In a note to customers on Thursday, Maersk said its decision had not been made lightly and would be reviewed next month.
“It is expected we will reopen booking acceptance for Sydney from October 1, but will continue to review the situation and open earlier if possible,” it said.
On Friday afternoon, 60 wharfies kick-started the latest round of industrial action by walking off DP World’s terminal for four hours and holding a meeting led by Maritime Union Australia Sydney secretary Paul McAleer.
The MUA is striking in response to DP World’s push to change rosters and better deal with idle time as part of productivity offsets. It comes at the same time as action at Patrick and Hutchison’s Port Botany terminals.
The resulting congestion meant the Rio de Janeiro, a Maersk ship, had to divert 800 containers destined for Sydney and berth them instead in Melbourne.
After “working around the clock” on a solution, Maersk told clients on Friday it would ship their cargo back to Sydney but warned this would take “upwards of four or more weeks”.
At least 400 of the containers will need to be unpacked in Melbourne and their contents delivered to Sydney by road or rail at importers’ expense.
Eight other vessels are understood to be skipping Sydney and discharging their containers in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Fremantle.
A key factor for the shipping lines has been the way the industrial action has stretched Port Botany’s limited capacity to store empty containers.
But the surge in containers diverted to Melbourne will also put pressure on warehouses there, which are already operating with fewer staff due to tough COVID-19 restrictions.
Container Transport Alliance Australia chief executive Neil Marshall said he was in talks with the Andrews government to ease the workforce restrictions to better cope with congestion resulting from the Sydney strike.
“CTAA is working with the Victorian government and freight logistics operators to see if it will be possible to ease the warehouse staffing reduction directives earlier than planned in the current Victorian Roadmap to take account of this ‘force majeure’ situation,” he said.
Fashion retail giant Mosaic Brands previously warned that the industrial action at the port could start affecting its summer stock if it drags on past this week and automotive dealers have said they have seen delays in spare parts.
One executive from a leading freight forwarder, who did not want to be named, said the situation was “a disaster”.
“I’ve been operating since the 1980s – it’s the worst I’ve seen it.”
Following DP World’s Fair Work application, the Maritime Union of Australia withdrew its ban on the stevedore’s three biggest customers – the most contentious industrial action that was set to start on Friday – and instead notified bans against its largest customer from next week.
MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin accused DP World of misleading the federal government over the economic impact from wharfies’ stoppages, claiming “these bans were only ever going to apply for five minutes”.
“The company was aware of this fact and chose to ignore it with their legal application,” he said.
Eleven notified bans remain in place which are causing significant damage to the economy.
— Andrew Adam, chief operating officer, DP World
He said the go-slows – which would have seen workers operate machinery at the slowest safe pace possible – were imposed for a period of just five minutes Friday morning, between 6:30am and 6:35am.
“These actions were the basis of DPW’s claims of damage to the economy,” he said. “It is very clear there will be next to no impact from these actions.”
“DPW’s estimates of economic damage are based on false assumptions and we look forward to dispelling these myths in court.”
However, the union made no mention of five-minute bans in its written notices of industrial action to DP World, which phrased the bans as “unlimited”.
DP World chief operating officer Andrew Adam said Mr Crumlin’s comments “do not accurately reflect the extent of industrial action currently in place” and said the stevedore could not rely on the union’s verbal commitments “which can be revoked at a moment’s notice”.
“Eleven notified bans remain in place which are causing significant damage to the economy, including directives to go-slow on key equipment, and overtime bans,” he said.
“Today there is a four-hour stoppage that started from midday, which is adding further delays for our customers.”
He said the union’s use of the go-slow ban for a short period on Friday “displays that it can be turned on and off by the union at their sole discretion at any time and severely damage the economy”.
The Fair Work Commission will hear DP World’s case to stop the industrial action on Saturday and is expected to hand down a decision on the same day.