Judge says wharfie wasn’t bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

How a wharfie who made TEN safety breach reports a day was labelled a ‘rat dog’ by his workmates – and why a judge found it was not bullying when one defecated in his gumboots

  • A wharfie has lost a civil claim of bullying against his former employer, P&O Ports
  • The stevedore said he was regularly called a ‘rat dog’ and ‘dobber’ by workmates 
  • He claimed the attacks were payback for him submitting ten safety reports a day
  • One of the wharfie’s workmates defecated in his boot at the port in Melbourne   
  • A judge found the wharfie was evidently disliked but was not a victim of bullying 

By Stephen Gibbs for Daily Mail Australia

Published: 02:45, 3 January 2022 | Updated: 07:10, 3 January 2022

A safety-obsessed wharfie who filed ten hazard reports a day was regularly called a ‘rat dog’ and ‘dobber’ by workmates, one of whom defecated in his gumboots.

The stevedore alleged he was ostracised by colleagues and denied promotion due to his workplace safety diligence, but lost a legal claim he was the victim of bullying. 

The 50-year-old sued his former employer P&O Ports, now known as DP World, alleging it was negligent during the last years of his employment on the Melbourne docks from 2007 to 2012. 

He citied abuse and harassment including graffiti written about him in the staff toilets which included a tombstone drawn next to his name and ‘RIP’.

County Court of Victoria judge Philip Ginnane dismissed the man’s claim after finding that while some of the wharfie’s workmates clearly did not like him, he had not been subjected to bullying. 

A safety-obsessed wharfie who filed ten hazard reports a day was regularly called a ‘rat dog’ and ‘dobber’ by workmates, one of whom defecated in his gumboots

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

The stevedore alleged he was ostracised by colleagues and denied promotion due to his workplace safety diligence but lost a legal claim he had been the victim of bullying

‘The plaintiff was unpopular with certain co-workers,’ Judge Ginnane found. ‘However, dislike is not unlawful conduct.’

The married father-of-three started with P&O Ports in 2004, four years after he drilled a hole through his finger while working as a panel beater. 

For much of his employment, the man’s main job was driving a straddle truck moving containers to and from ships. 

He worked ‘without incident’ – apparently alongside some of the men he later implicated in bullying and harassment – until 2007 when he was elected by his peers as a health and safety representative.

The court heard the waterfront was ‘a robust workplace environment which was not for the faint-hearted’; there was ‘salty language’ and a ‘rough and vulgar work culture’ at the port.

It was also a workplace ‘rich with risks and hazards by sheer nature of the tasks involved’, and the wharfie was obsessed with reporting safety breaches. 

‘The plaintiff is a stickler for safety,’ Judge Ginnane found. ‘Some doctors have suggested his concern for work safety borders on the obsessional. 

‘There is little doubt that safety was a central tenet of his daily work and the fear of death or injury to himself or his co-workers his steady companion.’

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

County Court of Victoria judge Philip Ginnane dismissed the wharfie’s claim after finding that while some of his workmates clearly did not like him, he had not been subjected to bullying

The court heard the stevedore filed an average ten safety reports a day, amounting to 300 a year. This put him in conflict with workmates who called him a ‘rat dog’, ‘dobber’, ‘lagger’ and ‘give-up’.

Judge Ginnane accepted that on the highly unionised wharves using such words suggested the target was ‘a lackey of management or a traitor to “worker” principles’. 

‘The words “rat” and “dog” certainly have a long, colourful and damaging lineage in Australian industrial history,’ Judge Ginnane said.

‘[The wharfie] said he found the use of the word offensive, and I accept he did.

‘However, I do not regard it as meeting the objective standard of conduct that is intimidating, undermining, or threatening. It was not an act of bullying.’ 

The wharfie claimed to have suffered mental injury after being bullied, harassed and threatened by management and other stevedores for lodging so many safety breach reports. 

Eventually he felt forced to avoid the tea room and ate his meals alone next to his locker. 

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

The 50-year-old sued his former employer P&O Ports, now known as DP World, alleging it was negligent during the last years of his employment from 2007 to 2012. Stock image

In December 2008 the wharfie made a radio report that a foreman was not present to give directions on a grid as was required by company policy. 

The foreman who was supposed to be there then contacted the wharfie over the radio and told him, ‘I will be waiting for you in the canteen’.

The foreman then met him and said: ‘If you have a f**king problem with a foreman not being down there, don’t say it over the f**king radio.’ 

‘I have been out f**king lashing in the rain.

I’m sick of you being a f**king d**k on the radio. You’re making a d**k of yourself. No one gives a f**k about you, I can tell you right now. 

‘Saying it on the radio – you can f**king come and see that we were f**king there.

You think you’re so good, why don’t you do every f**king job in the f**king place?’

Then there was what became known during the 23-day County Court hearing as ‘The Boots Incident’.

The wharfie told the court that in December 2010 he arrived at his locker to get changed for work and found ‘someone had s**t in me boots’.

‘The plaintiff said he was disgusted and repulsed, enraged and disheartened,’ Judge Ginnane found in his judgment. ‘The plaintiff said as a result of the incident, he was fearful of what else would be done to him.’

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

For much of his employment the man’s main job was driving a straddle truck, moving containers to and from ships.

Stock image of a straddle carrier

‘He also said that he was the subject of jokes for a long time. Graffiti on the toilet wall read “DNA the s**t in the boot”.’

The wharfie claimed when he filed a hazard report about the incident the operations superintendent told him, ‘Lucky it wasn’t in your helmet’.

Judge Ginnane noted evidence that while some of the port’s casual employees were ‘pretty disgusted’ by the boots incident, ‘some of the permanents thought it was quite funny and were laughing about it’.

He said the operations superintendent’s comment about it being better someone defecated in the wharfie’s boots than in his helmet had been ‘inappropriate’.  

‘However, I regard it as one that should be understood as a failed attempt at levity to try and lighten an otherwise exceptional incident to which the plaintiff had been exposed.’

Judge Ginnane was satisfied someone had put faeces in the gumboots but it had been washed before the wharfie tried to put it on. He was not satisfied by the wharfie’s claim he felt detritus when he put his hand in the toe of one boot.

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

The court heard the port was ‘a robust workplace environment which was not for the faint-hearted’; there was ‘salty language’ and a ‘rough and vulgar work culture’. Stock image

‘I find that this part of the plaintiff’s evidence is another example in which he has embroidered an otherwise factual occurrence in its retelling in order to present it in even a worse light,’ he said.

Judge Ginnane found while the incident occurred it had not constituted bullying. ‘It was not repeated,’ he ruled. ‘Nothing else akin to it was visited on the plaintiff.’ 

P&O Ports did not owe the wharfie a duty of care ‘that extended to ensuring that fellow workers on the docks did not mete out to one another from time to time offensive language in their verbal interactions’, Judge Ginnane ruled. 

Despite the abuse the wharfie suffered on the job, Judge Ginnane said it appeared he had enjoyed working at the port.  

‘The plaintiff’s evidence that throughout his employment, and despite the travails and ongoing verbal assaults and distressing behaviour to which he was subjected, that he nonetheless continued to enjoy his job was one of a number of the peculiar traits he exhibited,’ he said.

Judge says wharfie wasn't bullied when workmate defecated in his boots

Judge Ginnane accepted that in a unionised workplace such as the wharves, calling someone a ‘rat dog’ suggested the target was ‘a lackey of management or a traitor to “worker” principles’

The judge criticised the wharfie for exaggerating some of his evidence.

‘The plaintiff exhibited obsessional traits that were evident in listening to and observing him over the course of the trial,’ Judge Ginnane found. 

‘He was prone to hyperbole and to adopt heightened descriptions of treatment including having been “hunted down” in the workplace by fellow employees and by management.

‘…

I have found that a considerable amount of the plaintiff’s evidence was unreliable and, unfortunately, in some instances, untrue.

‘Apart from dishonesty, the plaintiff was in other respects a very unsatisfactory witness. 

‘Even in regard to some very limited instances in which I have accepted his evidence of the existence of conduct to which he was exposed, his descriptions were exaggerated and his language florid.’

The wharfie left DP World in June 2012 and had not worked since due to what he claimed was psychological injury.