Tony Burke has accused tugboat operator Svitzer of “blackmail” and “economic vandalism”, revealing the government will encourage the industrial umpire to stop its lockout of workers.
The workplace relations minister made the comments at the National Press Club on Wednesday as the Fair Work Commission met to consider suspending or terminating the lockout due to its potential impact on the Australian economy.
On Monday the Danish company announced a planned indefinite lockout of 590 workers at 17 ports from midday on Friday fuelling fears of widespread supply chain disruptions ahead of Christmas.
That announcement prompted the Fair Work Commission to intervene – warning the lockout may “threaten to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it” – the same reason it suspended a proposed 48-hour stoppage in February.
Svitzer is the largest tugboat operator in Australia, with 100 vessels and 50,000 tug movements a year, meaning the lockout is likely to shut down container movements and disrupt supply chains.
A hearing on Wednesday did not resolve the dispute, with Svitzer resisting conciliation. A full bench hearing will be held on Thursday.
At the Press Club, Burke said, “What Svitzer are now doing is basically playing a game of blackmail with the Australian economy.”
“It doesn’t just hit their sites, it then hits the ports, it then hits the truck drivers … and rail workers who transport goods, it then hits people into logistics and warehousing sector and then finds it way is a problem all the way to empty supermarket shelves.”
Given the “extraordinary impact on the economy” Burke welcomed the Fair Work Commission’s decision to take the case on, revealing the government has intervened and would instruct its lawyers that “the lockout must stop”.
“[They will argue] that the damage to the Australian economy being proposed by Svitzer is completely unacceptable.”
Burke again used the dispute to bolster Labor’s case for its industrial relations legislation, arguing it allows the commission to arbitrate an “intractable dispute” without meeting the test in the current law “that effectively the national economy is at risk, or that someone’s life is at risk”.
“What Svitzer are attempting to do is economic vandalism.
“Now some will argue, ‘Oh well, the current law gives them no other choice.’ If they waited three weeks, I intend to give them a new law.
“They have decided to act now in a way that puts a whole lot of the Australian economy at risk, not simply their own workplace.”
At the Fair Work Commission hearing in Sydney the vice-president, Adam Hatcher, said: “I think everyone agrees this lockout should not go ahead”.
But Svitzer’s counsel, Stuart Wood, told the commission “we’re not prepared to withdraw the lockout”.
Hatcher pleaded with Svitzer and the unions to attempt conciliation ahead of Thursday’s hearing before the full bench.
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The Maritime Union of Australia’s counsel, Mark Gibian, suggested the proposed industrial action should be withdrawn and suspended until after Christmas because the outstanding issues in bargaining are not “incapable of resolution”.
But Wood said he didn’t believe further conciliation would resolve the matter.
Svitzer’s decision is the biggest lockout since Qantas grounded its fleet in 2011 – a controversial tactic that triggered the Fair Work Act’s limited powers to arbitrate a dispute after terminating industrial action.
On Monday the Svitzer managing director, Nicolaj Noes, said the company’s “goal all along has been to reach a new enterprise agreement and we have exhaustively negotiated in good faith to try to do this”.
“We had hoped it would never come to a lockout – but we are at a point where we see no other option but to respond to the damaging industrial action under way by the unions,” Noes said.
The company said there had been more than 1,100 instances of protected industrial action since October 2020 taken by the MUA, Australian Maritime Officers Union, and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers.
At the Press Club, Burke continued his pitch to Senator David Pocock to pass the secure jobs, better pay bill without splitting it, arguing that the “single-interest” stream of multi-employer pay deals was “essential”.
Burke argued the logic of splitting the bill to “just look after the low-paid” amounted to thinking “somehow people on middle incomes are rich, as though somehow people on middle incomes aren’t also facing the pressure of inflation and interest rates”.
Burke also indicated he was unlikely to intervene in the Sydney Trains dispute at the request of the NSW government, explaining that power was an “absolute last resort”.
He noted the NSW government could encourage the Fair Work Commission to intervene.