Some Ports of Auckland workers still fear for their lives, despite safety review

Ports of Auckland.
Ports of Auckland. Photo credit: Newshub.

By Nita Blake-Persen for RNZ

Workers at the Ports of Auckland say they fear they could die on the job as pressures to clear freight are put above their safety - and urgent action is needed.

An Auckland Council-led safety review into the Ports is due to be released in coming weeks but some wharfies fear no real change can happen until there is change at the top.

The Ports have come under immense pressure over the past year - COVID-19 and the implementation of new automated cranes have caused huge backlogs.

However, former wharfie Tua Dyer said that should not mean an unsafe workplace.

"I work a second job now, and we never have any incidents, no fatalities that's for sure."

Tua's brother Laboom Dyer died on the job at Ports of Auckland in August 2018. The company was fined $540,000 over his death, which a judge described as entirely preventable.

Tua walked away from the Ports in August 2020 after the death of another worker - Amo Kalati. MaritimeNZ is investigating his death.

He said seeing Kalati's family after his death was enough for him to stop work at the Ports.

"Seeing his family down there, and I have my own family and it just kind of hit me, because he did the same job I do. Same thing could happen to me. 

"That could happen to any of us. We've all been in the same situation. He wasn't where he was supposed to be, but we understand the pressure you get from the work environment in a situation like that. 

"I have a kid I have to go home to and I didn't want that to happen to me," he told Checkpoint

He is considering returning to work, but is not convinced the safety measures have improved.

"I don't want to be friends with someone who gets an injury again or anything like that, because that really hurts. We're like a big family down there. 

"I'm going to know the person that gets hurt and I don't want to do that again," he said.

Another stevedore, who has worked at the ports for nearly 20 years, agreed that things did not feel safe.

He did not want to be identified for fear of losing his job but said there had been some shocking incidents recently - including staff being told to continue working while Amo Kalati's body had yet to be moved.

"The boys refused and his comment was 'look at it like it was an accident on a motorway, you see it and you carry on'."

He said nothing would change at the Ports until the leadership changed, including chief executive Tony Gibson.

"I don't know any jobs where people have died and they're still running the place."

Gibson last year admitted the port did have some safety issues - he told Checkpoint Pacific Island and Māori staff at the port were "shy in coming forward to address issues".

But the stevedore said that was rubbish.

"I don't think he realised how ... racist that came out and a lot of guys weren't happy about it, some didn't want to come into work.

"We've reported near misses and accidents and so on and when we do a lot of that's ignored - sometimes guys get punished, reduced number of shifts, and that's the culture of management, that's how they treat us."

Mayor Phil Goff.
Mayor Phil Goff. Photo credit: Getty

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff last year launched an independent review into safety practices at the port, which is a council-owned organisation.

The review was expected to be completed by the end of last year but has yet to be released.

Maritime Union spokesman Craig Harrison said a draft had been completed but he was concerned they had yet to see it.

"If it was urgent it should've been out before Christmas, then it was going to be early in the new year and now it's March, [there's] concern that there's no urgency around it.

He said they were getting new union members from the ports every week - with issues around the new automation system causing concern.

"Given that they've had a few incidents where the machines have hit barriers and there was one recently where the machine had unlocked the containers and they toppled over, a lot of our workers and members have little confidence that the system's 100 percent.

Goff said the Ports of Auckland had been given the opportunity to fact check the report by Construction Health and Safety NZ, who carried out the review. 

They have a couple of weeks to do that but Goff said he was keen to see the report as soon as possible.

So are the workers at the Ports of Auckland.

Ports of Auckland declined to speak to Checkpoint about any aspect of this story.