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Maritime Union of Australia rejects Minister's criticisms of work practices and productivity levels on wharves

PETER CAVE: Back now to our lead story about the waterfront and its productivity. We've heard what the Minister has had to say and we've heard from PO. Well, the Maritime Union of Australia has reacted angrily to what Peter Reith said on A.M. this morning - that workers on our wharves can do a lot more to lift their game.

Joining us now is the President of the Maritime Union of Australia, John Coombs. Welcome to A.M.

What annoyed you?

JOHN COOMBS: Well firstly, let me just remind Richard Hein, when he makes comments about work arrangements need to be varied and work practices. I mean, his people participate in enterprise negotiations with us to finalise enterprise agreements, and they've got a requirement to raise those issues when we're having those discussions, not bleat about it on national radio. Every single agreement covering PO is a consent agreement, and that means it's agreed by the union and agreed by the employer.

PETER CAVE: Why can't the unions agree to matching the sort of lift rates that we have in our neighbours in Asia?

JOHN COOMBS: I think Hein put that in somewhat more perspective than what Reith, who is rarely ever honest in his statements about the waterfront. We don't mind the comparisons provided the comparisons are not with places like Singapore and Hong Kong which clearly are megaports by comparison to all of Australia's ports put together.

PETER CAVE: But why is that different? Because they're bigger, why can they lift more?

JOHN COOMBS: The configuration of the cargo is different. Surely you can understand that you'll get 1,000 boxes off quicker off one ship than you'll get 100 off 10. And that's the difference. If you've got to put 10 ships in to get 1,000 boxes off, and where in Singapore you can get them off one ship, you'll get them off quicker.

But more importantly about what Reith had to say, I mean, he's been trotting out this garbage for two years. He knows better. Unfortunately, your listeners wouldn't know any better, so they tend to believe what he says. The fact that there's three men for two machines. Firstly, let me remind you that if there are three men for two machines, when they're not driving the machines they're not idle. There are other jobs that they are transferred to.

But the most important thing that Reith declines to advise you of is that there were three men for two machines because the work is continuous. It never stops. They work through meal breaks, they work through change of shifts. It works 24 hours continuous. Now, if someone out there can tell me how you can keep two machines operating with two drivers through meal breaks and rest breaks, I'll be happy to be advised.

PETER CAVE: The Minister and PO want a compulsory conference to try and sort this out. Do you think that's a good idea?

JOHN COOMBS: Actually, with due humility, I suggested that on ABC radio last week, so I don't think Richard Hein can claim copyright to it. I also suggested it two weeks ago, after the ... you know, fancy Reith making the outrageous claim about nicking off the job when they've just sacked the Minister for Transport for nicking off the job. What an outrageous claim.

And we put the suggestion forward that things might be improved. Instead of having the sniping attack and these lies being put over national radio, let's have a conference and get it all on the table and see what the real position is, and get some honesty into the equation.

PETER CAVE: So the situation is not poisoned by those remarks then?

JOHN COOMBS: No, I'm used to Reith's remarks. None of them really have much relevance to the daily operation of the Australian waterfront. And certainly this question, he made this outrageous claim to me just after he was elected, that somehow or other I've got the magic to turn the productivity on and off like a tap. He knows very well, and Richard Hein knows certainly, that a big percentage of the so-called $80,000 that these people earn comes out of their productivity bonus. And so I don't have the capacity, even if I wanted to, and I can assure you I don't, because no one in this country's worked harder to get the productivity up on the waterfront than I have, to turn it off and on like a tap. And so that's another outrageous claim which is clearing a lie.

PETER CAVE: Mr Coombs, thank you for joining us on A.M. this morning.

JOHN COOMBS: Thank you.