Standing up to bullies in ports

Dover is said to be investigating claims of inappropriate behaviour. Credit: Paul Wishart, 123rf
Dover is said to be investigating claims of inappropriate behaviour. Credit: Paul Wishart, 123rf
WorkSafe has stepped in to investigate claims of bullying at Southern Ports. Image shows Albany. Credit: Daryle Phillips. Flickr, CC BY 2.0
WorkSafe has stepped in to investigate claims of bullying at Southern Ports. Image shows Albany. Credit: Daryle Phillips. Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Townsville runs 'Dignity in the Workplace' sessions for new staff and regular refreshers for the rest of their people.  Credit: Port of Townsville
Townsville runs 'Dignity in the Workplace' sessions for new staff and regular refreshers for the rest of their people. Credit: Port of Townsville
Industry Database

Iain MacIntyre asks key stakeholders if workplace harassment and bullying in ports is a global issue

Recent headline-grabbing reports of investigations into allegations of workplace bullying in Australia's Southern Ports Authority and England's Port of Dover begs the questions, is the issue endemic and are such cultures engrained in the port sector?

On March 29, Port of Dover issued a statement confirming that its chief executive Tim Waggott had decided to leave the port to “pursue new opportunities” following over a decade's service.

The development came weeks after allegations had arisen that Mr Waggott had used abusive language towards staff and members of the public as well as making inappropriate physical and verbal gestures towards female staff. A dossier of such complaints was understood to have been sent to the Dover Harbour Board, which was reportedly reviewing the matter.

In Western Australia, WorkSafe has recently launched an investigation into Southern Ports following claims of a “toxic” bullying culture among its Bunbury, Albany and Esperance port divisions.

According to reports, there has been “systematic, continuing and increasing” bullying behaviour from senior staff, “fits of rage and angry tantrums for no-to-little apparent reason” and manipulation of junior staff to progress false allegations against others to force them out. Affected staff are said to have suffered physical stress-related symptoms as a consequence.

Holistic view

Confirming that the investigation is still active, WorkSafe and Labour Relations Divisions media liaison officer Caroline De Vaney elaborates that the State's health and safety watchdog is looking at overall organisational procedures at Southern Ports.

“It is about ensuring that the employer is managing complaints about inappropriate workplace behaviour in the organisation,” Ms De Vaney tells Port Strategy.

“WorkSafe's investigations are limited to looking at potential breaches of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Investigations involving psychosocial issues can last an extended period because they are often extremely complex and involve a large amount of information to be reviewed and assessed, so there is no forecast completion date for the investigation.”

However, notwithstanding the Southern Ports situation, Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher believes the greater culture within the country's port sector is one in which the wellbeing of people is treated “incredibly seriously”.

“Safety is paramount at a port and that includes freedom from bullying,” he says. “Ports across the country have been leaders in the space of people and culture for a long time, and continue to work hard to ensure that they remain safe and enjoyable places to work.

“All our ports strive to be a workplace where no-one is discriminated against, harassed or bullied – where people can come to work and feel safe and comfortable. We understand that there will always be issues or disputes in the workplace, which is why many of our ports support nationally-leading workplace policies that engage all employees to support and look after one another.”

As an example, Mr Gallacher cites Tasmania Ports Corporation's annual state tour, in which it visits “all their people to highlight the damage bullying does and how to combat it”.

“These face-to-face sessions are an opportunity for employees to engage with the issue, ask questions and understand the impacts. As a result, Tasmania Ports enjoys a positive culture with a high degree of camaraderie and support for one another.”

Port of Townsville runs 'Dignity in the Workplace' sessions for new staff and regular refreshers for the rest of their people. These sessions are supported by several trained staff who can assist employees on a one-to-one basis on various issues related to both their work and personal lives.

“Our ports also work hard to ensure that their policies extend into the communities they exist in. Many have avenues in place that allow staff to report cases of domestic violence that they are aware of.”

Wider remit

In addition to programmes at a port, or multi-port operator, level, there are broader programmes being pursued. A joint project aimed at eliminating workplace harassment and bullying within the shipping sector has been advanced by the European Community Shipowners' Associations and the European Transport Workers' Federation.

The organisations have co-produced a training toolkit and published detailed documentation covering various aspects of the issue. This information, which is said to be of equal relevance to both shipboard and shore-based workplaces, is freely accessible on their websites.

“These guidelines aim to assist companies in recognising examples of harassment and/or bullying, identifying incidents through the use of effective grievance procedures and eliminating harassment and bullying in a way that shows clearly the benefits to all parties concerned of a harassment and bullying-free workplace,” state the organisations.

They observe that a large majority of seafarers and their shore-based counterparts in management “have still never received any training on bullying, harassment or discrimination issues”.

“Although, in a minority of cases, those committing acts of harassment and bullying do so intentionally, there are also actions which can be classed as harassment and/or bullying that are carried out unwittingly and result from outdated management styles as opposed to any deliberate malign intention.”

They continue that the adoption and encouragement of management styles that do not involve aggressive and intimidating behaviours would be an important contribution to the eradication of workplace harassment and bullying.

Included within the documentation, the following acts are listed as warranting disciplinary action against a transgressor:

  • Assault;
  • Intimidation;
  • Coercion;
  • Interference with the work of other employees;
  • Conduct of a sexual nature; and
  • Conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work which is unwanted, unreasonable and offensive to the recipient.

It describes harassment as including “any act which creates feelings of unease, humiliation, embarrassment, intimidation or discomfort to the person on the receiving end”.

Bullying is described as including “any negative or hostile behaviour that makes a recipient feel fearful or intimidated”.

In a section targeted specifically at potential transgressors, the observation is made that “you may be unaware of the effect that your own actions have on other workers”.

Example questions consequently posed for such individuals include:

  • Do you consider that your way of doing a job is always right?;
  • Do you raise your voice at other workers?;
  • Are you sarcastic or patronising to other workers?;
  • Do you criticise individuals in front of others?;
  • Do you criticise minor errors and fail to give credit for good work?; and
  • Do you shun any other workers or spread rumours or malicious gossip?


Port Strategy canvassed a number of port stakeholders around the world to investigate the scale of the bullying problem. In the main, they were surprised by the claims and ongoing investigations, a positive sign that the issues are not endemic.

ITF New Zealand inspector Grahame McLaren said that bullying in New Zealand ports, against foreign seafarers at least, has not been much of an issue for the ITF. He told PS that he couldn’t recall any incidences at a port in the last ten years he’s been in the job.

American Association of Port Authorities public affairs director Aaron Ellis said, at the time of writing, he had not heard of an issue with bullying within his organisation's member ports, while Alabama State Port Authority marketing vice-president Judith Adams said that she had “never heard of anything like this in the port industry in my 25 years!”. She mused that the Australian situation may be a matter of “dealing with a rogue operator”.

“Operators of that nature would have a tough time in the US,” added Ms Adams. “Violations of Federal discrimination, labour and whistleblower protection laws carry significant civil – and, in some cases, criminal – penalties for both companies and individuals.

“Other layers of protections in our country can be covered by collective bargaining agreements, individual state harassment/whistleblowing laws or public employee ethics and conduct laws. Most of our ports are public entities. Then, there are always a myriad of attorneys happy to litigate matters in our judicial system with a fee-based on contingency of settlement.”

On the regulatory level, an International Maritime Organization (IMO) spokesperson said they could not comment on the specific as workers' rights and laws on whistleblowers may be under national laws as ports tend to be under national jurisdiction.

International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) policy and strategy managing director Patrick Verhoeven also added that his organisation does not currently have much information on the topic.

“This being said, bullying and harassment has been identified as a topic we could work on in the future, in the context of the World Ports Sustainability Program that we launched in late March,” he said.

Similarly, spokespeople from the International Labour Organization and European Sea Ports Organisation said they either did not currently have relevant collected data/information or are not sufficiently involved in the topic to enable comment.


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