FEDERAL Opposition Leader Bill Shorten joined union leaders to address an estimated 300-strong crowd protesting UGL’s on and offshore maintenance contract.
A rally through the main streets of Sale followed, which was a family affair, including the wives, children and other supporters of workers.
In his speech at the rally, Mr Shorten repeatedly said the current enterprise agreement for maintenance workers was “unfair”.
“Every time there’s been a challenge, this workforce and this community has stepped up, and now what is happening is that this company and the client are using loopholes in the law to take away conditions which are rightfully yours,” he said.
“When you change rosters, when you change the amount of money that families have coming in, you don’t just affect the employees or the contractors — you affect the whole community.
“The problem you’re encountering here is happening everywhere; I cannot believe the set of circumstances we encounter now in this country.”
Mr Shorten added that while the agreement was legal, it was unfair to have the agreement signed by a handful of workers in Western Australia, then applied to the entire workforce, as they did not have the opportunity to negotiate conditions.
“We’re getting legal advice and we’re listening carefully to the expert advice from unions and others, but it isn’t fair if a company can negotiate an agreement with a small group of workers in one part of Australia, then use that agreement to reduce the conditions of hundreds of workers in another part of Australia; ... it’s a legal loophole,” he said.
“This isn’t fair, but we’re determined to set things right.
“We would ask Esso and the contractors in this dispute to sit down and negotiate with their workforce who’ve been locked out of discussions and suffered a 30 per cent pay cut.
“My principal interest is to help restore the fair go at work.”
Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union organiser and secretary of the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council Steve Dodd said the workers were protesting the deal.
“What’s happening in this country, and it seems to be happening all over the place, is that they use the Corporations Act to undermine the Fair Work Act, and not give workers the ability to actually negotiate a fair and reasonable EBA,” he said.
“We’ve said enough is enough, and we’re going to stand up and fight, not just for workers here but for workers across Australia.”
Electrical Trades Union organiser Peter Mooney said it was good to see the community spirit.
“(There was) a very good message going out saying this isn’t just about what’s happening to the workers here, it’s also happening in other places, and it’s also the on-flow effects to shopkeepers here and families generally,” he said.
“The playing field has changed and we need things to be balanced up properly, where workers can’t lose their money or anything like that, where workers’ jobs are secure.
“Hopefully this sends a message to other employers that this is not the tactic you can use to get around unions and people in general.”
AWU organiser Jeff Sharp said he was “rapt” with the turnout and support.
“We’ve been out there for three weeks now [at the protest site in Longford], and the support we’re getting from people driving by and dropping things off or making donations to keep things going, it seems like it’s getting stronger.
“We’ll continue to protest there, and hopefully Esso and UGL will wake up to themselves and stop .... these wage cuts and start showing a bit of respect and loyalty for the efforts that these guys have put in over the years.
“I think Bill’s [Shorten] going to get right on top of it; he can see this is a real problem and it’s a real issue for workers — not just here, but through the rest of the country.
“The system’s broken and it’s a disgrace it’s been allowed to go on.”
Other speakers at the rally included union secretaries and ACTU president Ged Kearney.
A spokesperson for Esso refuted claims made at the rally that the company did not pay tax in Australia, pointing out that since it was first applied to the Gippsland Basin Joint Venture’s operations in 1990, Esso had paid more than $12 billion in Petroleum Resource Rent Tax to the Federal Government, and for the year to December 31, 2016, Esso paid $251 million in PRRT in Australia on its share alone of the Gippsland Basin Joint venture with BHP.
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien watched the Sale rally from the sidelines.
Gippsland MHR Darren Chester was out of the electorate on business.
UGL was phoned asking for comment, but did not respond before deadline.
Esso defends its position in a letter to the editor.