Maritime Union General Secretary Joe Fleetwood says employers and Government agencies appear to be turning a blind eye to unsafe working conditions in New Zealand ports.
He says there have been ongoing feedback from workers that paints a picture of a decline in standards in many ports.
Mr Fleetwood says that the recession and increasing competition for available cargo in New Zealand ports means many employers are cutting corners.
In the past week he had personally spoken to casual and permanent waterfront workers who have told him of increasing concerns around work practices.
There were instances of workers required to work 18 hour days with 6 hour rest periods, and workers are driving heavy cranes for long periods between rest or toilet breaks.
Incidents of serious injury or death already occurred in the industry and it appeared the lives of workers came second to profit levels in some cases.
“These conditions are getting back to a century ago, when workers presented themselves to the wharf and were selected by foremen for a days work.”
Mr Fleetwood says casual workers today would wait at home for a cellphone call for work, which often never came.
Some of the workers were being paid not much higher than the minimum wage and others were exploited by labour hire companies who took a substantial cut of wages for doing very little.
He says workers at the coal face were aware of dangerous work practices, but the consequences of raising safety issues on the job would ensure those who spoke out would be unlikely to gain future employment.
“Casual workers and those workers outside union coverage or in company unions will often not raise these issues as they do not want to be singled out and lose work.”
“The Maritime Union is putting employers on notice that there will be stoppages if health and safety is compromised to gain competitive advantage.”
Mr Fleetwood says the Maritime Union will seek advice on legal action against Government agencies responsible for maritime and waterfront safety, as well as employers, if there was a death or injury on the job due to bad practices.
He recently attended an International Transport Federation dock workers meeting in Mumbai, India, where reports showed this was an international issue, and co-ordinated action between global transport unions was likely.