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AWU fights Santos for fair wage increase

March 22, 2023

AWU members in the Cooper Basin are digging in against Santos after it offered them a series of substandard enterprise agreements – stripped of conditions and with limited pay rises – in a take-it-or-leave-it situation that has workers seeing red.

AWU South Australia Assistant Branch Secretary Gary Henderson says hundreds of members work for Santos in the basin, which spans a vast area from Moomba in South Australia’s northeast to southwest Queensland, and at the related refinery and loading facility at Port Bonython.

Until now covered by a single enterprise agreement, they have received no pay increase since 2020, and had hoped a renegotiation clause in the EA would force Santos to the bargaining table when it expired in July 2021.

But Santos challenged that, delayed negotiation until December 2021, and has been highly obstructive ever since.

“For 30 years Santos and unions worked together constructively to achieve good agreements with good conditions,” Mr Henderson says.

“Now Santos wants a totally adversarial approach.”

Two initial EAs put up by Santos scored a significant “No” vote last year, and Santos is gearing up to offer another bad deal including:

  • Significantly cutting employment entitlements, by replacing a 75 page EA with a 15 page document containing only minimum clauses and removing hard-fought wages and conditions.
  • Splitting the existing EA into two, in an attempt to divide the workers’ collective strength.
  • Removing hourly rates and overtime penalties by putting workers on an individual annualised salary, and paying over-cycle rates per a discretionary Santos policy.
  • Removing Competency Based Training criteria, which is currently used for employee progression.
  • Removing employee representative entitlements and the consultative committee.

But Mr Henderson says AWU members are determined they will not take any more of Santos’s toxic industrial-relations culture and adversarial approach, especially at a time of huge profit.

“Santos has not paid any wage increases since July 2020 and is holding workers to ransom to vote ‘Yes’ to a shit deal,” he says.

“Last year Santos recorded a 300% profit increase and made $3 billion in profit.

“What we are asking for is a drop in the ocean for them.

“Workers are asking for a pay increase of the greater of 5% or CPI (current Adelaide CPI is 8.6%), a figure that would cost Santos just 30 minutes of production time. ”

Mr Henderson says Santos continues to throw up every barrier it can, from challenging the renegotiation clause to refusing to acknowledge existing workplace representatives (single bargaining reps, or SBUs).

The company also declared that all bargaining representatives must work voluntarily – despite them being paid for meetings for the past 30 years – and refuses face-to-face bargaining, with all meetings now by video conference.

All this is aimed at diluting worker-union relationships, and reducing collective strength.

The two earlier EAs were voted down by a significant majority and a successful Protected Action Ballot Order (PABO) late last year opened the way for industrial action.

But Santos forced another ballot, using a FWC loophole around bargaining reps, claiming some workers had been appointed as reps by their workmates, so technically were not covered by the union.

The AWU worked to resolve that issue and the second PABO was also successful.

Mr Henderson says the upshot has been significant protected industrial action since then.

This has included action involving the disconnection and connection of ships at Port Bonython, plus various protected actions and stoppages of up to 10 or 12 hours at the Moomba process plant and out in the gas fields.

He says Santos is intent on a power grab, but its strategy is not working.

“This is all about control. They are grappling with their workers and losing control.

“They also have an eye on the Offshore Alliance (a powerful working relationship between the AWU and the Maritime Union of Australia), which has won good deals with Santos in the WA offshore oil and gas industry.

“Here in the Cooper Basin Santos already had a reasonable deal, yet wants to get rid of it.

“But our members are resolute. They are not going to accept the new EAs and will vote ‘No’.”

In an effort to have Santos return to bargaining for a single enterprise agreement rather than the two that the company wants, the AWU filed an application with the Fair Work Commission for a scope order on 16 August 2022.

After a hearing in December 2022, on 9 March 2023 the Commission published a decision granting the AWU the scope order that the union sought, which compels Santos to issue a new Notice of Employee Representational Rights (NERR) for a single enterprise agreement to replace the current agreement.

“The Commission found that the process engaged in by Santos was inefficient and unfair, and that bargaining for a single enterprise agreement would remove some of this inefficiency and unfairness,” says Mr Henderson.

“The AWU looks forward to a more efficient bargaining process with Santos, but this is only one issue solved of many. AWU members will continue to take PIA in pursuit of their bargaining claims.”

Santos must issue the NERR by 23 March 2023.


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