TWO maritime unions have announced that their members who work on Antarctic research vessel Nuyina are about to launch industrial action.

Officers and engineers represented by the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers will begin a series of work bans on Wednesday (24 January).

An overtime ban is scheduled to come into effect at 1700 on Wednesday, escalating to a ban on the use of external contractors working on the vessel on Thursday, and culminating on Friday with a 24-hour work stoppage, beginning at 0700.

AIMPE and AMOU are taking action against Serco, who operates icebreaker Nuyina on behalf of the Australian Antarctic Division.

The dispute relates to the officers’ and engineers’ enterprise agreement; the previous Greenfields agreement which commenced in 2020 expired on 6 January 2024.

According to AIMPE, Serco has indicated it wants to preserve the arrangements in the existing agreement. The AMOU has described it as “inferior” to other seagoing agreements.

Seventeen out of 18 eligible AIMPE members voted in a ballot for industrial action, giving 100% support to periodic stoppages of one hour, four hours, eight hours, 12 hours, 24 hours and 48 hours.

All eligible AMOU members, 11 in total, voted in a separate ballot that contained the same list of work bans and stoppages. They also gave 100% support to work stoppages of between one and 48 hours.

Other forms of protected industrial action outlined in the ballots include:

  • bans or limitations on the performance of work beyond eight hours while the vessel is in port;
  • bans or limitations on the use of contractors, such as approving and signing off contractors’ work permits for any work contractors may perform onboard the vessel;
  • bans or limitations on the use of contractors, such as limiting a contractor’s hours of work for any work contractors may perform onboard the vessel;
  • bans or limitations on the starting and operation of the main engines;
  • bans or limitations on the taking of bunkers; and
  • bans or limitations on loading cargo, including fuel cargo on the vessel.

Most voters, but not all, supported these bans and limitations.

Both unions have said the industrial action would be conducted in a way that ensures the safety of the vessel, other crew members and the port are protected. Nuyina is currently berthed in the port of Hobart.

“We’re not going to affect any of Australia’s scientific research and we’re not going to leave anyone stranded on a base,” AMOU senior industrial officer Jarrod Moran told DCN.

“[Nuyina] is in Hobart for a maintenance period … that’s why we’ve chosen to do the action now, so there’s minimal disruption to the good work that it does down in Antarctica.”

AIMPE federal president Martin Byrne claimed Nuyina is under resourced in terms of how many marine engineers and electro-technical officers are needed to operate a sophisticated research vessel.

“The Nuyina operates in the harshest conditions of any Australian ship and has the most onboard equipment, yet the pay and conditions are less than vessels operating on Bass Strait and well below the rates of pay and conditions that apply to Australia’s research vessel the Investigator, operated by the CSIRO,” he said.

A spokesperson for Serco told DCN the company respects the rights of union members to participate in protected action.

“We have a proactive operational response plan in place to ensure minimal disruption to Antarctic operations,” they said.

“We are committed to further discussions and have been fair and reasonable in all offers made to the union and our employee representatives.”

Nuyina returned from its latest Antarctic voyage early in December.