Maritime Union Should Not Extort Australia: Prime Minister

Maritime Union Should Not Extort Australia: Prime Minister
A container ship is pushed to its berth by a tug at the Port of Melbourne, Australia, on June 6, 2018. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has been told not to extort Australia by Prime Minister Scott Morrison after industrial negotiations between the MUA and stevedoring company, Patrick, reached an impasse.

In a media release on Sept. 29, Patrick said that industrial action by the MUA had reached the point where it was delaying imports and exports at ports in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Fremantle with some ports being delayed up to 11 days.

The company also alleges that there are 38 ships with more than 100 thousand containers currently waiting to be unloaded. But the MUA and the Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) disputes this.

Speaking at a press conference after Patrick’s announcement, Morrison said it was not acceptable for the MUA to be engaging in a campaign of extortion.

“We cannot have the militant end of the union movement effectively engaging in a campaign of extortion against the Australian people in the middle of a COVID-19 recession. I mean this is just extraordinary, appalling behaviour,” said Morrison.

He then noted that while there was a time for extortionate demands, it was not when the country is in the middle of a difficult recession.

“I would think that the union movement would want to distance itself from that behaviour as much as certainly the government does in condemning it,” he said.

The dispute between Patrick and the MUA is centred around the creation of a new enterprise agreement.

According to Patrick, the MUA's requests include a six percent wage increase per year for the next four years, a guarantee of job security for the term of the agreement, and a $2000 sign-on bonus for all employees who enter into the new enterprise agreement among other claims.

Patrick estimates the cost of the new agreement is an additional $40 million a year and has countered with guaranteed pay rises of 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent over four years.

Taking the unusual step of releasing its pay scales under the current enterprise agreement, Patrick explained that fulltime maritime workers in Sydney and Fremantle ports receive $172,124 and $166,464 annually for a 35 hour week. Those who work at Melbourne and Brisbane ports receive $151,048 and $153,880 annually.

Michael Jovicic, Patrick Terminals chief executive, told the ABC on Sept. 29 that the industrial action had reduced the company’s operations in just Sydney to 50 or 60 percent of the normal levels, causing a backlog of up to 90,000 containers.

“I’m getting phone calls every day and night from importers and exporters complaining about this industrial action,” he explained to the ABC.

Of most concern to the federal government is that there will be a delay in medical supplies which has been vehemently denied by the MUA.

Greg Hunt, the federal health minister, who had been consulting with Medicines Shortage of Working Group with the Therapy Goods Administration told the Nine Network on Sept. 29 that there was is a clear risk to the supply of vital medicines to Australia.

“There are risks, and there are consequences, and I would respectfully say to those in the union that are denying that there are risks to medicines, the advice they have is false, incorrect and untrue,” Hunt said.

“It’s not an immediate risk, but if this goes on for any period of time, then we will see potential shortages, and that’s been provided to us by a range of different medical companies,” he said.

Responding with its own media statement on Sept. 29, the MUA declared that they would be offering a peace deal at the conciliation meeting at Fair Work Commission on Sept. 29.

According to the MUA the peace deal would see the company’s pre-existing enterprise agreement extended for an additional 12 months with a pay rise of 2.5 percent to wharfies.

“Our proposal does not seek to modify a single word of the existing agreement, so there is no change to the arrangements that Patrick has successfully and profitably operated their container terminals under,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said, noting its acceptance would result in the immediate end to all industrial action at Patrick container terminals.

“It would provide certainty for farmers, exporters, and the general community, and allow Patrick and the union to refocus our efforts on the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID crisis,” he said.

Victoria Kelly-Clark is an Australian based reporter who focuses on national politics and the geopolitical environment in the Asia-pacific region, the Middle East and Central Asia.