INDUSTRIAL action at the Victorian International Container Terminal appears imminent; the Maritime Union has given notice of a four-hour stoppage starting on Tuesday, 16 February from 16:00 to 20:00. 

The four-hour work stoppage is legally protected, and the union said it is part of its campaign to address “unsafe staffing levels and improve working conditions”. 

A statement from VICT said it was facing “industrial disruption in the face of a union agenda to force Australia’s first fully automated container terminal to comply with ‘industry standards’ by adopting the incompatible hours, manning and overtime conditions that govern the manually operated terminals around Australia”. 

“This would see Australia’s most modern terminal saddled with inappropriate working arrangements with its efficiencies seriously compromised and its potential to achieve profitability put at risk,” the terminal managers said in a statement. 

They pointed out that the terminal’s market share is 34% of Melbourne-bound containers, and as such, shipping lines will face delays at Melbourne. 

Wage increases 

According to VICT, the MUA is demanding wage increases equivalent to between 5.8% to 11% each year over three years for certain roles, with overtime and penalty rates to rise by 50% to 100% from current rates. 

The MUA is also seeking one paid week off every 10 weeks, plus reduced shifts in the ninth week, effectively reducing time worked by 11.4%, according to VICT. 

VICT said the MUA roster would require an additional panel of employees to make the operation viable, requiring a 25% increase in labour numbers, 11.4% fewer hours for everyone, plus a wage increase of up to 20%. 

“If fully accepted, the MUA claims will cause the total cost of employment at VICT to rise by 117% or more than $119.1 million over the four years, making this ground breaking project unviable,” VICT said. 

“Industry standards” 

VICT said the union is attempting to impose on VICT the union’s “industry standards” based on the waterfront seven-hour manual labour roster.  

“This is despite VICT workers supporting VICT’s current model of 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off equal time rosters which offer full-time jobs working only 15 days a month,” VICT’s statement said. 

“The existing roster maximises the operability and efficiency of VICT’s automated terminal whilst maintaining healthy work-life balance for the employees.” 

Back to the past 

VICT CEO Tim Vancampen said the maritime unions are attempting to steer the waterfront “firmly back to the past”, effectively by ignoring the efficiencies of automation and hobbling VICT with outdated ways of working and inapplicable wages and benefits. 

“As the first fully automated terminal in Australia we never expected to be popular with traditional waterside unions, but we couldn’t have anticipated such unrealistic demands. We’ve been in negotiations for months, however the MUA is unwilling to consider reasonable differences in VICT’s operation,” Mr Vancampen said. 

“VICT operates Australia’s first and only fully automated terminal. Our employees are not traditional waterside labourers, they’re typically computer operators and maintenance engineers. Most operating roles and standards that are now unique to the industry are completely foreign to the MUA’s experience and understanding.” 

VITC said over the course of months of negotiations, it offered a wage increase of 2.5% for the first two years and 3% for the third and fourth years respectively. Casual employees were offered a 20% wage increase for the first year with increases of 2.5% for the second year and 3% for the third and fourth years. VICT said it would also be creating 18 new permanent jobs each paying more than $100,000 per year. 

100% vote in support of action 

The union said the stoppage is the first industrial action undertaken following a ballot of VICT workers, and that it resulted in an extraordinary 100% vote in support of all 19 forms of proposed industrial action. The ballot allows workers to legally undertake a range of actions. 

VICT workers have rejected two proposed company agreements — with more than 90% voting against the most recent offer — instead demanding a union-negotiated agreement that addresses their concerns around excessive hours and unsafe staffing levels. 

MUA Western Australia Branch Secretary Will Tracey, who is co-ordinating the negotiations on behalf of the VICT workforce, said the dispute centred around the unacceptable working conditions at the terminal. 

“VICT are under the mistaken belief that just because they’re running an automated container terminal, they can treat workers like robots,” Mr Tracey said. 

“Unlike the machinery they operate, these workers have families and life outside of work, and they deserve a workplace agreement that protects their safety and quality of life. 

“Workers report being required to work huge amounts of overtime — in many cases between 50 and 70 additional 12 hour shifts during the last year — due to the company’s refusal to employ an appropriate number of people. 

“This same shortage of workers has resulted in the company pressuring staff not to take breaks during their 12-hour shifts, making it impossible to have a meal and extremely difficult to even use the toilet. 

“This is not only unpleasant, it’s a fundamental safety issue, which is why workers are demanding improved staffing at the terminal as part of negotiations for a new workplace agreement.” 

Mr Tracey said workers also report difficulty with taking annual leave because the terminal is short of staff. 

“Some [were] told they will only have leave approved if they can source their own replacement from among their workmates. The result of this appalling situation is that approximately 95% of the workforce have joined the union in recent years, with a clear set of demands to improve conditions at VICT and bring the company into line with how other Australian container terminals operate,” Mr Tracey said. 

“VICT, which is controlled by Philippine billionaire Enrique Razon, has repeatedly refused to engage with the issues their Australian workforce have raised, with management going so far as to walk out of negotiations last week, further aggravating tensions.” 

Calls for federal government to step in 

The Container Transport Alliance Australia described the union’s notice of protected industrial action as “very concerning”. 

CTAA director Neil Chambers said, “Extended industrial action at VICT could cripple Melbourne’s container trades at a time when import demand is still surging, and export demands for our agricultural products are hitting their straps.” 

“This is yet another example why the federal government should look seriously at declaring container stevedoring services an essential industry that shouldn’t be held to ransom by enterprise agreement claims that are completely out of step with Australia’s current economic and labour-market circumstances,” Mr Chambers said. 

“VICT has taken the unusual step in its media statement of laying out some of the excesses of the union’s log of claims, while also articulating its relatively decent offer of wage increases over the life of the agreement, and the employment of more permanent jobs. 

“Clearly while landside logistics stakeholders in the supply chain like transport operators, freight forwarders and importers/exporters aren’t a direct party to the industrial negotiations, I think that many will be sickened by the unrealistic nature of the claims by the MUA, as we have seen before with protracted negotiations with the other container stevedores across Australia.” 

Mr Chambers said the CTAA urges the union and VICT to avert the planned industrial action by continuing to negotiate in good faith. 

“However, if we are faced with an intractable difference between the parties, we’d urge VICT to take the matter directly to the industrial umpire at the Fair Work Commission and for the federal government to support a quick resolution to the dispute via arbitration,” Mr Chambers said. 

“Time too for the federal government to look more broadly at protecting container port operations in the future as an essential lifeblood for Australia’s economy.” 

Industrial relations a matter of urgency 

Shipping Australia CEO Melwyn Noronha pointed out that everyday Australians rely on maritime trade no matter how far they live from the sea or a port. 

“The import/export trade accounts for about 46% to 47% of Australia’s economy. Seaborne imports and exports are part of, and drive, the logistics industry. That industry supports about 1.2 million jobs, which accounts for about 10% of the total Australian workforce,” Mr Noronha said. 

“However, we continue to have severe industrial relations-induced disruption on the waterfront. Industrial relations need to be looked at as a matter of urgency by the federal government or disruptions will continue to persist to the detriment of all Australians, no matter who they are or where they live.

“Shipping Australia calls upon the federal government to include a review of waterfront industrial relations as part of any reform package”. 

A precarious time 

Meanwhile, the Victorian Transport Association has slammed proposed Maritime Union industrial action. 

VTA CEO Peter Anderson said, “At such a precarious time in the national economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is totally disingenuous for a union that claims to be in the business of protecting jobs, downing tools at one of our most important stevedores, and making claims for wages and other entitlements that are entirely unworkable”. 

Mr Anderson said the transport industry has been fortunate to be able to work through the pandemic. 

“It is extremely disappointing that after a period when employer and employee groups have worked so well together to minimise the impacts of the economic slump, the union would resort to claims as unworkable as these,” he said. 

“Thousands of Australians would sacrifice a great deal to be in the kind of well-paid and secure waterfront employment VICT provides for hundreds of staff – threatening the viability of the long-term operation of the stevedore with such outlandish claims is both short-sighted and irresponsible.” 

Mr Anderson said the proposed industrial action would also harm Melbourne’s hard-fought reputation as the freight capital of Australia. 

“The last thing we need is to tarnish the enviable position Victoria has established for being the nation’s biggest destination for freight. Industrial action like what has been proposed threatens this position and gives importers and exporters cause for sending their goods via other major cities,” Anderson said.