SYDNEY // The Dubai ports operator DP World is to lock union workers out of its Melbourne container port in Australia next week in response to a 24-hour strike called for Sunday.
The two-day closure of the Swanson Dock in Melbourne, Australia's busiest container port, is expected to affect about 16 ships transporting some 20,000 containers for import and export.
The move signals a significant escalation in an eight-month dispute over pay and conditions at DP World's five terminals in Australia, located in Brisbane, Sydney, Fremantle, Adelaide and Melbourne.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is asking for a 15 per cent increase in wages over three years for the 2,000 employees at the five terminals, but DP World says any wage increase over and above the rate of inflation should be linked to performance and productivity improvements. It has said the union demands would add about US$60 million (Dh220.3m) to costs.
The threat to lock 600 workers out of its Melbourne facility comes just days after DP World locked 140 workers out of its Adelaide terminal in response to rolling stoppages and industrial action at that port. The union is also pushing for a greater number of casual employees to be given permanent employment.
"In response to the 24-hour industrial stoppage taken by members of the MUA in Melbourne, DP World has now taken protected action of locking out employees at our container terminal in Melbourne for 24 hours from 22.31 Monday 9 January to 22.30hrs 10 January 2012," said Andrew Adam, the DP World Australia national director of operations.
DP World raised $1.5bn in December 2010 by selling a majority stake in its Australian unit to Citi Infrastructure, a unit of Citigroup, and one other party. DP World now holds a 25 per cent share in DP World Australia but retains a key presence in the business through a services and management agreement.
Relations have deteriorated rapidly since talks broke down last month. The dispute is part of a wider escalation of industrial action and stoppages in recent months in Australia. The increasing use of lockouts by companies such as Qantas Airways and Cadbury Schweppes in response to union action has in turn put pressure on the Labor government over the Fair Work Act, which is unpopular with many business groups that argue it is ineffective in resolving disputes.
The use of lockouts as a key negotiating tool has also raised fears of a repeat of the bitter dispute in 1998 between the MUA and Patrick Stevedores company, when Patrick locked out its workers and replaced them with non-union labour. Chris Corrigan, who was then the chief executive of Patrick Corporation, is now the chairman of POAGS, which chose to lock workers out of three of its terminals last month in response to its own dispute with workers over pay and conditions.
That dispute ended after the intervention of the government. However, Bill Shorten, the federal workplace relations minister, said yesterday that he did not intend to intervene in the dispute between the MUA and DP World, at least until the negotiating process had been exhausted.
"I'm not going to micromanage every negotiation that goes on," Mr Shorten told ABC Radio. He said both parties had strongly-held positions but both had advised that the negotiations had not been exhausted. "At this stage, no one's indicating any desire for arbitration," he said.
The company and Paddy Crumlin, the MUA national secretary, are scheduled to meet in Melbourne today, The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported yesterday. "We are pretty much at the pointy end of the agreement and we are hopeful to be able to work through them and have no further action," Warren Smith, the MUA assistant national secretary, told the AFR.