneaky" and "underhanded".
At the heart of the dispute is a new five-year maintenance contract awarded to services company UGL. The contract replaces one that was held by UGL in a joint venture.
Union officials on Thursday said the onshore and offshore workers who had been employed under the old contract were now being invited by UGL to reapply for their jobs, but the wages would be "cut by a third".
Parallels are being drawn to last year's high-profile dispute that engulfed beer giant Carlton & United Breweries after it dumped a long-standing maintenance contract. The decision left 55 workers out of a job after they refused to reapply with a new contractor on lower pay and non-union conditions, and prompted a six-month protest and a national boycott campaign.
Australian Workers Union state secretary Ben Davis said UGL was hiring back staff as casuals through one of its subsidiaries, which appeared to be a "shelf company", enabling it to circumvent the better rates and conditions contained in higher-paying enterprise agreements.
The subsidiary's agreement that will apply to the Bass Strait workers was struck late last year. In addition to lowering wages, it will also scrap the existing week-on, week-off rostering provisions and give workers "zero control" over how many weeks at a time they would be required to work, Mr Davis said.
"Terms and conditions we have bargained for and paid for over 25 years are now being stripped out by contractors to Esso," he said.
"It's just the latest 'take it or leave it' assault on workers' rights from a multinational determined to bully a workforce into submission."
UGL and Esso Australia have both declined to comment.
Maintenance workers employed under the UGL joint venture had been earning base wages between $42 and $49 an hour, plus allowances for travel, offshore work and night shifts. A union analysis of the pay and conditions contained in the new deal says workers could be left up to 35 per cent worse off. They will also be hired as casuals and will lose permanent-employee entitlements.
Steve Dodd, an organiser with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, accused Esso and UGL of "making a mockery" of workplace laws, and evading their responsibilities to workers and the community.
"This will have a flow-on effect to the entire Gippsland community at a time when there have been unprecedented job losses in the region," he said.
"The last thing this community needs is a super-profitable multinational company like Esso cutting wages and conditions by trying to force local workers onto a dodgy, unrepresentative agreement from the other side of the country."
Electrical Trades Union secretary Troy Gray said the company's tactics mirrored those used by Carlton & United Breweries in the six-month "war" on maintenance workers at its Abbotsford plant.
"On Monday these workers were doing the exact same job, making millions for this gas outfit. On Tuesday, apparently they work for a completely new outfit on a third less of the wages – but still pumping the gas and making them millions," he said.
"We believe Esso, like CUB, are calling the shots."
ExxonMobil-owned Esso Australia operates the Bass Strait oil rigs in a joint venture with BHP Billiton.