Australia Port Strike Deadlock Continues as Government Says No Intervention

Australia container terminal
Strikes drag on in Australia as efforts to break the deadlock continue to fail (DP World Australia)

Published Jan 18, 2024 6:23 PM by The Maritime Executive


Hopes that the Australian government would help to break the deadlock in the wage negotiations for terminal operator DP World were dashed on Thursday after Australia’s Workplace Relations Minister met with the company and Maritime Union of Australia. Hosting a press conference later in the day, Minister Tony Burke had harsh words for DP World and said both sides needed to negotiate to get a deal done.

“I have made it clear to both groups that I have no intention of intervening,” Burke told reporters after meeting separately with DP World and the MUA. He seemed to turn against DP World taking up the themes expressed by the unions while ignoring the pleas of businesses and shippers that have said the rolling strikes which have been ongoing since October are causing harm to the economy and their operations. Burke did not agree with the estimates of the damage to the economy saying the company and union need to reach terms through negotiations.

The union is standing firm on its demand for a 16 percent pay increase for its approximately 1,500 members who staff DP World’s terminals in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Fremantle. Estimates are that the company handles about 40 percent of the container volumes in Australia rivaling the slightly larger Patrick terminals.

Under Australian labor law, Burke could compel the companies into arbitration with the “Fair Work Ombudsman” from the labor commission to arbitrate the dispute. The minister is given the authority if he believes that the strike is causing significant harm to the economy. Burke stopped short today saying instead they needed to negotiate and the Fair Work Commission could aid in finding a resolution. Last year, the Fair Work Commission compelled Svitzer and its unions to reach a tentative agreement to a multi-year contract dispute with the threat of arbitration if they did not come to terms. Burke said he told both sides he expected that they would reach an agreement.

Businesses across Australia are complaining about disruptions with the major carriers reporting significant delays or omitting scheduled port calls because of the rolling work stoppages. Last week, the Fair Work Commission sided with the MUA authorizing more strikes but the union backed away from a plan for eight-hour stoppages this week in favor of two-hour intervals along with continuing bans on overtime or extra shifts. 

The Australian Retailers Association is predicting worsening problems as the contract impasse drags on. By the trade group’s estimates, as many as 48,000 containers are currently stranded with the retailers saying shipping delays range between two and eight weeks. 

Burke speaking after his meetings said he believes the Australian consumer is “sick to death” of hearing companies say wages are the problem. He said if DP World “had invested as much into the negotiations as they have into their media campaign, they might already have an agreement.” 

Late on Thursday, the Maritime Union of Australia reportedly filed a notice informing the Fair Work Commission and the company of its intention to extend the current job actions at least till the end of January. 

The opposition government has joined with industry in saying the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese needs to get involved to settle the dispute.