Unions reject “baseless” Australia port congestion claims

Transport workers’ unions reject claims made by the Australian federal government that Australia’s current supply chain challenges are unique to that country, or potential Christmas freight delays for consumers could be caused by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and its members.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a global union federation that brings together nearly 700 unions covering workers across the logistics, warehousing, maritime, rail, road and airfreight sectors.

“Most of the world is experiencing supply chain disruption of some form right now, and globally unions are working with industry to attempt to alleviate the pressure that has mounted due to an unprecedented global health crisis,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton. “The ITF takes a global view on supply chains and we encourage Australian media and decision-makers to do likewise.

“We understand the reality that policies and disruption experienced in one part of the world will have an impact all the way down the supply chain, ultimately delaying goods reaching consumers. If a worker returns a positive Covid test, Chinese authorities will shut down a terminal or factory for weeks at a time, and that causes delays. If a trucker sits idle in their cab for hours at needless border checks, that compounds the delay.

“Simply put: the disruption, delays and shortages that we’re seeing in global supply chains are not an Australian-only phenomenon and it is definitely not an MUA-related phenomenon.”

Stop the politics, says ITF

Cotton said the global transport industry had recognized and warned world leaders that the supply chain faces serious risk of ‘collapse’ in September due to the failure of heads of government to take decisive and coordinated action to permit transport workers passage across borders freely again and thereby secure global supply chains. The calls were reissued this week by industry leaders who together represent more than US$20 trillion of world trade annually and 65 million global transport workers across the supply chain.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), in its Container Stevedoring Monitoring Report 2020-21, found that the demand for containerized cargo brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, along with extreme congestion across global supply chains, are the major causes of disruptions and delays being felt in Australian ports. The ACCC’s report also outlined that shipping volumes increased by 20% in the second half of 2020 and are up 8% against 2019 pre-Covid baselines.

“The question for the Australian public to consider is why their government is using this as an opportunity to alienate and attack workers? Prime Minister Morrison must stop politicking and should instead work with industry and unions across the logistics sector to resolve issues and allay unnecessary fear and anxiety in the community,” said Cotton. 

“Australian political leaders need only look out across the Pacific for inspiration to see how President Biden is working with industry and workers to incentivize cargo clearing.” 

Similarly, the White House has reported that the west coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handled 17 percent more containers between January and mid-October this year than pre-pandemic baselines in 2018.

Unexpected strong consumer demand, failure to plan

David Heindel, ITF Seafarers’ Section chair and Secretary-Treasurer of the US Seafarers Union International (SIU), said the nature of Australia’s supply chain challenges were no different than other nations and regions which relied heavily on sea trade for imports and exports.

“Unexpectedly strong consumer spending throughout the pandemic coupled with charterers and logistics companies’ failures to predict this upswing in demand, are the real factors behind the supply chain congestion we are witnessing in many parts of the world,” said Heindel. 

“I’m not sure how the Australian government can credibly argue that the supply chain issues that we’re seeing internationally have anything to do with Australian maritime unions, whose members are working harder than ever.” 

ITF Dockers’ Section vice-chair and secretary of Dutch dockers’ union FNV Havens, Niek Stam, said: “The claims being made by the Morrison government are baseless and clearly an attempt to undermine the bargaining position of hard-working Australian dock workers.

“In Europe we’re seeing the same delays partly driven by a shortage of local workers willing to do jobs like truck driving for the pay and conditions which have for years been appalling.  We expect more workers to leave their roles in key parts of the supply chain because of how they have been treated by governments and some employers over the two years. 

“Political leaders should rightfully be focusing on this, on thanking workers for their sacrifice, rather than threatening them.” 

Esteban Barboza, leader of Colombian dockers’ union Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Rama (SNTT) also commented: “We have the same issues too. Our members are working harder and longer to keep up with the increased demand. I do not understand why any government would choose aggression over cooperation with workers who are key to keeping their economies moving right now.”

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