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In a new blow to Australia’s buckling container supply chains, industrial action at Victoria International Container Terminal (VICT) in Melbourne began today.
The action by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) includes a series of 12-hour work stoppages at the ICTSI-operated facility.
Situated at Melbourne’s Webb Dock, VICT handles around 1m teu a year – a third of the port’s throughput – and is Australia’s only fully automated container terminal.
The MUA said in its campaign for a new workplace agreement, it had been left with “no choice but to escalate industrial action in response to the company’s refusal to address unacceptable and unsafe working conditions at the terminal”.
MUA Western Australia branch secretary Will Tracey added: “VICT thinks that just because this container terminal is automated, they can treat workers like robots.
“Examples include workers being pressured not to take breaks during their 12-hour shifts, with many complaining they struggle to eat or use the toilet.”
However, the MUA has been criticised for this “aggressive” industrial action at time when Australian supply chains are severely stretched and the state of Victoria is emerging from a third Covid-19 lockdown.
VICT CEO Tim Vancampen said: “The union is directly attacking VICT’s unique way of working as a modern, automated terminal. They want to take us back to the past, no matter the cost or the ill-considered timing in the context of the lockdown.”
The dispute couldn’t come at a worse time for Melburnian supply chains, according to local forwarders and transport operators, given the port’s worsening empty-container logjam.
“The problems faced by trucking operators in dealing with empty-container management can only get worse,” said Shipping Australia, which condemned the MUA’s “selfish industrial action”.
Paul Zalai, director of the Freight & Trade Alliance, said any lengthy dispute would have a “devastating impact” on supply chains, especially since shipping networks were still recovering from the events of last year.
“Some shipping lines have changed their rotations, and others are slow-steaming to port to avoid long waits offshore,” he added.
Neil Chambers, director of the Container Transport Alliance Australia, said so far the action had caused “at least two” vessels to be sub-contracted to another stevedore.
“This is playing havoc with export receiving times, leading to delays, storage and added costs in vital agricultural export supply chains,” he said. “It also means imports suffer from further delays before the cargo is available to consumers during the current import volume surge.”
Furthermore, said Mr Chambers, VICT is the only terminal capable of handling many of the largest container vessels calling at Melbourne, as the facilities further up the Yarra river, at Swanson Dock, are blocked-off by the West Gate Bridge.
“In the event that VICT is closed for any extensive period, this would then likely have an impact on vessel schedules in other Australian container ports,” he added.