Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz has handed the Barnett Government and Port Hedland's iron ore miners a potentially powerful weapon against the spectre of a looming strike at the world's biggest bulk commodities port.
A new regulation, to take effect from today, allows third parties to be heard in a Federal industrial relations case.
The new regulation in the Fair Work Act appears aimed at a workplace dispute between the Maritime Union and Teekay Shipping, the company contracted to BHP Billiton to provide tugboat services at Port Hedland.
The regulation would enable the State Government, BHP Billiton or Fortescue Metals Group to apply to Fair Work Australia to suspend or terminate a strike.
About 50 unionised deckhands on Port Hedland tugs have until July 11 to decide if they will seek to take protected industrial action. At stake is $100 million a day of iron ore exports from the port, and about $7 million a day of revenue in the form of royalties to the State Government.
The regulation would grant WA Commerce Minister Michael Mischin the same power that already exists for ministers in all other States which, unlike WA, have referred their industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth.
BHP Billiton, the biggest exporter from Port Hedland, could not be contacted for comment last night, but an FMG spokeswoman welcomed the move.
"We were concerned that as a third party, under pre-existing arrangements, we had no standing despite our company and the livelihoods of our people being held to ransom by potential strike action," the spokeswoman said.
The Australian Mines and Metals Association said the move recognised that a strike could have broader impacts beyond the parties in dispute, "including hurting employers and employees on both sides of the supply chain".
MUA WA assistant secretary Will Tracey hit back at AMMA, accusing it of "repeatedly" misleading the public about the working conditions of tugboat operators.
"These workers work the equivalent of 54 standard 37.5-hour working weeks each year - they deserve to be paid well and receive annual leave," he said.