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Thursday, 24 September 1942
Page: 879


Mr RYAN (Flinders) .- It was stated in the press recently that the Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator Keane) had taken further steps to improve the position on the waterfront, mainly in regard to pilfering, but, in my opinion, those steps were inadequate. It is a disgraceful thing that the present position should be allowed to continue. The Government should give greater attention, first to the problem of pilfering, and then to the matter of general efficiency on the waterfront. Pilfering is not a new phenomenon; it has been rampant for years in all the ports of the world. During the last ten years, corrective action by the Port of London Authority has had very satisfactory results. That body was brought into existence largely because pilfering in the port had assumed tremendous proportions. Since it .began to operate, the conditions in the port of London have been materially improved. In Australia, on the contrary, the conditions have gone from bad to worse since the commencement of the war. Figures that I have relating to the rate per ton of claims paid by a wellknown interstate company reveal what has been taking place in this respect. They are as follows: - =

 

It will be seen that, since the beginning of the war, the cost of claims has increased by 500 per cent.


Mr Beasley - Has the honorable member comparable figures in respect of the United Kingdom?


Mr RYAN - I have not the British figures; but from the reports that I have read I understand that the situation in Great Britain is satisfactory. Several reasons have led to the substantial increase of pilfering in Australian ports. The first reason is that, throughout the country since the war commenced, there has been a definite slackening of moral fibre. This is found in practically every activity. It has had an effect on persons employed on the waterfront and as carriers to the ports. A second very important reason is that many commodities are in short Supply; consequently,, the demand for them is great. Rationing, of course, has reduced the supply of a large number of essential commodities, including clothing and boots. It is noticeable that pilfering in the ports is concerned largely with articles that are of a high coupon value. This applies also to other commodities of which there is a definite shortage, such as tobacco and, to a lesser degree, alcoholic spirits. The figures reveal that there has been a very large increase of pilfering of the cargoes of both of those commodities. A Sydney firm which recently expected to receive 102 cartons of ladies' shoes - which are of a high coupon value - discovered upon the arrival of the consignment that all the cartons were empty. Another firm recently made a claim for £132 in respect of women's underwear. A consignment of 70,000 cigarettes, destined for distribution to retailers, did not arrive, and the empty cartons were subsequently found floating in Sydney Harbour. The truck that had been used to convey them to their destination was found abandoned upside down in the port. It stands to reason that, unless drastic action be taken to prevent it, pilfering will continue. One very definite negative reason for it is that the culprits are not prosecuted; and even if they are, they may continue to work on the wharfs. A shipowner is not allowed, to refuse to employ a man who has been convicted of pilfering. The union permits him to continue to work on the wharfs, and does not deregister.him. Thus, penal action is not taken to put a stop to these undesirable activities. A second aspect of the waterside position, of equal if not greater importance, is the degree of efficiency of the labour now engaged. Examination dis closes that whereas, since the beginning of the war, wages on the waterfront have risen by no less than 26£ per cent, and the size of the gangs that load and discharge cargoes has increased by 12 per cent., the output of the gangs has decreased by 41 per cent. Last night, the honorable member for Melbourne (Mr Calwell) referring to the activities of a tenderer for a Government contract said that he was actuated by the principle of profit before service. Considering the nature of the facts I have placed before the committee, it would not be far wrong to say that a large percentage of the wharf labourers to-day is actuated by the principle of wages before work. In order to give greater clarity to the facts, I shall recite the details of the conditions under which wharf labourers work. There are different rates of pay for the various shifts that are worked during the week. The following table sets out the position : -

 

An unsatisfactory position has arisen, also, in connexion with the handling of the cargo. Before the war, and until comparatively recently, gangs consisted of from thirteen to fifteen men according to the size - of the ship to be worked. Gangs have now been increased to seventeen men for all ships The following table shows how the rate of handling cargo and the quantity handled have varied: -

 

Those figures make it clear that the time taken by gangs in handling cargo has increased, and the rate of discharge has declined. The situation is serious. It has been argued that the nature of the cargo has changed, somewhat, and become more difficult; hut my advice is that that is not the case. I am informed that the rate of handling general cargo has declined, on occasions, to below 7 tons an hour. Another reason that has been advanced for the inefficiency of labour today, compared with that of some time ago, is that many wharf labourers have been called up for military service. This reason is not satisfactory, for wharf labouring is a protected industry and very few men have .been called up. I do not suppose the military position is different as .between, say, Melbourne and Launceston; yet, at Launceston, the average output per gang is approximately the same as it was before the war. The Minister for Repatriation (Mr. Frost), who is in the chamber, can correct that statement if it is wrong. Yet another reason that may be offered in explanation of the present situation - and it is probably nearer the mark than those to which I have already referred- - is that, as the men are now receiving substantially higher wages they are working more spasmodically. There is a degree of uncertainty now about when a man will report for work. Moreover, men frequently report at times when the higher rates apply and do not report when the lower rates apply. Another reason that may 'be given for the inefficiency is that the wharf labourers work beside troops; this they resent, and therefore they are inclined to slack.

The whole situation is so unsatisfactory that the Government should give immediate attention to it. The public generally is much concerned about the matter. Pilfering, in particular, is causing anxiety for the reason that it robs the public of the opportunity to purchase, at a reasonable price, articles which should be available to them but which, because of the pilfering, do not come on the market. Public anxiety has been aroused also because the reduced rate of handling ships has necessarily reduced the tonnage that can be transported in a given time. It has been estimated that on account of the slower work on the wharfs our shipping capacity, for transport purposes, has decreased by about 25 per cent. It is well known to some honorable members that numbers of ships leave Tasmania:! ports for the mainland these days only partially loaded. In some instances they carry only 75 per cent, of their capacity. This is serious at a time when we need to make the maximum use of every ton of shipping that we have available. Shipowners say that they cannot afford to leave their ships in port for long enough to enable them to be fully loaded. The time factor is of great importance in this industry. If the mcn displayed a higher degree of efficiency it would be of tremendous value to the nation. It is well known that we are short of shipping and that this is having a paralysing effect on certain operations. South Australia and Tasmania, in particular, are feeling the effects of it. Our inability to use our shipping to the best advantage is, in fact, affecting our whole economic and military situation. It is urgent, therefore, that everything possible should be done to ensure the highest degree of efficiency at ports. I am aware that the Government realizes the seriousness of the situation, for it has already taken certain steps to apply remedies. Three committees have been functioning for some months in order to improve conditions. Some months ago special steps were taken also to police the wharfs for the purpose of preventing pilfering, but the policing methods are not entirely satisfactory. More drastic action is necessary. I have recently been in touch with both Australian and allied military officers, and I am informed that although the conditions that prevailed six months or nine months ago have shown a slight improve.ment there is room for a great deal more improvement. The Government should take energetic steps to deal with the situation, and I propose to offer some constructive suggestions to achieve that end.

The three committees at present operating include a shipping committee and a stevedoring committee. The work of these three committees is at present -suffering through a lack of co-ordination.

First, I suggest either that the three committees be combined or that their work be co-ordinated by another body. At the present time, they are working, as so many committees are working, in watertight compartments. Secondly, strong action should be taken against culprits who are found guilty of pilfering goods on the waterfront. As I intimated earlier, the action hitherto taken against a man convicted for an offence is totally inadequate. When pilfering, he should suffer the penalty imposed by the court, lose his union membership, and be drafted to a labour battalion, in which he would be removed from the scene of temptation.


Mr Wilson - He would not be an asset there.


Mr RYAN - No ; but he would be too busy with the pick and shovel to steal. My third suggestion is that the conditions under which waterside workers are employed should be revised. Instead of working on a shift basis, they should receive a weekly wage. That would overcome many of the present-day difficulties. Fourthly, I recommend the formation of some form of stevedoring corps on the lines of the labour battalion. The advantage would be that the men would be better disciplined than the present wharf-labourers are, and could be transferred from a port where work is slack to a congested port. I recommend those four recommendations to the Government. The matter is urgent, and should be dealt with firmly and energetically.







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