“Depraved” MUA is first union to face legal action for bullying

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Most unions are strong activists when it comes to protecting their workers from workplace bullying – the Maritime Union of Australia, it seems, is not.

The MUA and Melbourne port operator DP World are facing legal action, accused of breaching the federal workplace anti-bullying laws which have been in effect since January.

The three employees who filed the claim against their employer and union have also applied for restraining orders against them.

This is the first action taken against a union under federal workplace bullying laws.

It is alleged that co-workers defecated in their boots and urinated on their helmets and overalls, threatened them and referred to them as “laggers” and “dogs”.

Sharon Bowker, Annette Coombe and Stephen Zwarts initially applied for a stop bullying order to be made against the MUA and international port operator DP World, where they are employed at the company’s Melbourne dock terminal.

Following the commencement of three workers’ legal action against the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, has condemned the bullying of the employees as “depraved.”
Abetz told The Australian Online that this behaviour “shows a depravity of mind that is unacceptable in Australian workplaces.”

He added that the MUA leadership should “cut loose” those responsible.

Although such a high-profile case has now brought into the limelight the atrocities many Australians face in their workplace, the issue of bullying is one that lawyers are certainly no strangers to.

And it’s not just a topic that employment lawyers advise their clients on regularly, but it’s also an entrenched problem within the profession itself.

Last month, Australasian Lawyer revealed that not only were Australians considered some of the worst workplace bullies, but among them, the legal workplace has been singled out as particularly bad.

In 2013, the Law Council of Australia conducted the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study to obtain quantitative data and confirm trends in progression, attrition and re-engagement rates of female lawyers.

The research reveals that discriminatory behaviour was more commonly identified in large private firms, with 50% of those female lawyers more likely to report experiences of bullying or intimidation than their counterparts in medium or small firms (39% and 38% respectively).

And although female lawyers (50%) were found to be significantly more likely than male lawyers (38%) to have experienced bullying or intimidation, it’s an issue that appears to be encountered by a considerable proportion of the profession, irrespective of gender.

At the time, Greg Robertson, general counsel and team leader at Harmers Workplace Lawyers, told Australasian Lawyer that lawyers probably experience higher rates of bullying than some other professions, and it’s “been a problem” for a long time.

The firm regularly sees lawyers that have concerns about bullying in the workplace, and worryingly, Robertson says the grand majority of offenders probably wouldn’t be aware that their behaviour is bullying,
“I don’t think there is any law firm that is going to encourage bullying people, but they really reward results without asking how these results are achieved…it’s indirect but it’s really condoning what they do. If you asked people, they would say that they don’t do that, but in reality I think some firms must have an idea how people got the result,” he says.

“We see some appalling treatment, and it just needs to stop. Lawyers ought to know better.”

Joydeep Hor, managing principal at specialist workplace law firm People + Culture Strategies, touched on this subject in an interview with Australasian Lawyer’s sister publication HC.

He said that employers need to carefully consider whether they could be implicated in any way before making a decision or judgement in a workplace bullying complaint.

“Before making a decision, employers must question whether the employee being accused was trained – if the employer feels that they actively taught the individual how to behave appropriately in their workplace, then their decision is easier to make – employers can come unstuck if they act decisively but are found not to have the relevant education and training on conduct in place.”

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