Unions call for Ports of Auckland chair Liz Coutts to return Deloitte Top 200 award after workplace deaths

Two of New Zealand’s leading unions are calling for Ports of Auckland’s chair to return an award for business excellence and leadership after a series of workplace deaths and accidents.

The Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) and Rail and Maritime Transport Union of New Zealand (RMTU) said Liz Coutts’ gong just a day before the ports were fined $540,000 was an insult.

Coutts, who currently chairs Ports of Auckland, Oceania Healthcare, Skellerup Holdings and Ebos Group, was named chairperson of the year at the Deloitte Top 200 awards last Thursday.

On Friday, Ports of Auckland was sentenced in the Auckland District Court over the death of one of its employees, Laboom Dyer, who died during a workplace accident in 2018.

It had earlier pleaded guilty to one charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 for failing to comply with a duty that exposes an individual to risk of death or serious injury or serious illness.

Dyer was working a night shift when the freight-carrying straddle vehicle he was driving tipped and crashed. The 23-year-old was critically injured and died a week later.

Judge Evangelos Thomas described the port’s offending as a “systemic failure to install and maintain a culture of safety and compliance”.

He also awarded Dyer’s family a total of $136,000 in reparation.

In August, father-of-seven Palaamo Kalati also died at the ports in the incident on a ship at the Fergusson Container Terminal.

It led to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff announcing an independent review of health and safety at the ports, which is Auckland-Council owned.

Both MUNZ and RMTU, which represent thousands of transport workers, want Coutts to hand back her award.

MUNZ national secretary Craig Harrison said it is incomprehensible in the circumstances that such an award should be given, or accepted.

He said two families will be having Christmas without a father, partner or family member this year.

“This award is an insult to them and it shows the real attitude of some employers towards workers in our country.”

RMTU’s general secretary Wayne Butson said the message given by the award to Coutts was a shocker.

“Those at the top of businesses where workers die or are harmed should not be getting prizes at the same time they are being sentenced for exposing those workers to harm,” he said.

When approached by the Herald about the unions’ call for Coutts to return her award, a spokesman said Ports of Auckland has “no comment to make on the statement made by these two unions”.

Coutts has been on the board of many of New Zealand’s leading organisations and was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016.

Both unions have also called for stronger enforcement of health and safety laws, including the prosecution of individual managers and board chairs who fail in their duty of care towards their workers.

Last month, Ports of Auckland announced it was undertaking an organisational review, which includes an investigation into the incident which killed Kalati.

Friday’s fine also follows a $424,000 penalty for the ports in July for breaching harbour speed limits after being involved in the death and of ocean swimmer Leslie Gelberger.

The Westlake Girls’ High School teacher was killed in April 2017 after being struck by a Ports of Auckland pilot boat while swimming off Narrow Neck Beach and Cheltenham Beach.

The speeding breaches were also described in court as a “systemic failure” and involved continuous speeding breaches by Ports of Auckland-operated vessels on 99 per cent of voyages between April 2017 and January 2018.

The port was, however, not liable for Gelberger’s death, which was called a “tragic accident”.

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