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Dock-workers take industrial action

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Dock-workers are working on suspended overtime in protest at cost-cutting measures implemented at Stevedoring Services Limited, which operates the port of Hamilton.

Chris Furbert, the president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, confirmed yesterday that the move represented a form of industrial action.

But Mr Furbert said it would not have a harmful impact on the regular flow of supplies into the island.

The BIU held a press conference yesterday in the wake of a report by The Royal Gazette on savings proposals at the dock service, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Furbert said dock-workers were particularly unhappy with plans by SSL to outsource the company's garage service.

Although the original proposal stipulated that the new operator keep on all eight staff, who handle dock equipment maintenance, Troy Smith — the secretary to the port workers division — said staff were now only being offered an interview with the new firm.

Mr Furbert also revealed that the union had informed the Corporation of Hamilton, which owns the docks, that it had formally withdrawn its support for SSL's licence to operate the port.

He gave statistics from annual reports evaluating factors such as working conditions at the docks and the relationship between management and staff, which the union president said showed a consistent decline, with a host of “serious issues” affecting morale.

Mr Furbert called the figures “alarm bells”, with staff giving working conditions a 64 per cent approval in 2018 but a 55.3 per cent rating in 2019.

The relationship between management and staff dropped from 66.6 per cent in 2018 to 46.5 per cent in 2019.

He added: “We saw things coming off the rails.”

Mr Furbert said Warren Jones, the president of SSL, was “making it seem like workers are OK” with the move to outsource the garage.

“What happened to a positive working relationship?” said Mr Furbert, who called the situation “totally unacceptable”.

He said management at the ports appeared to have “made up their minds on going down this path”.

In response, the port division of union workers gave the company five days' notice on August 17 of its plans to suspend all overtime, effective Monday.

Otis Minors, acting president of the port workers division, confirmed that garage workers had been offered a contract, saying they were “entitled to an interview with no guarantee of a new career”.

Asked if there were plans of more serious industrial action, Mr Minors said: “Not at this time.”

Mr Smith added: “It's important we come to some type of compromise. We do care about our company and our country.

“It's important that at least people support us.”

The proposal outlined by SSL, which includes outsourcing the garage, would achieve $1 million in savings while phasing out nine positions as staff retire.

Mr Minors countered that the workers believed they had a better deal that could result in $2 million in cost savings for the company.

SSL has seen its container volumes drop by 25 per cent so far this year, and loose cargo volumes tumble 43 per cent.

But Mr Jones responded that SSL's predicament had worsened significantly since the company's last talks with the unions on May 27.

At that time, the proposals on the table were the same as those shared with shipping companies, reported last week by the Gazette and dated July 23.

Mr Jones said that at the time of union talks, SSL's projections forecast a drop of 10 per cent to 15 per cent of shipping volumes because of the lockdown against the pandemic.

“We are continuing to lose money, and the reality is it's now 25 per cent container volume, 43 per cent loose cargo, which is a lot different.”

He said there had been no response from the union over savings plans, despite requests from the company, until they met on August 5.

Mr Jones added: “The horse had bolted.

“I had no choice but to act. My job is to make sure every employee is paid.

“If we're losing $150,000 a month, our issue is around meeting payroll. How long were we supposed to wait?”

Mr Jones did not name the company looking to operate SSL's garage, but said it was already in negotiations for outsourcing.

Garage staff held qualifications that made them more easily transferable than stevedoring staff, he continued.

Mr Jones said: “Had it not been for the retirements this year and next year, the situation would be even more dire.”

He said the union's counterproposal to save $2 million would hit administrative staff as well as unionised staff.

“Administrative staff do not get overtime and make a competitive salary. With no opportunity for them to vote on it, I don't think that's fair.”

He predicted a bleak future for the company as the global impact of the pandemic played out over the next two to three years.

“We need to institute these plans,” Mr Jones said. “Retaining the garage and everybody taking a pay cut is not the best way forward.

“I know the union doesn't like the word ‘outsourcing', but we are now in a new world.”

Mr Jones maintained that SSL was signing a new contract with the company planning to run its garage, adding: “They are willing to give our staff an opportunity — it's the best they can do.”

Mr Jones also said the annual reports tracking morale and working conditions, run by an unnamed independent firm, had shown an improvement for 2020.

When contacted, Mr Furbert responded that he had never received a copy of the latest report, but said: “How can they possibly show better numbers when the previous years show those numbers going down?”

Mr Jones acknowledged the reports for 2019 showed that “morale was low”.

He said the latest appraisal of SSL for this year showed that 76 per cent of staff gave a high rating for their working conditions, with 73 per cent giving the working relationship with management a positive rating.

Mr Jones agreed that the dropping of overtime would not create serious problems.

“If it goes on long enough, it will create some bottlenecks,” he said.

“It's a matter of, for example, on a Monday things might arrive at stores a little later.”

At the SSL garage, staff were offered redundancy earlier this month, which Mr Jones said was part of their collective bargaining agreement with the union.

He said of the eight positions, five were filled at present, with one worker having accepted redundancy.

Mr Jones added: “We do not see any way around it.

“As CEO, I am required to act.”

Alternative deal: Otis Minors, acting president of the port workers division of the BIU (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Troy Smith, secretary of the port workers division of the Bermuda Industrial Union (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Chris Furbert (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published August 27, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated August 27, 2020 at 2:02 pm)

Dock-workers take industrial action

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