Representatives of the Dubai-based company appeared at a Senate inquiry into the government’s Closing Loopholes legislation on Monday, urging several changes to the bill and warning that recent would drag other stevedores into widespread strikes.
DP World, which controls 40 per cent of the nation’s ports, has claimed its dispute with the Maritime Union of Australia over pay and conditions is costing the economy $84 million a week amid continuing work stoppages and bans on performing certain tasks.
While , Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke last week cast doubt on that figure and Labor senator Tony Sheldon on Monday labelled the number “dodgy”.
But DP World Oceania’s head of corporate affairs, Blake Tierney, warned the inquiry against ignoring the data, from economics firm HoustonKemp. He suggested Harvey Norman executive chairman Gerry Harvey had downplayed the dispute’s impact on consumers.
“I think there does need to be reform in terms of industrial relations on the waterfront,” Tierney told a parliamentary committee in Canberra.
“We can see that industrial action causes a massive impact on the supply chain, but we need to work together, both unions, the stevedores and also government, to work out a mechanism that is going to suit the interests of both parties.”
Asked by Sheldon whether Harvey, who on the weekend reportedly said his business was not seeing widespread shortages of goods as a result of the dispute, had got it wrong, he replied: “I think he’s got it wrong.”
The Productivity Commission in 2022 warned that at its ports and called for power to be wrested from the Maritime Industry of Australia to salvage the shipping industry.
The commission argued that businesses should be able to fight back against threatened strikes in a push to limit the union’s “unbalanced” strength, including by making it easier for the Fair Work Commission to stop industrial action, and for importers and exporters to more easily intervene.
The government has not yet responded to that report, which ACTU secretary Sally McManus at the time called “a relic of the bygone era of the former Coalition government who spent their time in office attacking unions and suppressing wages”.
DP World Oceania human resources executive Mark Ratcliffe on Monday called for stevedoring companies to be given special treatment under intractable bargaining legislation, under which parties at loggerheads for at least nine months are opened up to arbitration, suggesting it could come earlier to prevent long-term disruptions to supply lines.
But MUA assistant national secretary Adrian Evans said a major reason for drawn-out disputes was “stevedores focusing on gaming industrial relations instead of bargaining.”
Tierney also warned the government’s plans to boost the rights of gig economy workers performing “employee-like” roles could raise road transport costs of shipped goods and suggested inserting a clause on productivity into future enterprise agreements.
He also attacked a proposed amendment to intractable bargaining laws to safeguard workers from going backwards in conditions if pay negotiations were forced into arbitration, after .
“This provision is inconsistent with the give and take process of bargaining,” he said.
Asked by Coalition workplace relations spokesperson Michaelia Cash whether Labor’s 2022 multi-employer bargaining laws, which allow workers to band together to negotiate pay claims across multiple entities, could lead to industrial action across Australia’s ports, Ratcliffe replied: “Yes.”
“If we ended up in a situation of multi-employer bargaining once [other port operators’] agreements expire, then essentially the protected industrial action that we’re seeing now could go across the entire ports and terminal operators in the country,” he said.
Evans responded that the union had no interest in multi-employer bargaining with DP World.
“We have offered the company an undertaking or deed committing to that,” he said.
Both the union and DP World have agreed to a media blackout during negotiations, but Evans said the executives’ comments before inquiry needed clarification.
during a press conference, accusing the port operator of waging a media campaign instead of bargaining, and warning that people were “sick to death” of profitable companies using wages as a scapegoat for soaring prices.
The union is calling for a 16 per cent pay rise over two years, among other claims.
Tierney told the committee that DP World’s focus on productivity and roster changes had led the parties to a stalemate.
He said affected customers were afraid to speak up for fear of being targeted by the union.
“We have customers who are a breaking point who don’t want to put their name forward,” he said.
Several major retailers, including Woolworths, Bunnings and Myer, said last week they were seeing no significant impacts from the dispute.
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