Consumers will pay for industrial action at the wharves

The sudden spate of industrial action at wharves around Australia in recent months should be of immense concern to every Australian.

At the height of a pandemic, the MUA elected to engage in protracted work stoppages at DP World Australia and Patrick stevedore terminals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle as part of its case for wage increases of up to 6 per cent for wharf workers across those sites.

The timing of these actions – which inevitably led to delays loading and unloading ships that created subsequent delays and shortages in the supply chain – is particularly suspect in consideration of the economic devastation COVID-19 has unleashed across the country.

Unemployment is slowly recovering as the economy starts to reopen, however the current seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.8 per cent is almost certainly being propped up by JobKeeper.

In Victoria – which provides more than a quarter of the nation’s GDP – unemployment is significantly higher because of work restrictions brought about by the reported second wave of coronavirus we have been battling.

We are talking about hundreds of thousands of Australians out of work, and with little short-term employment prospects, worrying about devastation and financial ruin.

And meanwhile, a union is pursuing a wage increase almost five times greater than CPI for well-paid workers fortunate enough to enjoy relatively secure employment because they work in an industry seen as ‘essential’.

Whilst the 6 per cent has since been openly accepted to be an ambit claim, it highlights the disconnect between ordinary people that are either out of work or just happy to have a job and an income in an economy in recession, and a representative group making excessive claims during a national crisis.

All parties need to put the national interest ahead of self-interest and spare Australian consumers the higher prices and inevitable shortages they will face if industrial action persists.

Supply chains around Australia and the world have been upended since the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting ordering patterns earlier in the year, creating supply chain bubbles, surges in supply and false readings of market demand.

With the economy outside Victoria gradually reopening over the last few months, we are now seeing a spike in inbound freight to stock depleted warehouses, distribution centres, wholesalers and retailers in the lead up to Christmas.

This has created a situation where stevedores and wharf carriers already have larger volumes of inbound freight to offload, and expectations of significant outbound freight with the cropping season upon us.

Ongoing work stoppages are making an already challenging problem worse than it needs to be.

Ultimately it is freight customers and ordinary consumers who will wear the consequences of industrial action in the form of higher prices as seen with the Port Botany industrial action induced congestion.

The cost of shipping line-imposed penalties and the carting of thousands of containers by road or rail to Sydney from other ports will inevitably be passed on throughout the supply chain, which ultimately will be reflected in higher prices consumers will have to pay.

At a time when Australians are already under immense pressure from lost or reduced income through no fault of their own, and struggling to pay mortgages, school fees, medical, food, utilities and other bills, disproportionate increases in consumer prices are the last thing they need.

What we need is an ‘attitude of reason’ and not the self-interest that appears to be behind the industrial action at ports around Australia and resolve disputes at the wharves that are impacting supply chains.

After a horror year where people have lost lives and livelihoods, does the port supply chain really need to subject Australians to higher prices they can’t or won’t pay by persisting with this type of disruption?

By the time this column goes to print industrial action at Patrick terminals may have been resolved for now through mutual agreement, mediation or the Fair Work Commission, but the issue will not stop there.

The best possible short-term outcome would be for work stoppages to be withdrawn, work agreements ‘rolled-over’ and a commitment to negotiate twelve months from now so that the stevedores can clear the backlog of arrivals before the pre-Christmas peak revs up.

But in the interim it’s worth amplifying that while there is a time and a place for protected industrial action under our system, now, in the midst of recovering from a pandemic, is not it.

Peter Anderson

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