At least five Melbourne docks workers bullied at work have been paid out nearly $3.4 million over behaviour including an assault on a female crane driver and threats that caused the company to hire 24-hour bodyguards to protect victimised staff.

Two of the workers said their employer DP World, a multibillion-dollar global company, had been unwilling to stamp out the bullying amid a workplace culture in which union-linked perpetrators were protected.

Former docks workers Sharon Bowker and Stephen Zwarts were bullied out of their jobs.
Former docks workers Sharon Bowker and Stephen Zwarts were bullied out of their jobs. CREDIT:SIMON SCHLUTER

Sharon Bowker and Stephen Zwarts said stevedores who reported bullying claims were shunned, given less desirable jobs and hours, and threatened and intimidated.

Ms Bowker, a former crane driver, received a payout of $1 million in January after she was targeted over agreeing in 2013 to be a witness for a colleague who said she had been bullied and sexually harassed.

Ms Bowker said in following weeks she was “hip and shouldered”, had colleagues urinate in her work boots and was made aware of graffiti saying “Sharon B lagger” written on a crane.

“The [bullies] struggled with women on the waterfront… [one colleague] just put his head down and charged me like a bull. I went flying,” she said.

“Sometimes they pull their dick out and rub it all over the equipment you were about to use.

“I ended up with security guards at my property and a bodyguard that was appointed and paid for by DP World.

“I saw some terrible things happen to people. I saw people break. It happened to me. You don’t want to admit it, you don’t want them to know they’ve done that to you. But I changed as a person, I’m half the person I used to be.”

Ms Bowker said bullies had been protected by members of the Maritime Workers Union, and that numerous workers had been paid out over the years. She said while the company initially tried to address the issues, they gave up after union members responded by slowing their work to damage productivity.

“With the union it was, you never lag, you never rat,” she said.

Documents obtained from WorkSafe under Freedom of Information laws show 47 claims for mental injury were received from workers at DP World in Melbourne between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2016. The document shows 24 of these claims were initially accepted.

“The perpetrators are all the same people. They are all the same group. They [were] influential, had positions of power, they influence where you work, what you do”, Ms Bowker said.

Mr Zwarts, a former docks foreman, was paid out more than $750,000 in December 2020.

He had attempted to mediate the matter between Ms Bowker and a stevedore accused of making comments about a female colleague’s alleged sexual activities.

As a result, he became a bullying victim himself. He said he was immediately shunned by his colleagues due to a docks code of silence in which anyone considered a “lagger” was ostracised and no longer given shifts that led to overtime payments.

He said he was also given 24-hour protection after the company’s security officer was warned that “something was going to happen me”.

“The ostracism was the worst part of it. You’d get given the shittier sort of jobs, no one would talk to you,” Mr Zwarts said.

“At work they are silent, wouldn’t look you in the eye, look away. You’ll find that that has a more devastating effect on people than a punch in the mouth.

“My mind’s not what it used to be. I’m not the person I was.”

News of the payouts to the former DP World employees, who received the compensation between December 2020 and as recently as January this year, comes after The Sunday Age last month revealed a docks worker who was nicknamed “rat dog” and had a colleague defecate in his work boots lost a County Court bullying case against DP World and WorkSafe.

The Sunday Age is aware of at least three other bullying cases involving former DP World stevedores settled by WorkSafe since December 2020, for amounts of $740,000, $700,000 and $200,000, at least one of which named a key alleged bully identified in the cases mounted by Ms Bowker, Mr Zwarts and the worker nicknamed “rat dog”.

Ms Bowker said it was “disgraceful” that WorkSafe, which paid them out, had contested their former colleague’s claim, resulting in him being cross-examined for 11 days despite his fragile mental health.

In a judgment published in December, County Court judge Philip Ginnane dismissed the man’s case after a 23-day trial, finding that although some of the stevedore’s colleagues evidently disliked him, their behaviour towards him did not constitute bullying.

The court accepted the man had sustained a psychological injury in his work on the docks but found his employer should not be held responsible.

Overall, Judge Ginnane found the plaintiff was prone to overstatement. “A considerable amount of the plaintiff’s evidence was unreliable and, unfortunately, in some instances, untrue,” he found.

Ms Bowker, who was a witness in the man’s case, said she couldn’t believe the County Court had rejected her former colleague’s claim despite the court finding he had been ostracised, insulted and had someone defecate in his boots.

“Worksafe have paid off everyone in that facility who were bullied by the same people, except for [the man]. Why? At the same time they’re running his case, they are paying us off,” Ms Bowker said.

”He’s been living off the disability pension, he’s got three kids. It shouldn’t even have been in the courtroom … he was on the stand for 11 days, like a goddamn murderer.”

That stevedore, who worked on the docks from 2004 to 2012 and has been fighting his legal case against DP World since 2014, has launched a Supreme Court appeal.

The man, who was twice elected by colleagues as the site’s safety officer, told The Sunday Age he had prided himself in his work for DP World and couldn’t understand why WorkSafe settled other similar cases but not his.

“I have no idea,” he said. “All the hazard reports I made, they’re all verified. Why target me? I don’t understand. When I was there I [reduced] injuries. I haven’t done anything wrong and I don’t understand why I can’t go back to work.

“I just didn’t want someone to die on the job.

“What I said happened, it’s all happened. They’ve all agreed that it happened [but] they are saying it’s not bullying.

“I’ve been on a disability pension since 2014. It’s heartbreaking. That was a job for life. I love driving machines. I don’t know what to do for my family.”

Shine Lawyers, who are representing the man, said they had acted for three other former docks workers who had their bullying claims settled by WorkSafe in the past two years.

Special counsel Sha Hotchin confirmed the man’s case would be appealed in the Supreme Court.

“We feel WorkSafe Victoria’s attitude toward our client’s compensation claim was unwarranted given the recognised culture of bullying at DP World, but we respect the court process and look forward to the appeal,” she said.

The Maritime Union of Australia declined to respond to detailed questions about the union’s role in addressing bullying on the docks.

A DP World spokeswoman said since 2016 the company had undertaken a comprehensive review of its policies and processes.

“DP World takes its obligations towards providing a safe workplace very seriously, including psychological safety,” she said.

A WorkSafe spokesman said the organisation “continues to monitor the workplace to ensure occupational health and safety obligations are being met”.