TUG crews at the Port of Melbourne and Westernport will stop work for a total of 12 hours tomorrow while enterprise agreement negotiations between Svitzer Australia and the Maritime Union of Australia.

The union notified the company of three consecutive four-hour work stoppages starting at 1200 on Friday 9 July.

The MUA said tug crews will be joined by supporters for a rally outside Svitzer’s Port Melbourne base starting at midday Friday.

A spokesperson for Svitzer Australia said the company is disappointed the MUA continues to take protected industrial action, saying they would adversely impact shipping movements at the two ports and risk delays to the import of critical goods and supplies.

“Svitzer Australia continues to bargain in good faith with the MUA to negotiate a new enterprise agreement that will put us on a sustainable footing in the long-term so we can continue to offer good jobs and high salaries to the union’s members,” the spokesperson said.

“While we respect the rights of colleagues, industrial action is not the answer to our shared problems. We need a new enterprise agreement, which will allow us to compete in the future while continuing to offer good jobs, and we want to achieve this around the negotiating table.

“We continue to work closely with affected customers and port stakeholders regarding possible contingencies for shipping services, and to understand the extent of the impact this will have on Australian supply chains.”

The union

MUA deputy Victorian branch secretary David Ball said the tug crews are taking completely legal industrial action in an attempt to bring the long-running negotiations to a fair outcome.

“Despite being part of a highly profitable multinational, Svitzer Australia has been using the COVID crisis to try and push through claims that would leave local workers much worse off,” he said.

“Our members continued to work throughout the COVID crisis, ensuring essential goods continued to move through Port Melbourne to the Victorian community, but they refuse to stand by while this company attacks their workplace rights.”

The union said Svitzer introduced 30 claims that would “slash the rights, conditions, and job security” of its workforce.

Mr Ball said community protestors would also be targeting the move by Svitzer to axe the Geelong workforce, replacing the crews with fly-in fly-out workers.

“Svitzer has demonstrated their contempt for loyal Australian workers through a decision to make their entire Geelong workforce redundant, claiming they were no longer going to operate at the port, then restarting operations just months later with fly-in fly-out contractors,” he said.

“Our members refuse to accept unilateral attacks on their job security, rights and conditions, which is why they are undertaking completely legal forms of industrial action in protest.”

Industry reaction

Verus Global CEO Jackson Meyer said his company is being directly affected by the ongoing industrial action in the port.

He said the industrial action would increase fees and push container importers’ pricing up from an already astronomical starting point.

“The delays are imminent and will be ongoing,” he said.

Mr Meyer said industry has been warned to expect further un-forecast and increased fees, in addition to historically high freight levels across all global markets and increases in local charges.

“Importers are unable to retain their original selling prices and will ultimately have to pass on these costs to the customer,” he said.

“Low-cost industries such as packaging are being hit the hardest, with high volume, low margin goods absorbing the on-costs of the unprecedented climate, with no endgame in sight. Whitegoods and highly sought-after household items during the pandemic, such as furniture, continue to remain strong and in demand. Large appliances now command a spot rate up to 41% of the cargo value, and small appliances command up to 27% of the retail value,” Meyer said.

“It’s clear that we are now at a point where an increasing range of cargo owners quite simply will not be able to sustain their business, at the currently high freight rates, and that’s a major issue for the industry.”

This article has been updated to reflect that there are three consecutive work stoppages, not four.