Fires and smoke close Australia’s Port Botany

Port Botany under smoke haze. Credit: MUA/CFMMEU

Shipping operations at Port Botany container terminal are expected to close again on 10 December, the second time in a week. Fires have been encircling Sydney, choking the city in smoke in recent weeks.

The Bureau of Meteorology forecasts horrific bushfire conditions with temperature reaching up to 40°C on 10 December. Bushfires in New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, and Victoria burn out of control and clouds of smoke have turned the glaciers of New Zealand pink.

On Thursday 5 December, 50 uncontrolled fires merged north of Sydney into a ‘mega fire’ on a 60 km front. The state department of health warned conditions were so hazardous that people should stay inside. Schools and university campuses were shut and 100 dock workers at Port Botany container terminal stopped work.

Paul Keating, deputy secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (a division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union) told SAS all outside work should stop if the smoke pollution posed a danger. The union’s decision is based on the government air quality index (AQI) that is updated hourly.

On 5, 6, and 7 December, Randwick, adjacent to Port Botany terminal, registered maximum AQI readings of 523, 402, and 674. All readings over 200 are rated hazardous.

“When the air quality is hazardous, all lashing of containers on deck ceases,” Keating told SAS. “All workers exposed outside, not in air-conditioned cabins, [should] stop work. The [quay] cranes don’t operate either if you don’t have a crane foreman on the ship’s deck.”

During less-hazardous air quality, workers are issued with rubber masks and take 15-minute breaks every hour, he said.

The union called for the stevedoring companies to accept the stoppage as a safety issue and had been negotiating for the face masks and other precautions. However, management had initially resisted and wanted to put workers off pay.

The Freight Trade Alliance and the Australian Peak Shippers Association on 5 December advised port users by circular that “due to the continued hazardous smoke conditions, Patrick [Terminals’] Port Botany has closed the terminal with 1700–2300 time zones cancelled”.

Road and rail operations were not affected. By afternoon, DP World and Hutchison also agreed to stop quayside operations, according to the union.

Patrick’s stevedores did not give any comment when contacted by SAS, and DP World did not respond either. However, Mark Hulme, general manager operations at DP World, Sydney, told local media on Friday that discussions with employee representatives were continuing.

“It remains that the actions taken by the employees to cease work is inconsistent with the provisions of our enterprise agreement that deal[s] with resolution of disputes,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Those employees participating in the stoppage have been stood down off pay.”

Keating described the comments as disgraceful. “The safety laws simply say if it’s a legitimate safety issue and if workers are prepared to work somewhere else, they should stay on the payroll,” he said.

A spokesperson for Health NSW told The Herald it was “a duty of care for employers to make sure employees have a safe workplace”. The terms of the enterprise agreements allow for work to stop in high temperatures (38°C) or heavy winds. However, smoke hazard is a new phenomenon and not yet covered under the union contracts.

“Climate change is real,” said Keating. Under Australian occupational health and safety laws, employees are permitted to stop work under dangerous conditions.