THE FAIR Work Commission has today suspended Svitzer’s lockout of its maritime employees for six months. During this time neither the unions nor the company can take protected industrial action.

In the decision, Fair Work Commission vice-president Hatcher, deputy president Cross and deputy president Easton wrote that they were satisfied that the intended lockout threatens to endanger the welfare of the Australian population, and that it would cause significant damage to the Australian economy.

“We consider that the appropriate course is to make an order suspending Svitzer’s protected industrial action for a period of six months. The effect of this order under the FW Act will be that no party will be able to take protected industrial action for the period of the suspension,” they wrote.

Svitzer announced the lockout on Monday (14 November), and it was to take effect at 1200 today (18 November).

Late Wednesday evening, the unions – AIMPE, AMOU and MUA – withdrew notices of protected industrial action that would see employees stop work for up to 24 hours at various ports around the country.

In written submissions to the commission, the three unions argued the commission should suspend industrial action, whereas Svitzer and others argued for a termination.

In a media statement today, Svitzer noted the commission’s decision to suspend industrial action for six months.

“The decision … will ensure no industrial action by any party for the period of suspension. We welcome the certainty this brings to our customers and stakeholders. We thank them for their ongoing patience and understanding,” the company said.

“It remains to be seen whether the maritime unions will participate in negotiations constructively or whether we will see more of the same.”

Meanwhile Maritime Union of Australia national secretary Paddy Crumlin said Svitzer’s bosses have been “held to account” by the commission.

“Svitzer have demonstrated they are reckless and negligent in their management of a near-monopoly at seventeen Australian ports,” he said.

Mr Crumlin said the three maritime unions have sought to negotiate and bargain in good faith for nearly four years, but Svitzer management “thwarted” their efforts.

“Tugboats are an essential link in the nation’s supply chain which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their work is highly-skilled, often dangerous, and crucially important to the prosperity and security of our nation,” Mr Crumlin said.

“That’s a responsibility that these workers and their families take very seriously, and it’s why the limited industrial action they had been taking was always low-impact, administrative action rather than lengthy work stoppages. So the proposed lockout by bosses was always a completely unreasonable and extreme overreaction by Svitzer and it couldn’t be allowed to go ahead.”

Mr Crumlin called on Svitzer to withdraw the application to terminate the existing employment agreement.

“Svitzer have an opportunity now, and indeed an obligation, to return to the process of good faith bargaining and work on repairing the relationship with their workforce,” he said.

In a statement AIMPE said, “This sorry episode reflects very poorly on the management team who authorised the reckless action”.

The background

Enterprise agreement negotiations have been ongoing, and acrimonious, for years. The previous agreement expired in 2019, and the parties have been in negotiations since.

The agreement covers harbour towage operations at 17 ports across the country, including the major container ports of Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne, Botany and Brisbane. Among these ports are also the important bulk ports of Newcastle, Kembla, Geraldton and Port Pirie.

The lockout would have ceased all towage activity in all of these ports (as Svitzer has a 100% share of the towage market in them) except for Port Botany (where it has a 69% market share) and Port Jackson (where it has a 59% market share).

In a written submission to the commission the company said no alternative towage provider is available for the 14 ports where it has a 100% market share.

“In the two Sydney ports, Svitzer’s competitor Engage could preplace Svitzer on some of Svitzer’s towage jobs, but is unlikely to have capacity to substitute for a majority of these jobs,” the company wrote.

Svitzer says during the negotiations period, the unions notified of more than 1100 instances of protected industrial action. The company said there had been 75 meetings for negotiation, including with the assistance of two Fair Work Commission conciliators and one with an independent third-party mediation process.

 Svitzer says the sticking points in the negotiations have to do with “sensible areas essential to the future sustainability and competitiveness of our business, and to meet the productivity and flexibility needs of our customers and port operations”.

Among these issues are clauses in the EBA that require unions to be consulted on every crew hire and that give the unions the ability to dispute selection decisions. Union delegates are also required to sit in on job interviews. The company said this makes it difficult to attract and recruit diverse candidates.

The company also said the unions have high training requirements. This, Svitzer says, restricts development pathways and prevents the company from engaging new trainees and developing a more diverse workforce.

According to the company, tug masters earn up to $212,000 per year for 26 weeks of work, with the potential to earn more than $250,000 when accounting for super contributions, overtime, leave bonuses and other loadings. Engineers earn a base salary of about $212,000 a year and deckhands earn a base salary of about $138,000 per year.

This article has been updated to include comment from Svitzer and the unions.