ON Monday 14 November, towage company Svitzer announced it would lock out its maritime employees indefinitely starting the following Friday.

The move was after more than three years of negotiations with the three maritime unions for a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

“This will impact shipping operations at major metropolitan and regional Australian ports nationwide in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia,” Svitzer said in a statement.

In a statement the company said it was locking out its employees under the provisions of the Fair Work Act in response to “damaging and ongoing industrial action being organised by the unions”.

The company said over the previous weeks, the MUA, AMOU and AIMPE had ratcheted up industrial action, announcing new actions nearly daily. These actions have included work stoppages and extensive work bans. They also include “bans on the performance of work on shipping line vessels across Australia” – DCN understands the shipping line to be Maersk.

Svitzer said the industrial action has been harming its ability to “reliable, safely and efficiently serve our shipping customers and port operations around the country and is causing serious disruption to the national supply chain, which is reliant on shipping”.

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).

Unions respond

After the company announced the lockout MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said, “Svitzer’s workers have continued to turn up, work hard and contribute not only to the massive profitability of this successful company but save lives and protect Australia’s coastline during daring rescues of stricken cargo ships”.

Svitzer tugs played pivotal roles in assisting stricken vessels over the past several months, including the Rio Madeira in October and the Portland Bay in July.

MUA assistant national secretary Jamie Newlyn said by locking out its maritime workers, Svitzer would “wreck Australia’s productivity [and] prevent consumer goods and bulk commodities being loaded or discharged at major ports like Botany, Kembla, Melbourne, Newcastle and Brisbane”.

“Every Australian business and consumer will now suffer from this delinquent company’s selfish and pigheaded conduct,” Mr Newlyn said.

AIMPE federal secretary Martin Byrne said the escalation of the long-running dispute would leave much of the Australian coastline without emergency towage response capability.

“Just a few short months ago the nation lauded the tug crews as heroes for their actions in saving the Portland Bay and its crew from being smashed against the rocks. Now there will be no Svitzer crews available to respond to similar circumstances,” Mr Byrne said.

He went on to say AIMPE’s protected industrial action has been limited in duration with most actions being between four and 12 hours long.

Mr Byrne said during these periods, AIMPE provided exemptions, including during an emergency circumstance advised by a harbour master or representative of a port authority or another circumstance where the safety of the port, vessel, crew or marine environment may be in jeopardy.

AIMPE has also exempted Australian Defence Force vessels from the impacts of it protected action. In September 2021, Svitzer won a long-term contract to provide towage services to the Royal Australian Navy.

Mr Byrne said AIMPE has not carried out simultaneous actions in all ports around the country. He pointed out that Svitzer’s lockout covers all the ports under its enterprise agreement and is indefinite in its duration.

“The Svitzer lockout action is qualitatively and quantitively different from the employee’s protected action,” Mr Byrne said.

The end (for now)

On Friday 18 November the Fair Work Commission ended the week of acrimony and uncertainty by suspending all industrial action related to the EBA negotiations for six months.

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.

However, if no progress is made in the negotiations, there is every possibility that industrial action will begin anew when the six months are up.