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Strike Action Set To Cripple CE Supply, Retail Trading Threatened

Consumer electronics and appliance suppliers are facing new problems with highly paid waterfront workers backing strike action by the Maritime Union of Australia across several Australian ports that could cripple supply.

The strikes comes 12 months after the union got a pay rise and agreed not to strike at Patrick Terminals.

Described as “low life’s” by one Harvey Norman franchisee the workers who are paid an average $172,000 a year on a 35-hour roster and work less than 200 days a year are set to support strikes in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne a move that could further complicate issues for major retailers such as JB HI Fi, Harvey Norman, The Good Guys, David Jones and Myer, who have ordered excess stock to meet what has been tipped as a surge on retail stores by consumers as States come out of lockdowns.

Observers claim suppliers are facing months of delays by the worsening dispute over union demands for more pay and control of hiring workers with one retailer claiming the Federal Government should call in the military to run ports.

“There is a national interest that the economy is not taken down by some rat bag wharfies who see an opportunity to hurt suppliers’ retailers and above all the economy. This has to be stopped and stopped now” they told ChannelNews.

The Maritime Union of Australia has escalated industrial action at Patrick Terminals with rolling 48 hour strikes in Sydney, the workers will also stop supply for 12 hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Melbourne for the whole of October.

Patrick CEO Michael Jovicic, dockside at the Port of Newcastle, told the AFR that the MUA has “completely lost the plot”.

He said the MUA’s “latest move and was “clearly embarking on a major pre-Christmas industrial campaign”.

He added “How can they commence a campaign of rolling strikes until the end of October when one third of Melbourne’s container terminal capacity has been impacted by COVID-19, with VICT closure due to COVID-19 outbreaks?” he said.

Patricks have offered wharfies a pay rise of 2.5%

Shipping Australia chief executive Melwyn Noronha told the Australian Financial Review that the disruption was costing a typical container ship almost $140,000 for every day of delay and would have repercussions for many everyday Australians.

“Many Australians are unable to work because of lockdowns. And it is now, during these times of a twin health and economic crises, that the maritime union seeks to try to cripple the waterfront?” he said.

The escalation comes almost a year to the day after the union agreed to suspend all its industrial action at Patrick’s Port Botany terminal ahead of potential stop orders from the workplace tribunal due to the alleged threat to the economy. At the time, industry figures said the congestion at the port was the worst they had seen in decades.

Subsequent bargaining, which has now been going on for 19 months, has failed to reach a resolution and Patrick told the union in August that it had reached an impasse.

The stevedore has made a “final” offer of 2.5 per cent a year pay rises for four years, no forced redundancies from automation and caps on casual labour. It wants changes to Port Botany’s agreement to recruit a certain number of supplementary workers and “efficiently deploy labour as and when required to meet our customer needs”.

Initially the strike will disrupt Melbourne and Sydney ports already that experiencing unpredictable shutdowns caused by the coronavirus.

Patrick’s Fremantle wharfies downed tools for 48 hours on the weekend while Melbourne wharfies stopped work for 24 hours over the same period, in time for the AFL grand finale. E

Freight companies say the strikes are causing huge stress for retail businesses already hurting from months of lockdowns and international supply chain interruptions.

The industrial action has to date forced container ships to wait up to 18 days to berth in Sydney, nine days in Melbourne, eight days in Brisbane and three in Fremantle.

Patrick says it has also experienced record absenteeism on top of the industrial action, with employees failing to come to work more than 7500 times.

Melbourne and Brisbane wharfies have already reached an in-principal agreement but are understood to be striking to support their colleagues in Sydney and Fremantle.

Mr Newyln said, “had the CEO not intervened in the Port Botany bargaining, agreement would have been reached locally”.

Paul Zalai, director of the Freight & Trade Alliance, said if the latest action got to the point experienced last October “then it will have devastating impacts again”.

“Throw the COVID situation on top of protected industrial action, on top of the challenges we’re facing in international shipping and a high-volume time in import and export commodities – we just can’t afford to have stevedores shut down every few days.”

The AFR who spoke to Patrick says the stevedoring Company has been forced to subcontract about 46,000 container lifts and 22 vessels during the 12 months since the start of industrial action. More than 60 vessels have been forced to bypass ports as a result.

The stevedore said it was currently negotiating contracts with major customers, but the protracted union negotiations were undermining the talks.

The strikes come as VICT was forced to shut its automated Webb Dock terminal for deep cleaning last Monday night due to a positive case of coronavirus and then again from Wednesday night to Sunday morning. It has reopened on restricted operations.

The previous week DP World was forced to isolate more than 100 staff at its Port Botany terminal, including 36 employees for two weeks, due to a positive coronavirus case.

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