Unions back injured Port of Tauranga whistleblowers, say employer is pushing them to the limit to maximise profits

The Maritime Union and Rail, Maritime and Transport Union are throwing their support behind three port workers who claim working conditions at the Port of Tauranga (pictured) caused serious injuries.
The Maritime Union and Rail, Maritime and Transport Union are throwing their support behind three port workers who claim working conditions at the Port of Tauranga (pictured) caused serious injuries. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Two major port unions are throwing their support behind three workers at the Port of Tauranga after they spoke out about suffering serious back injuries at work that had left them financially, emotionally and physically broken.

A trio of straddle drivers at the port blew the whistle on their working conditions in an interview with Newshub last week, saying injuries suffered transporting old machines over potholes had extreme reprecussions. 

They also called for improvements to be made to work practices and infrastructure at the Port of Tauranga - calls the Maritime Union of New Zealand and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union are now echoing.

The men drive 65-tonne straddles at the Port of Tauranga, a vehicle used at port terminals to stack and move shipping containers. They claim many of the port's straddles are poorly maintained - and in some cases, the seat suspension does not work, so jolts are magnified through the machine.  

When they run over potholes or cracks in the tarmac, the impact force can travel straight up their spine. Their concerns for the tarmac maintenance are among areas they want addressed. 

"A lot of them are old machines, it's wear and tear, but it's having a detrimental impact on the drivers," one man told Newshub. 

Maritime Union national secretary Craig Harrison says the Port of Tauranga is responsible for worker harm due to the "notorious bad conditions" inside the port's gates. 

"The problem is the business model at the Port of Tauranga; they are interested in profit. They have set up operations so they collect the cash, but insulate themselves from the consequences."

Having worked for 19 years at the Port of Auckland as a straddle driver, Harrison has seen many port workers throughout New Zealand end up with chronic injuries from using machinery. 

The three whistleblowers are employed by C3 and ISL which contract to the port. Harrison says it's smaller operations pushing workers to their limits to to drive profits. 

"Twelve-hour shifts or more are the norm, casualisation, irregular shifts, and people working unsafe hours because they need the money." 

A straddle carrier (pictured) is a vehicle used at port terminals for stacking and moving containers.
A straddle carrier (pictured) is a vehicle used at port terminals for stacking and moving containers. Photo credit: Supplied.

One of the port workers who lost his job as a result of his injury spoke to Newshub on the condition of anonymity. He says the emotional turmoil throughout the whole experience has been deeply upsetting.  

"My family is devastated. They can do this to you and then chuck you on a scrap heap, but that's the system," he says.

"I did go through a really deep, dark depression, there was over a week that I didn't come out of my room, I didn't get out of bed, I didn't open the curtains.

"I've since dug myself out of that hole, now every day I have to work really hard to maintain some sort of positivity. I can't work right now, I'm screwed." 

He's had five painful injections into his spine since his injury, including an epidural which was "horrible". His abilities as a once "very hands-on, physical" man are now met with devastating consequences. 

"I can't even pick my grandkids up now, that hurts. And not just me, for our kids, for our grandkids, it has impacted our lives so much, it really has been tough." 

Craig  Harrison says he does not accept the Port of Tauranga's claims safety is its number one priority and is calling for a national inquiry into the health and safety at New Zealand ports. He believes injuries should be included in the scope of the investigation. 

In response to Harrison's comments, a Port of Tauranga spokesperson told Newshub in a statement it completely rejects the suggestion it does not care about the health and safety of port workers.  

"All workers at Port of Tauranga, no matter their employer, are encouraged to report safety concerns and to refuse to use equipment if they believe it is unsafe. 

"The container terminal is a high traffic environment with lots of heavy machinery. Since October last year, it has also been running at about 50 percent more containers than usual because of shipping congestion. This means a lot of additional straddle traffic and wear and tear on the pavement.

"Our civil works team inspects the site daily and any problems are immediately fixed or blocked off until they can be repaired. On top of this, we have a multi-disciplinary team looking at short-term and long-term fixes for pavement issues." 

She says all workers have unrestricted access to a safety reporting system, and there is a dedicated email address that anyone can use to raise concerns. 

"Port of Tauranga welcomes any efforts to improve health and safety in the port sector and we actively participate in multiple forums at a national level to achieve this. 

"We work closely with the unions that represent port workers in Tauranga (which are the RMTU, NZ Merchant Service Guild, and the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association)."

But in a statement, Rail and Maritime Transport Union Central North Island organiser Dasha Van Silfhout backed the claims made by the injured workers. 

She says there is no doubt there are areas in need of addressing at the port, and believes the physical and mental stress of the job comes with a high cost for many workers being pushed to their limit. 

"Straddle drivers work long shifts in sometimes difficult conditions, at night, or in poor weather."

The three men who spoke to Newshub say they would like impact sensors on straddles to measure the potential harm on the operators. 

Their call is backed by Van Silfhout who says the RMTU has approached C3 and the Port of Tauranga and are keen to see the issue resolved.

"The RMTU view is that the Port of Tauranga has a duty of care towards workers operating in the port, even if they are employed by contractors."