The Fair Work Commission could step in to prevent widespread disruption to the supply chain ahead of Christmas, after negotiations between Australia’s biggest tugboat operator and port workers broke down.
Svitzer plans to lock out nearly 600 workers indefinitely at 17 ports across the country starting Friday as his protracted three-year labor dispute with three maritime unions boils over.
Svitzer, a subsidiary of Danish shipping giant Maersk, has asked the FWC to end its company agreement with port workers following the unresolved battle over employment conditions.
The FWC has announced that it will consider making an order on its own initiative to stop the Svitzer lockout because it could cause significant damage to the Australian economy or part of it.
The intervention comes after Svitzer and the unions participated in a conciliation hearing on Tuesday afternoon, which was reportedly unsuccessful.
In comments made after the hearing and out of court, the parties fiercely disagreed over who should have been dragged before the industrial umpire.
Maritime Union of Australia deputy national secretary Jamie Newlyn said unions had told the commission they were open to finding a solution before the lockdown began.
Mr Newlyn said Svitzer chief executive Nicolaj Noes did not attend the hearing.
A spokesperson for Svitzer said its head of legal and industry relations, who is primarily responsible for negotiating the deal, attended the meeting.
Mr Noes said the unions had left the company no choice but to impose the lockout.
“As you can imagine, when you make a decision like this, it’s really only when you’re stuck in a corner with no other alternative,” he told Brisbane’s 4BC radio on Tuesday after -midday.
“We spent three years negotiating to try to convince our unions that it’s time for us to adapt to the things around us and we failed to get that message across.”
The case will resume at the FWC with a hearing on Wednesday afternoon.
Svitzer launched the lockout after what he said were 250 industrial action cases representing nearly 2,000 hours of work stoppages by unions in the past month alone.
The maritime union says Svitzer refused to finalize a new company-level bargaining agreement, which effectively gave workers a wage freeze.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said he was “devastated” by the way the dispute had unfolded, while stressing the importance of his controversial industrial relations reforms.
“I want a situation where the industrial empire can come in and fix the problem and the laws to be able to do that are before parliament,” he told 2GB Radio on Tuesday morning.
“These closures (don’t) just affect the people who work there… at the end of the day, you end up shopping at Christmas and what you need on the shelves isn’t there.”
Safe Jobs to Work, Top Pay Bill would give the FWC greater powers to arbitrate “unresolvable” disputes.
The bill, which has been criticized by business groups and the opposition, is being examined by a Senate inquiry.
The inquiry must report before the bill heads to the upper house, where the Albanian government will rely on the support of the Greens and a mixed senator.
Labor hopes independent senator David Pocock – who is believed to be still deciding his final position – will back the bill.