Christmas threatened over ports lockout

A lockout of tugboat crews is threatening major disruptions at ports across the country, potentially causing supply-chain chaos in the lead-up to Christmas.

Tugboat operator Svitzer says it will lock out more than 580 workers indefinitely on Friday, from 17 ports in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia.

Svitzer has been working to finalise a new enterprise agreement for workers over the past three years, but has moved to the lockout after almost 2000 hours of industrial action by unions in the past month.

Maritime Union of Australia national secretary Paddy Crumlin said the company would throw Australia's supply chain into chaos, and have an "extraordinary" effect on businesses and consumers.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the government's industrial relations reform would help end such drawn-out fights.

"I'm devastated by the way the whole dispute has unfolded," he told 2GB on Tuesday.

"I want a situation where the industrial umpire can come in and sort it out, and the laws to be able to do that are in front of the parliament now."

Asked about the potential threat to COVID-19 vaccine supplies, Health Minister Mark Butler told reporters such disputes "had the potential to disrupt port operations".

"There are a range of portfolio interests, one of which is medicine supply, so we'll be engaging across departments about that," Mr Butler said.

NSW Transport Minister David Elliott described Labor's claims that its bill would help resolve disputes as "bollocks".

"In the last 24 hours we have seen industrial harmony go back 25 years, and we can't live in a society where our entire nation's trade is paused," he told Seven's Sunrise.

Mr Elliott accused the unions of treating the Australian economy as a "plaything" as it was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is not the time for unions to put a stranglehold on trade, because we will find ourselves very lonely this Christmas with the difficulty of getting ships to and from our ports," he said.

"This will be a difficult time and the unions are not playing fair."

Steve Knott, chief executive of the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association, said the Labor government's workplace law changes were not the solution.

He said it was concerning the minister's first response was to spruik a bill that had no support among employers and was failing to get the Senate's support.

"The employer was left with no choice but to lock out employees, having been left unable to safely and effectively carry out its contracted work," Mr Knott said.

"Mr Burke has existing powers under the current workplace laws to step in and put an end to this dispute."