More than a third of freight capacity at a standstill
DP World’s regional executive vice president, Nicolaj Noes, implored the federal government to intervene in the dispute. Mr Noes said the union’s campaign of periodic disruptions had made it “almost impossible” to operate, which the union denies.
“We have negotiated constructively and made concessions, but it’s clear the [union] is willing to inflict maximum damage to get what it wants,” Mr Noes said in a statement. “Government intervention is essential to break this deadlock.”
“Come Monday, delays on key items such as meat, clothing and appliances will be compounded. For business owners who are already having a tough time, it’s a monumental blow.”
The union’s work bans have already led to 10-day delays on shipping schedules, forcing major lines including Maersk to limit their stops at Australian ports, pushing up costs. DP World figures put the direct cost of that, including storage fees and late charges, since October at more than $10 million with much higher flow on costs for the broader economy.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has the power to intervene in industrial disputes that threaten the Australian economy, including by terminating industrial action. That could lead to the conflict being arbitrated by an independent umpire. Mr Burke, who is on leave, has refused to intervene and his spokesman declined to comment.
The Maritime Union of Australia, which is a division of the militant CFMEU, released a statement from its assistant national secretary, Adrian Evans, pinning blame on Mr Noes.
“All delays and disruptions are the sole responsibility of Nicolaj Noes, who failed to attend any of the negotiations held this week,” Mr Evans said. The union’s most senior leadership also did not attend the talks that ran for three days from Tuesday in Sydney.”
Mr Evans said that DP World Australia, which is part of the broader Dubai based stevedoring giant, had continued “to push for cuts to wages and conditions” and accused it of wasting the meetings this week.
“Customers of this multibillion dollar company have every right to be frustrated with DP World’s refusal to negotiate but the MUA will not be bullied by the Dubai government and nor should anybody else,” Mr Evans said.
Threshold to intervene
Legal experts were split before the most recent escalation on whether the union’s actions would trigger the legal threshold for the government or Fair Work Commission, which is the national industrial umpire, to intervene.
Stuart Wood, KC, an industrial relations specialist who often acts for employers in high-profile cases, said that the threshold for intervention in industrial action at ports would be met “nine times out of ten”.
“There’s a case to be made that stevedores, who are preventing the flow of goods into an island economy, can’t take strike action that will affect the rest of the community.”
Mr Wood said that the critical role of stevedores in Australia’s economy, rather than the extent of the industrial action, would determine whether the threshold for intervention would be met.
“When you’ve got that critical role, there’s a very limited amount of industrial action you can take which doesn’t cause serious damage to the economy,” he said.
Professor Shae McCrystal, a labour law academic at the University of Sydney, said ”unions have gotten very good at taking industrial action that doesn’t trigger [intervention] provisions”, and would seek to avoid an escalation of the dispute.
Professor McCrystal said that employers “can and do try to escalate” to trigger interventions, such as when tugboat company Svitzer threatened to lock out its workers in 2022 – a move that would have halted much of Australia’s maritime traffic.