Monday, September 28, 2020

Our Apologies. Peace Has not in Fact Broken Out in the Freight Container Terminals of Australia

As One Dock Dispute Seemingly Ends So the Flames are Fanned on Others
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – It seems our story last week that the hopeful signs of an agreement to renegotiate a working contract between the stevedores of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the management of DP World container facilities in the country does not apply to other employers, with the escalation of industrial action at the Patrick Terminals Sydney facility, Port Botany.

The language emanating from the MUA offices is rarely as conciliatory as last week’s statement and the union returned true to form with its latest missive on the current dispute, reminiscent for many older British readers of the bad old days before the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme with its promises of jobs for life.

Having authorised strike action at Port Botany the MUA is saying that all the accusations being levelled at it regarding the damage caused by such stoppages is false. It makes the point that it considers there is no truth in the statements that pharmaceutical shipments have been disrupted. However one major critic of the union’s actions is the National Farmers Federation (NFF).

Port Botany is critical for getting products like red meat, pork, grain, wool and cotton to overseas markets and the NFF claims the capacity of the Patrick terminal has been cut by 40% in the past week at a time when the grounding of passenger flights had made farmers far more reliant on shipping for perishable products and just when congestion is blighting the ocean terminal. NFF CEO Tony Mahar laid out the case thus:

"On the road to recovery from years of drought, farmers are perfectly placed to help get this country back on track, what we certainly don’t need now is the breakdown of operations at Port Botany. More than ever, farmers need Port Botany running smoothly. Instead, the MUA’s latest stunt has seen vessels delayed by up to 18 days and surcharges pile up.

"Right now, the parties need to demonstrate common sense and think about the bigger picture. The MUA’s antics are putting Australian agriculture’s international customer relationships at risk, and it could pull the rug out from under Australia’s economic recovery.

"This industrial action has made congestion exponentially worse. The congestion surcharges put in place by shipping companies equate to A$17 per tonne of grain and A$5 per bale of cotton. This essentially means that up to 5% of the final price for these goods is being frittered away on a situation that should never have eventuated. With 30-35% of the final price of agricultural commodities already going to freight and logistics, an additional 5% of cost is a bitter pill to swallow for farmers."

"With delays now pushing to 20 days and beyond, this situation risks doing irreparable damage to our international reputation as a reliable supplier of agricultural commodities. Some shipping lines are now bypassing Port Botany and redirecting freight to alternate ports in Victoria and Queensland. Covid-19 restrictions have made interstate freight movement significantly more challenging. Having to organise landside interstate freight due to the calamity at Port Botany is another cost and headache that farmers simply do not need.

“Farmers are the end-users of port services and we have no direct involvement in this industrial action. What we ask for is that state and federal governments, and parties to this dispute, resolve the matter without putting the whole agricultural supply chain in jeopardy. We want to farm and sell our produce to our customers; we do not want to be pawns in an industrial dispute.”

The NFF standpoint then, at a time the industry is already dealing with a serious labour crisis, is that the breakdown of operations at Port Botany could have impacts on farmers beyond the cost of congestion surcharges, restricting farmers’ access to market, and damaging Australia’s reputation as a reliable supplier.

The current situation also threatens Patrick operations at Melbourne, Fremantle and Brisbane and the company has applied for a Protected Action Ballot Order via the Fair Work Commission (FWC), a route the company has followed successfully before, sometimes with stern judgement on the behaviour of individuals.

The MUA however says false claims have been made, particularly with regard to the damage to pharmaceutical trade. This morning, the MUA claims its members asked Patrick management to identify any containers carrying medical supplies, either on the dock or on berthed vessels, so they could be prioritised but that supervisors were unable to identify a single medical container in need of transport.

This rather misses the point however as the trade is primarily import and there are said to be forty container vessels waiting offshore in New South Wales waters, unable to berth. These would presumably not be included in the MUA request. There is also no mention of the NFF criticisms. The union says the talk of the forty ships laying idle is ‘an outright lie’.

It goes on to claim the only industrial action that has occurred at the Patrick container terminal in Port Botany has been a single 4 hour-stoppage about four weeks ago, however this was accompanied by bans on working excessive hours. Also recently it says Patrick management cancelled three consecutive night shifts, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, preventing any containers from being unloaded or transported from the terminal, and that Patrick also closed the terminal for eight hours at the start of the month to undertake civil construction works.

The MUA further claims it wrote to Patrick offering to suspend all industrial action at Patrick terminals for a month, if the company withdrew attempts to strip away existing workplace conditions and resume meaningful negotiations. That offer was also rejected whilst in June it offered Patrick a 12 month rollover of the current workplace agreement with a 2.5% wage increase, allowing the company to get through Covid crisis.

It says the company rejected that offer, instead proposing a new agreement that would strip away 50 pages of conditions covering things like family-friendly rosters, salaries and other workplace conditions (echoes of that UK Dock Labour Act again). MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin accused Patrick management of deliberately escalating the dispute in an attempt to use political and public concerns to drive through cuts to workplace conditions, saying:

“This dispute has been manufactured by Patrick, with management rejecting all attempts by the union to resolve the issue and remove the need for industrial action. The company rejected the union’s offer to roll over the existing workplace agreement, they rejected our offer to suspend all industrial action, and they rejected our attempts to put procedures in place that would ensure no impacts on vital goods like medical supplies.

“Patrick has also deliberately misled the media and public with false claims about massive delays and ships being unable to unload in an attempt to use community pressure to drive through attacks on workplace rights. In recent days, Patrick management has cancelled three consecutive night shifts, preventing vessels from being unloaded or containers from leaving the port. Any delays at the terminal are the direct result of these management actions, not the legal and limited industrial action.

“The company has also stood down 32 workers at the port in an attempt to escalate conflict at the Port Botany terminal. The Australian public are falling victim to deliberate provocation by a multinational corporation willing to go to any length to slash the workplace rights and conditions of their workforce.

“Patrick has been making extraordinary and unfounded claims, which will be exposed for what they are by this legal action [the company’s application to the Fair Work Commission to halt protected industrial action]. The fact is, the company has been responsible for the overwhelming majority of disruptions and delays at the terminal, through terminal closures and shift cancellations.

“There is absolutely no way the limited, legal forms of industrial action undertaken by wharfies are capable of causing the massive delays claimed by the company without any evidence. Our members have worked throughout the Covid crisis to keep the economy ticking over. In fact, it was our efforts to implement separation, segregation and sanitisation protocols that ensured not one day was lost at any Patrick terminal throughout the crisis.

”Patrick is not doing it tough, they have achieved record productivity, market share and profits in recent years. The board of Patrick owner Qube just awarded themselves more than $10 million in bonuses after securing over $19 million in Jobkeeper.”

And there you have it, the basis of almost every dock dispute in history, company profits measured against workers input and remuneration. With other similar problems apparently in evidence at Hutchison operated terminals Down Under, as ever you pick a side and wait for the arguments to stop, and hopefully things to return to normal without too many grudges carried forward.

Photo: Port Botany terminal (Courtesy of Patrick Terminals).