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Lock out of tugboat workers averted at the 11th hour

No ships crossed the horizon this morning as no vessels were entering or leaving the Port of Melbourne at the direction of the Harbour Master.

This was because of a high stakes drama unfolding in ports around Australia this week.

Svitzer provides tugboat services to 17 ports around Australia. Vessels cannot safely enter or leave ports without tugboat services. Svitzer is a subsidiary of the Danish shipping company, A P Moller Maersk.

Svitzer Otway tows Yang Ming Success out of the Port of Melbourne

On 14th November, Svitzer announced their intention to lock out all tugboat workers from midday on Friday 18th November – indefinitely. This would have meant that no vessels could be towed in or out of the 17 ports around Australia for the duration of the lockout.

Earlier this week in an address to the National Press Club, Tony Burke, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, appealed to Svitzer not to take this drastic action. He said that the workplace reforms currently before the Parliament would include mechanisms for resolving ‘intractable’ disputes like this. It would give the umpire ‘a whistle to blow’, he said, which is not available under the existing legislation.

The Fair Work Commission called the matter in on its own initiative because of the grave and widespread implications of the lockout for the Australian economy.

In submissions to the Fair Work Commission on Thursday, Svitzer argued that the lock out was the only option as protracted negotiations with the unions over three years had failed to come to a resolution.

The unions have had no pay increase since January 2019 when the negotiations began. The three unions involved had agreed to suspend industrial action earlier this week to avert the lockdown.

The government’s submission spelled out the many troubles that have and continue to beset the Australian economy: the pandemic, disruption to supply chains because of the war in Ukraine, inflation, the recent flooding. For ports across Australia to shut down just before Christmas would cause a cascade of effects and directly impact workers and households.

An average of $229 million of imports, and $73 million of exports, pass through the port of Melbourne every day.

AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, submitted that it would be unable to respond to maritime emergencies since Svitzer is contracted to supply emergency towing services. AMSA highlighted the valiant work of tug boat operators in preventing the MV Portland Bay from running aground and potentially spilling oil adjacent to a National Park off Port Botany. AMSA argued that the unsettled weather conditions prevailing on the east coast made it more likely that an emergency service would be needed.

On Thursday 17th, in preparation for the lockout which appeared imminent, the Harbour Master directed that commercial vessels within port waters of Port of Melbourne (both alongside berth and at anchor) were to be safely cleared and proceed to sea commencing from 2100 hrs.

At 11 am today, Friday 18th, just an hour before the lockout was due to begin, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission issued orders suspending Svitzer’s indefinite lockout of critical port workers, after finding it threatened to cause significant damage to the economy and the welfare of the population.

Neither Svitzer nor unions can take further protected action for the next six months to 18 May 2023.

At midday on Friday, when the lockout was due to come into effect, the Svitzer tugboats were all lined up on the River.


Shae McCrystal Christmas may be safe, but three-year port dispute shows the IR system is full of holes The Conversation 22 November 2022

Svitzer tugboats berthed at the Port of Melbourne

NovemberHow events unfolded
Mon 14 Svitzer issues a media release notifying the lockout of tugboat workers from 12 pm Friday 18 November indefinitely
Wed 16 listed for mention at Fair Work Commission on its own initiative
Wed 16Tony Burke addresses the National Press Club
Thurs 17 Arrivals into port of Melbourne
were suspended by Ports Victoria from 2 pm
all commercial vessels were cleared from the Port after 2100 hrs at the direction of the Harbour Master
Thurs 17 Fairwork Commission directs that the lockout not proceed
Fri 18, 11 am The Fair Work Commission suspended Svitzer’s indefinite lockout of critical port workers

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