MUA explains its VICT stance amid industry concern

Tracey points to conditions as transport bodies want industrial action averted

MUA explains its VICT stance amid industry concern
Will Tracey


The expectation of a new round of Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) industrial disputation on the Melbourne waterfront has seen transport and logistics organisations decrying the direction it threatens to take.

Casting it as a "campaign to address unsafe staffing levels and improve working conditions", the MUA advises Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) there will see work at the VICT terminal at Webb Dock cease between 4pm and 8pm next Tuesday.

This follows "an extraordinary 100 per cent vote in support of all 19 forms of proposed industrial action" by MUA members.

VICT are under the mistaken belief that just because they’re running an automated container terminal, they can treat workers like robots," MUA deputy national secretary and Western Australia branch secretary Will Tracey, who is coordinating the negotiations, says.

"Unlike the machinery they operate, these workers have families and life outside of work, and they deserve a workplace agreement that protects their safety and quality of life.

"Workers report being required to work huge amounts of overtime — in many cases between 50 and 70 additional 12 hour shifts during the last year — due to the company’s refusal to employ an appropriate number of people.

"This same shortage of workers has resulted in the company pressuring staff not to take breaks during their 12-hour shifts, making it impossible to have a meal and extremely difficult to even use the toilet.

"This is not only unpleasant, it’s a fundamental safety issue, which is why workers are demanding improved staffing at the terminal as part of negotiations for a new workplace agreement.

"Workers also report extreme difficulty with taking annual leave, because the terminal is so short staff, with some told they will only have leave approved if they can source their own replacement from among their workmates.

"The result of this appalling situation is that approximately 95 per cent of the workforce have joined the union in recent years, with a clear set of demands to improve conditions at VICT and bring the company into line with how other Australian container terminals operate."

But industry groups representing those expecting negative impacts on their members have been here before.

"VICT now handles a third of all containers coming into and going out of the Port of Melbourne," Container Transport Alliance Australia (CTAA) director Neil Chambers points out. 

"It is also the only terminal outside of the Yarra River and the West Gate Bridge, enabling the larger container ships to be serviced.

"So, extended industrial action at VICT could cripple Melbourne’s container trades at a time when import demand is still surging, and export demands for our agricultural products are hitting their straps."

"We urge the MUA and VICT to avert the planned industrial action by continuing to negotiate in good faith."

"However, if we are faced with an intractable difference between the parties, we’d urge VICT to take the matter directly to the industrial umpire at the Fair Work Commission [FWC] and for the Federal Government to support a quick resolution to the dispute via arbitration.

"Time too for the federal government to look more broadly at protecting container port operations as an essential lifeblood for Australia’s economy."


Read VICT’s take on what the industrial action is all about, here

The Victorian Transport Association (VTA) slams the MUA move.

"At such a precarious time in our national economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is totally disingenuous for a union that claims to be in the business of protecting jobs, downing tools at one of our most important stevedores, and making claims for wages and other entitlements that are entirely unworkable," VTA CEO Peter Anderson says.

"The transport industry has been very fortunate to be able to work through the pandemic and it is extremely disappointing that after a period when employer and employee groups have worked so well together to minimise the impacts of the economic slump, the union would resort to claims as unworkable as these.

"Thousands of Australians would sacrifice a great deal to be in the kind of well-paid and secure waterfront employment VICT provides for hundreds of staff – threatening the viability of the long-term operation of the stevedore with such outlandish claims is both short-sighted and irresponsible," Anderson said.

Anderson views  the proposed industrial action as also harming Melbourne’s hard-fought reputation as the freight capital of Australia.

"The last thing we need is to tarnish the enviable position Victoria has established for being the nation’s biggest destination for freight. Industrial action like what has been proposed threatens this position and gives importers and exporters cause for sending their goods via other major cities," he says.

State opposition ports and freight spokesperson Roma Britnell is calling for state government involvement to defuse the situation.

"The maritime union’s bullying tactics will see jobs lost, not saved or created," Britnell says.

"If this aggressive and unrealistic campaign is successful, it will make the VICT’s operations unviable.

"Consumers will be the ones to pay for the union’s greedy demands.

"The union is focused on their membership base, not on saving jobs or helping workers – it’s about the union building their influence and power.

"Daniel Andrews and his minister, Melissa Horne, must step in and call out the ridiculousness of the union’s demands – otherwise it risks another business packing up and leaving the state."


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