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Svitzer and port workers’ MUA union negotiations over industrial dispute in FWC stall ahead of Christmas

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The Fair Work Commission may intervene to prevent widespread supply chain disruptions in the lead-up to Christmas, after negotiations between Australia’s largest tugboat operator and port workers stalled.

Svitzer plans to lock out nearly 600 workers at 17 ports across the country indefinitely from Friday as its protracted three-year industrial dispute with three maritime unions boils over.

Svitzer, a subsidiary of Danish shipping giant Maersk, has applied to the FWC to terminate its enterprise agreement with port workers following the unresolved battle over employment conditions.

The FWC has announced it will consider making an order on its own initiative to stop Svitzer’s lockout, because it could cause significant damage to the Australian economy or part of it.

The intervention comes after Svitzer and the unions took part in a conciliation hearing on Tuesday afternoon, which is understood to have been unsuccessful.

In comments made after the hearing and outside the tribunal, the parties were in fierce disagreement over who should have been hauled before the industrial umpire.

Maritime Union of Australia assistant national secretary Jamie Newlyn said the unions had indicated to the commission they were willing to find a resolution before the lockout begins.

Mr Newlyn said Svitzer’s managing director, Nicolaj Noes, didn’t attend the hearing.

A spokesman for Svitzer said its head of legal and industrial relations, who has chief responsibilities for the bargaining of the agreement, attended the meeting.

Mr Noes said the unions had left the company with no other choice than to impose the lockout.

“As you can imagine, when you come to a decision like this, it’s only really when you are backed up into a corner with no other alternatives,” he told Brisbane’s 4BC radio on Tuesday afternoon.

“We have spent three years in negotiations trying to convince our unions that it is time for us to adapt to things around us and we haven’t been able to get that message across.”

The case will resume in the FWC with a hearing on Wednesday afternoon.

Svitzer initiated the lockout after what it said were 250 instances of industrial action amounting to nearly 2000 hours of work stoppages by unions in the past month alone.

The Maritime Union says Svitzer has refused to finalise a new enterprise bargaining agreement, which has effectively given workers a wage freeze.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said he was “devastated” by the way the dispute had unfolded, as he stressed the importance of his contentious industrial relations reforms.

“I want a situation where the industrial empire can come in and sort it out and the laws to be able to do that are in front of the parliament,” he told 2GB Radio on Tuesday morning.

“These shutdowns (don’t) just affect the people who work there … ultimately you end up shopping at Christmas time and what you need on the shelves isn’t there.”

Labor’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill would give the FWC greater powers to ­arbitrate “intractable” disputes.

The Bill, which has been criticised by employer groups and the opposition, is being scrutinised by a Senate inquiry.

The inquiry is due to report back before the legislation heads to the upper house, where the Albanese government will rely on the support of The Greens and one crossbench senator.

Labor is hoping independent senator David Pocock – who is understood to still be deciding his final position – will support the Bill.

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