Australian Unions Renew Strikes Against Svitzer Ahead of Labor Ruling

Svitzer Australia strike
Svitzer's crews stopped work for four hours on Wednesday in their ongoing dispute over a new enterprise agreement (Svitzer file photo)

Published Oct 27, 2022 4:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

The long-running dispute between the Australian operation of Maersk’s tugboat company Svitzer and its unions flared up again on Wednesday, October 26 with a brief work stoppage at ports around Australia. The Maritime Union of Australia continues to accuse Svitzer of not negotiating in good faith while the company has sought government permission to end the enterprise agreement after more than three years of failed negotiations. 

The prior enterprise agreement expired in 2019 and since then the company and its unions have been at odds over the terms of a new contract. The union accuses Svitzer of offering less than a two percent wage increase despite Australia’s inflation rate which was reported at six percent at mid-year and is projected to rise to possibly eight percent by the end of the calendar year. With no agreement, the union said its members have effectively had a wage freeze since 2019.

The union gave notice last week of the industrial action saying that the negotiations had once again failed and that more than 500 members would stop work. They cite issues of wages seeking “an outcome in line with industry standards,” as well as an agreement on minimum safe crewing levels and fatigue management frameworks. The union contends that Svitzer is seeking to reduce manning levels on the tugs.

Crews working the tugs were scheduled to stop work for four hours on October 26. They said it was a move to again highlight the failure of management to bargain in good faith for a new employment agreement.

“The four-hour work stoppage today should remind management where the company’s profits are actually earned – on tugboats driven by seagoing members of the three maritime unions, and these loyal workers deserve better treatment than what they’ve been subjected to these past three years,” said Jamie Newlyn, the Union’s Assistant National Secretary.

Svitzer issued an advisory to customers ahead of the latest job action, saying it “will continue to do all it can to minimize the disruption to our services and the ports we operate in. We are incredibly disappointed in this unnecessary and harmful action.”

Two months ago, the union staged a similar job action at ten of Australia’s ports. It lasted for four hours in some ports while others continued the action for 24 hours. At the time, a spokesperson for Svitzer responded to the union allegations by saying that the company had offered to “maintain crew salaries and core conditions” as part of a new contract. A potential agreement however had fallen apart with the company saying the stalemate was over “reasonable productivity improvements” which the unions refused to consider. 

Svitzer turned to Australia’s Fair Work Commission saying that it needed certainty for itself and its customers and that the unions have left it no option. They are seeking to void the collective bargaining agreement, which has become a politically charged issue with the new Australian government also weighing in on potential reforms to the commission structure. A final hearing in Svitzer’s case before the commission is scheduled for December and if they prevail the company would be permitted to pay workers based on government scales and work rules. The unions are also calling on Svitzer to recall its application to the commission.

Svitzer has warned customers that there could be further disruptions in the coming weeks. The Maritime Union of Australia, the Australian Institute of Maritime and Power Engineers, and the Australian Maritime Officers Union have each advised of additional notices under the law for protected industrial actions. While most of the notices concern work rules such as extended shifts or other tasks designed to slow functions at the ports, Svitzer reports that there could be a 24-hour work stoppage at Cairns on November 1 while saying the unions are likely to continue to revise their planned actions.