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PM slams waterfront ‘extortion’ as supply chain delays grow

Asked whether he would back Patrick bringing in a replacement workforce, Mr Morrison said: “I’m not getting into hypotheticals about how this will be resolved.”

The Prime Minister said the Maritime Union of Australia’s action, which has continued for several weeks, was “just extraordinary, appalling behaviour”.

“We cannot have the militant end of the union movement effectively engaging in a campaign of extortion against the Australian people in the middle of a COVID-19 recession,” he said.

He called on the union movement to distance itself from the MUA, saying its action went against the good faith showed in industrial relations reform talks.

Gathering evidence

“I would think that the union movement would want to distance itself from that behaviour as much as certainly the government does in condemning it,” Mr Morrison said.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter is gathering evidence to support Patrick’s application to terminate the industrial action based on significant damage to the economy, with a hearing set for Thursday.

Patrick and the MUA are also set to take part in compulsory mediation at the Fair Work Commission on Wednesday.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin dismissed the claims that dozens of vessels were waiting off the coast to unload, saying the industrial action was limited to “a few overtime bans” and blamed Patrick for mismanagement.

“There is absolutely minimal damage being done by any of this,” he said.

“All there is is a massive beat-up and, I guess, a type of bullying – they’re bullying their employees, you know, over fake news.”

MUA Sydney secretary Paul McAleer also defended the union’s bargaining claims, saying he expected any pay increases to be “much closer” to 2.5 per cent than its claim of 6 per cent.

I told someone that we survived COVID-19 but the thing that will bring us down is the port activity.

Nigel Long, CEO, Alchin Long Group

Patrick on Tuesday released updated figures showing its Melbourne terminal will be 11 days behind schedule by Friday this week, Sydney will be more than three weeks behind, Brisbane nine days and Fremantle three days.

A Patrick spokesman said even if the industrial action stopped this week the company estimated that the backlog was so great it would be “two to three months before we get back to normal operations”.

Mr Long said Alchin had only received half of its back order, which is in excess of half a million dollars.

“I think that will probably turn into $750,000 next week, of which we’re just not able to fulfil.”

He said the business had managed to keep its doors open without laying off its 200 workers through a “really tough period” but if the congestion at the port continued “it will be a very different story” in a month.

“I told someone that we survived COVID-19 but the thing that will bring us down is the port activity.”

Mr Vitkin said Jamestrong was experiencing extra container costs of about $20,000 a week.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “The Sydney situation is the last thing the Australia market needs. I don’t understand what they’re [the wharfies] doing now when we need to unite and they chose that timing to ask for a pay rise while others are losing their jobs.”

‘Dismal returns’

John Walker, managing director of paper importer Sappi Trading, said he was experiencing seven- to 12-day delays at a time when he was already dealing with “dismal returns” due to falls in demand from COVID-19.

The industrial disruption has seen the business hit with $20 a tonne in congestion charges, or up to $120 a tonne to haul cargo back to Sydney by road or rail if it is diverted to Melbourne or Brisbane.

“The pricing on paper is so depressed anyway. For us to spend another $20 a tonne to get it into the country is just really hurting badly and it’s going to hurt even more as there would appear to be no way for us to pass this on to the customers – certainly not at this point in time,” he said.

Furniture retailers said floor stock needed to open new stores had still not arrived and they feared two-week delays in orders would lead to customer cancellations.

“I actually think this has the potential to undo the good work the government’s done with JobKeeper,” a senior manager at a major retailer said on condition of anonymity.

“If businesses don’t have the stock to trade through Christmas they won’t make it through, even though the government’s propped them up for the last six months.”

Richard Facioni, chair of Mosaic Brands, which owns Noni B, Millers, Katies and Rivers, said retailers that cancelled orders in March and April at the height of the pandemic had ordered stock which was due to arrive next month ahead of the peak trading months of November and December.

“Everyone is building up inventories through October for November, December … so potentially the bottleneck if it’s not resolved will get worse through that period and it will start to impact on people,” Mr Facioni said.

Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra said “retailers have been one of the most devastated business groups during the pandemic, leaving many struggling to survive this Christmas”.

“We need every part of the retail supply chain in Australia running at full capacity if we’re going to have a chance at reasonable Christmas sales.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the government should be bringing the spirit of co-operation to industrial relations.

“There should be dialogue in the interests of both parties coming together, rather than conflict, and that the Commonwealth should be playing a role in that rather than engaging in rhetoric for political purposes.”

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