The union is crying foul as nearly 100 of its members got the sack from Hutchison Ports supposedly by text and email, resulting in the Federal Court ordering the workers back to work, which Hutchison describes as “reverse slavery”. Yikes.

So what’s all this mess about?

Well it really boils down to particular obligations under an enterprise agreement (EA).  The Hutchison EA contains, as do all EAs and modern awards, consultation obligations and dispute resolution procedures.  The union, the MUA, claims that Hutchison failed to follow these obligations when it terminated its members due to redundancy as, what little consultation the company did do, was tokenistic and inadequate.  The icing on the cake was the text message sackings.

The MUA sought to have its members reinstated on an interim basis until  the Federal Court can sort out the mess. Hutchison argued that the proposed interim order was ludicrous stating that “in the same way slavery is dead, an employer has never been forced to retain a worker when there is no work available".

While it’s not often you get to play the slavery card, it didn’t work.  The workers are back at work, at least until the matter is resolved following a full hearing.  Doing what, nobody knows if there isn’t any work, but that’s Hutchison’s problem (for now).

Employers often overlook the importance of consultation obligations particularly when it comes to redundancies thinking “if the job’s gone, and redeployment isn’t possible, there’s no remedy for employees if we don’t consult”.  However, in addition to potentially hefty monetary penalties for breaching legal requirements, as Hutchison just learned, the employee may just be ordered back to work.