Close to 600 tug boat crew members have been threatened with being locked out of work indefinitely in an escalating industrial dispute that looks set to create supply chain chaos across Australia in the lead-up to Christmas.
Danish tug boat company Svitzer says it will lock out about 590 workers from 17 metropolitan and regional ports from midday on Friday, and will keep them shut out indefinitely.
Svitzer and the unions have been working to finalise a new enterprise agreement for workers at the 17 ports for the last three years, however increasing agitation from the union has begun to harm their operations, the company says.
"Our goal all along has been to reach a new enterprise agreement and we have exhaustively negotiated in good faith to try to do this," Svitzer Managing Director Nicolaj Noes said on Monday.
"We had hoped it would never come to a lockout - but we are at a point where we see no other option but to respond to the damaging industrial action underway by the unions," Mr Noes added.
The company said there had been more than 1100 instances of protected industrial action since October 2020, taken by the Australian Maritime Officers Union, the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers and the Maritime Union of Australia.
Since October 20, they had received 250 notices of protected industrial action amounting to 2000 hours of stopped work, they added.
The decision will throw Australia's supply chain into chaos, effectively destroying the company's capacity to deliver towage services, according to National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia Paddy Crumlin.
"At every turn, the three maritime unions have sought to drag the management team back to the negotiating table and work on a mutually agreeable outcome."
"Svitzer representatives have repeatedly turned up to negotiations with sudden and unreasonable demands which they know will derail the negotiation process," he said.
Tug boat crews were seeking fair pay, job security and better worker safety measures, but negotiations had been plagued by employer-led militancy and procedural sabotage, he added.
Mr Crumlin said it would be the first instance of a unilateral worker lockout since Qantas grounded its fleet in 2011.
"The actions of Svitzer today replicate Qantas' actions but in fact go far further in the damage to ports and port users, and the flow-on effects that will have on Australian businesses and consumers is extraordinary."