Victoria

Business warns of ripple effect from Port of Melbourne strike over tug boat dispute

Victorian employers are demanding an urgent resolution to an industrial feud that could force the shutdown of Melbourne's busy container port this week.

Tug boat engineers have voted to go on strike for 12 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday at several east coast ports as a dispute with their employer, Svitzer​ Australia, intensifies.

Tug boat engineers have voted to strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Tug boat engineers have voted to strike on Tuesday and Wednesday. Photo: Jessica Hromas

In Melbourne and Geelong – where Svitzer is the sole provider of the tug boats that manouevre carriers into position at the wharf – the planned strikes will cause shutdowns and costly delays for business.

The Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that any delays will have a "ripple effect" on businesses in the state's manufacturing, retail, agriculture and food industries.

"It's not just the 12 hours, it's the flow-on delays it will cause, from farmers through to retailers," VECCI executive director Bryce Prosser said.

"And if there are extended delays at the ports, for longer than 12 hours, it may have an effect on Victoria's reputation as a place to do business."

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The Port of Melbourne is the nation's busiest container terminal, handling 36 per cent of Australian container trade. Almost 7000 containers and 1000 motor vehicles move through the port every day.

Mr Prosser said the union and the company needed to return to the bargaining table and "sort this out as quickly as possible".

"This should be the priority, so we don't have these delays hitting business," he said.

The tug boat engineers' union and Svitzer have been locked in a bitter industrial fight over the company's intention to roll all its tug boat crew employees into a single workplace deal covering three unions.

Svitzer's three-person tug boat crews, made up of a skipper, deckhand and engineer, are currently represented by separate agreements.

Australian Institute of Maritime and Power Engineers secretary Martin Byrne said it was important for the engineers' agreement to remain in place because it recognised their specific skills, duties and work conditions.

"We want to be in a position where we can be assured that the conditions particular to engineers are within our purview and influence, and won't be traded off by others" Mr Byrne said.

Svitzer Australia said the plan for a single agreement had in-principle support of two of the three unions – the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Maritime Union of Australia – but the AIMPE has chosen to "put all that at risk".

"In the maritime industry of 2016 one agreement simply makes common sense – one tug, one crew and therefore one agreement," the company said.

Next week's strikes are expected to result in coal and fuel carriers, as well as bulk container ships, being stopped from entering the ports of Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Geelong.

Towage for cruise ships, defence vessels and port emergencies requiring a tug response would be exempt from any strikes, the union said.

In documents filed with the Fair Work Commission, a majority of almost 200 Svitzer tug boat engineers voted for a range of strikes over the new enterprise agreement, including for 24 hours, 48 hours, one week and unlimited durations.