Svitzer Blocked from Proceeding with Tugboat Crew Lockout in Australia

Australian tugboat crew lockout prevented
Australian authorities will block the effort to lockout tugboat crews in 17 ports (Port of Newcastle file photo)

Published Nov 17, 2022 1:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australia’s Fair Work Commission is moving to block the lockout planned for Friday by Svitzer of the crews working aboard its tugs around Australia. The commission which oversees labor disputes heard arguments on Thursday in front of the full panel and reported that it would make a further determination to either suspend or terminate the protected industrial action that has been running against Maersk’s tugboat company for the past three years.

The commission held an initial meeting on Wednesday and convened its full panel on Thursday after deciding due to the potential for significant economic harm that it should initiate the review. This came as Australia’s Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, called the lockout “economic vandalism.” Burke is using the dispute to highlight his efforts to overhaul the process making it easier for the commission to become involved in long-running disputes such as the negotiations between Svitzer and three labor unions.

Svitzer during today’s hearing highlighted that there have been 76 bargaining meetings, two applications to stop the industrial action, and there is now a pending application to terminate the agreement. They said that one proposed settlement failed with a vote by members and they insist the situation is truly deadlocked. They are demanding workplace rule changes affecting the manning level and assignments which the union insists would endanger safety. The previous labor agreement dating from 2016 expired in 2019 with the crews working without a contract.

The tugboat company used Thursday’s hearing to appeal to the commission to terminate the protected industrial action saying that it was a clear example calling for action by the commission. The union responded by saying the lockout is a tactic and that Svitzer has decided it does not want to negotiate further. The union asked the commission to only suspend the action so that negotiations could resume in 2023.

Speakers representing the ports, shippers, and government pointed out that if Svitzer was permitted to proceed with the lockout it would have been the most sweeping labor action in Australia in the past 11 years since the national airline Qantas locked out employees in 2011. Port authorities told the commission that vessels were already departing ports and others were canceling calls. Svitzer services 17 ports, of which only two have alternate providers. Many ports were advising vessels that they would be trapped in port as of Friday.

Under the regulations, if the commission moves to terminate the protected industrial action it would trigger a 21-day period of concession followed by a mandatory arbitration to settle remaining outstanding issues.

Svitzer issued an update to customers at the end of the day acknowledging that the commission had 
advised at the end of the session that the lockout will not proceed. Based on that, they advised that customers can return to planned shipping movements and recommence port operations.