MINISTER for employment and workplace relations Tony Burke on 2GB Breakfast today said he was “devastated by the way the whole dispute has unfolded”.

Svitzer on Monday announced it would lock its maritime employees out, halting its towage operations in 17 ports across Australia.

Mr Burke said the industrial action, whether it’s caused by the employer or the unions, affects people up and down the supply chain.

“Ultimately you end up shopping at Christmas time and what you need on the shelves isn’t there,” he said.

“So we’ve got this ridiculous situation – it’s been there over both sides of politics over the years – where the only time the industrial umpire can come in and make a decision is when both sides say, ‘Could you please blow the whistle’. And that’s just ridiculous.”

Mr Burke said he wants an “industrial umpire” to be able to “sort it out”.

“The laws to be able to do that are in front of the Parliament now and I’m wanting to get them through this year,” he said.

Legislation to amend the Fair Work Act passed the lower house last week and is expected to go before the Senate soon.

Fair Work Commission swings into action

On Tuesday Fair Work Commission vice-president Adam Hatcher said Svitzer’s announcement that it would commence a lockout on Friday caused the commission to consider ordering the company to suspend its action.

The FWC can step in to end such actions if they “cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”, according to the Fair Work Act.

The act also gives the commission the power to act in such circumstances on its own initiative.

Vice-president Hatcher said the commission issued a similar order to striking tug masters in February. The AMOU members had announced 48-hour stoppages at various ports.

“The commission made orders … suspending protected industrial action … because it was satisfied that the action threatened to cause significant damage to an important part of the Australian economy,” the vice-president wrote.

“The commission’s reasons included findings as to the actual damage caused or potential damage to be caused by this action. These findings give rise to a concern that the protected industrial action recently announced by Svitzer may similarly threaten to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it.”

Shipping Australia weighs in

In a statement, Shipping Australia – which represents companies working in Australia’s ocean shipping trades – voiced support for Svitzer “in its attempts to reach an equitable enterprise bargain that protects the vital flow of trade into our country, while boosting waterfront competitiveness”.

The statement said continued smooth operations on the waterfront are vital to the economic wellbeing of all Australians. Just under 46% of Australia’s GDP is dependent on international trade.

The last enterprise bargaining agreement between Svitzer and the maritime unions expired in 2019, and the parties have been negotiating since then.

“Such a lengthy period of frequent and protected industrial action is disrupting the towage company’s ability to serve its shipping customers,” the SAL statement said.

“We understand from our shipping company members that ships are being delayed and that there is likely to be further delay to a wide variety of shipping services in the immediate and ongoing future.”

SAL said commodities that will likely be disrupted include coal, iron ore, grains, fertiliser, other agricultural products, fuel and more.

“Our major container ports, which import/export general cargo, will be adversely affected. General cargo basically translates into goods that are available on the shelves of the supermarkets and on the shelves of other shops too,” the SAL statement said.

“Inevitably, there will be adverse flow-on effects to the land-side logistics industries, to importers, to exporters such as our farmers, and to the retailers of food, household goods, and other goods.

“We hope that this dispute can reach a fair, equitable, and just resolution in short order as the ongoing protected industrial action, and the lockout with which the company has been forced to respond, can only cause harm to the supply chain, to the economy, and, ultimately, to Australian families.”

Union view

Meanwhile the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers – one of the unions involved in the negotiations – said Svitzer’s lockout is completely different in nature from the actions its members have taken in recent weeks.

“AIMPE members who are employed as tug engineers have taken work stoppages of limited duration and these stoppages have allowed exemptions for any port emergencies,” a statement from AIMPE said.

“This has meant that the ports and port users have always had the security that the tugs will be there to assist in the event of any emergency arising.”

However, AIMPE said Svitzer’s lockout will mean that the tug engineers and other crew members will not be able to respond to emergencies.

“Svitzer’s lockout is a massive escalation of the dispute. It is disproportionate and unwarranted,” AIMPE said.

“The Svitzer lockout will stop shipping in and out of ports around Australia. The employee action has been short-term and the crews have been quickly back at work and moving ships in and out of the affected ports. There has actually been minimal disruption,” AIMPE said.

“The Svitzer action will stop all assisted movements in all their operating ports. This is punishing port users.”