Business and Coalition plea for government intervention to end crippling port strikes

A family business owner has called on the Albanese government to urgently intervene in strikes at the nation’s ports that they claim have hammered their bottom line and could make the nation’s cost-of-living crunch worse.

The industrial action, led by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), at container terminals in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle operated by DP World, one of the country’s largest stevedores, has resulted in a backlog of some 45,000 containers and is costing the local economy more than $20m a day, employers claim.

While the stevedore is seeking to update its rostering arrangement in a bid to reflect current business demands, the union has participated in industrial action since October, undertaking work stoppages and 24-hour strikes to win a pay rise worth 8 per cent a year for its members.
The last workplace deal at DP World expired in September 2023.

Freight forwarding company EES Shipping managing director Brian Hack said the economic and reputational damage to Australia would only continue to worsen if the strike didn’t end soon.

“This is no longer just about DP World and the MUA, Australian businesses are being significantly impacted and are losing money as a result of ongoing delays and uncertainty,” Mr Hack said.

“Our business has lost clients, and we’re having to wear thousands of dollars in extra container detention charges due to the backlog and delays.”

The stoppages have meant that ships – importing everything from white goods to medicines and exporting local products like red meat and fresh fruit – are facing 12 to 10-day delays to get their products offshore.

Mr Hack added that the extra costs on businesses like his would ultimately affect consumers’ hip pockets.

“We’re already seeing one transport provider adding a surcharge for picking up from the DP terminal in direct recognition of the extra costs caused by the delays,” he said.

“All these extra charges will eventually flow through to consumers who are already dealing with cost-of-living increases.

“If we can’t get containers off the wharf, we could see shortages of products on shelves again … maybe that’s when the government will step in.”

Other businesses including meat processors, fruit and vegetable farmers, manufactures and automotive dealers have also been impacted by the strike action.

In mid-December, DP World appealed to the workplace umpire, the Fair Work Commission, to intervene and suspend industrial action. However, the request was refused, forcing the stevedore to return to the negotiating table.

The request came after DP World was hit by a cyber attack, forcing it to shut down operations across the country and resulting in a backlog of about 30,000 containers.

Coalition adds voice to calls for government intervention

On Wednesday, opposition workplace relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash demanded that Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke intervene in the dispute.

“This strike is clearly impacting businesses and consumers and it is time the government took its head out of the sand and acted in Australia’s best interests,” she said.

Ms Cash said goods intended for Christmas delivery had been delayed and disrupted by the industrial action that was now dragging on into the New Year.

“Minister Burke has the power to intervene in the dispute and should take that option. He appears unwilling to intervene because he wants to keep his paymasters in the union movement happy,” she said.

But Mr Burke instead said, “As always, I urge all parties to engage with the Fair Work Commission and find a solution in the best interests of everybody involved.”

Mr Burke said he was surprised by Senator Cash’s statement given he didn’t recall her commenting when tugboat operator Svitzer moved last year to lock out 582 striking workers, an intervention he described as “aimed at shutting down pretty much every port in Australia”.

“It seems the Liberal Party test is whether or not they feel like bashing a union,” he added.

A DP World spokesperson said the stevedore remained confident in its ability to overcome the impasse in negotiations with the MUA.

“However, if industrial action were to continue, it could have a disruptive effect on operations, potentially leading to delays in supply chain activities, reduced productivity and increased costs,” they said.

“Our wage offer is in line with industry benchmarks and inflation.”

MUA assistant national secretary Adrian Evans said a fair agreement with its Australian workforce was well overdue.

“Reams of evidence at the Fair Work Commission show that DP World have deliberately sabotaged, delayed and manipulated the negotiation process over the last nine months, so their born-again enthusiasm for the bargaining process strains credibility at this very late stage in the process,” Mr Evans said.

Mr Evans said the company had just raised prices for its customers by 52 per cent, while it paid its own workforce 17 per cent less than its competitors.

“They should stop trying to litigate this through the media or with the help of conservative politicians and simply return to the bargaining table where the MUA has been waiting patiently since March last year,” he added.

After negotiations stalled over the Christmas break, it’s understood that talks between the union and DP World representatives at the Sydney and Fremantle terminals are set to resume on December 9.

These talks will focus on parts of the new workplace agreement that are specific to the individual terminals rather than its more controversial elements.

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