Another stand-off as Esso contractor and workers are in dispute

Another stand-off

ESSO'S Longford Gas Plants and offshore platforms are again embroiled in an industrial relations stand-off, with maintenance contractor Oceaneering seeking to reinstall enterprise agreements that unions say have cut pay and reduced conditions.

Unions are threatening to step up work bans at the Longford plants if Oceaneering refuses to re-negotiate certain entitlements, including leave loading and paying superannuation on all hours worked.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union says protected work bans have been implemented because the contracts first offered by new contractor Oceaneering in 2017 on a "take it or leave it" basis had undercut pay and reduced the conditions that workers had been entitled to.

The contracts of the 60-strong workforce across three Esso sites are now up for renegotiation, and AMWU delegate John Webb said the membership was calling for a better deal, while exercising its industrial rights under the Fair Work Act.

Oceaneering is a global provider of engineered services and products, primarily to the offshore energy industry, and employs contractors alongside UGL at Longford Gas Plants, Long Island Point, and also offshore in Bass Strait.

Mr Webb said Oceaneering won the tender three years ago, and used the same tactic that UGL/MTCT later did by using an enterprise agreement signed by a handful of people at another site who were not offshore workers at the time.

At the time the AMWU said the enterprise bargaining procedure was a "clear example of the way in which corporations used contractors to avoid the intent of there being certain obligations of employers and minimum rights and entitlements for employees".

In its submission to the 2017 Senate inquiry into 'Corporate avoidance of the Fair Work Act 2009', the AMWU said the "separation of these long term employees from Esso, who is benefiting and profiting from their work, disconnects them from the profits they are helping to generate through their work".

"Instead, these employees become limited to bargaining with the contractor employer, who is constrained by competitive forces of having to tender against other contractors.

"At the same time there is a risk that employees may also lose various entitlements because their service may not be recognised if they switch from one contractor to another contractor (despite still working for the same host).

"Without recognition of service, employees lose access to specific entitlements which are based on length of service such as long service leave, accrued personal leave, redundancy and notice of termination."

The Senate inquiry heard that corporate avoidance of obligations to workers was becoming widespread with the "business model taking many forms, from blatant non-compliance to sophisticated commercial arrangements that contract out work in order to avoid statutory and collective bargaining agreement obligations".

The committee criticised the practice of "selectively" choosing employees to sign agreements, stating that "employees can be significantly disadvantaged by employers who secure agreements with selectively chosen groups of employees who are not representative of their wider workforce".

On Wednesday, Mr Webb said if the Esso dispute was not resolved within the next seven days, members would vote on the next step.

One worker told the Gippsland Times that could involve partial or full day bans, with the worst case scenario being a picket line similar to the Esso-UGL dispute that resulted in a protest camp established outside the Longford plants entrance for more than 700 days.

"But we don't think it will come to that and we will continue to negotiate," Mr Webb said.

Esso was also accused of exploiting loopholes and shortcomings of the Fair Work Act when it switched cleaning and catering contracts in 2017.

In March of that year, then chairman of the ExxonMobil Australia Group of Companies, Richard Owen, gave evidence before the Senate inquiry about a new contract at Longford that effectively reduced pay and conditions averaging $40,000 per worker.

Mr Owen told the hearing that ExxonMobil "strive to be at the leading edge of competition in every aspect of our business and we ensure that our work practices comply with all laws, agreements and legislative obligations".

He said the company "routinely review our contractors, as I just said, to make sure that we have value for money".

The committee found that while Esso's actions were "legal", in the committee's view, 'legal' did not necessarily translate to 'ethical'.

The inquiry was initiated because of growing indications that some corporate employers are finding ways around the rights and protections of the Fair Work Act, which is intended to provide for workers in Australia.

Esso said it could not comment on discussions between Oceaneering and unions.

Oceaneering was contacted for comment, but did not respond before deadline.