Workers ramp up industrial action at Victoria International Container Terminal in Melbourne

Workers at the Victoria International Container Terminal in Melbourne, Australia, are expanding legally protected industrial action later this week, undertaking a series of stoppages and bans as they fight for a new workplace agreement.

Illustration; Image by Offshore Energy

The Maritime Union of Australia said the workers have proposed to ensure any containers that contain medicines, medical supplies, or urgent medical equipment are exempt from the industrial action.

The union has also committed to exempting all refrigerated containers from the planned industrial action, ensuring agricultural exports, fresh food, and perishable goods are not impacted.

The notified industrial actions to take place at the VICT terminal at Webb Dock, in accordance with the Fair Work Act, include:

– a 12 hour stoppage from 6pm on Friday 19 February

;- a 36 hour stoppage from 6am on Sunday 21 February;

and- a series of work bans, including on working overtime for one week, the use of personal phones for work purposes, and other specific work tasks.

“It has always been the union’s practice to grant exemptions for essential cargo, reducing any adverse impacts on third parties from bans and stoppages,” MUA Western Australia Branch Secretary Will Tracey said.

“We have requested the assistance of the company to identify any containers carrying essential cargoes to allow our members to move them as a priority, but we will need their cooperation to protect the community from any adverse impacts.”

Tracey said the workforce 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.”

He added that workers were being pressured not to take breaks during their 12 hour shifts, with many complaining they struggle to eat or use the toilet.

“Many have been required to work huge amounts of overtime — in some cases between 50 and 70 additional 12 hour shifts during the last year — because the company refuses to employ enough people.“

He added that inadequate staffing means workers find it extremely difficult to take annual leave, with management reportedly telling them it will only be approved if they can convince workmates to undertake overtime shifts to cover them.

“VICT is still in denial about why 95 per cent of the workforce has joined the union in recent years, why they have overwhelmingly rejected the company’s last two proposed agreements, and why 100 per cent voted to take industrial action,” he said.

“Workers have had enough, they are sick of being treated like robots, and they are unified in their demands for a fair agreement that improves staffing levels, addresses unsafe work practices, and brings them into line with industry standards at other Australian container terminals.

“The company tries to justify their work practices by claiming the terminal is fully automated, but up to 80 per cent of workers still undertake manual roles which can’t be done by machines.

Regardless of whether someone performs a manual job, or works from a computer terminal, it still isn’t safe or acceptable to require them to undertake 12-hour shifts without a break, work 60 hours or more a week, or do runs of up to ten 12-hour shifts in a row.”

VICT reports that it is assessing its options and will inform terminal users of the implications for trucking and shipping movements shortly.

“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,” says VICT CEO Tim Vancampen.

Vancampen added he was amazed that the MUA would even consider this sort of attack while the Victorian economy was already at a standstill owing to its third lock-down.  

The Port of Melbourne handles about three million TEU a year and contributes 19,600 jobs and $6 billion of economic benefit to the Victorian economy, according to Port of Melbourne’s 2050 development strategy documents.

“Our importers and exporters will likely face increased difficulties and delay because of strikes and work bans. They may also face increased costs as they try to arrange workarounds to cope with the strike by, for example, arranging for their shipments to be re-routed. Meanwhile, our logistics industries – which accounts for about 10% of the Australian workforce – will be adversely affected too. 

“The shipping industry will also be gravely impacted too, in the form of delays and costs. This will seriously affect schedules and services.

“It really is time for the Federal Government to recognise the vital importance of the international container trade. Shipping Australia calls for the Federal Government to intervene and to protect Australians from this reckless industrial action,” said Shipping Australia CEO, Captain Melwyn Noronha

Shipping Australia estimates a day of delay to ships travelling at 21 knots are as follows:

Ship size TEU     A$ cost 1 day of delay      A$ cost 7 days of delay

2,500                    $67,042                                             $469,294

4,000                    $79,788                                             $558,516

8,500                    $124,279                                           $869,953

“Shipping companies are most unlikely to direct their ships to wait outside a port until industrial action is over,” the industry body representing ship owners and ship agents said.