A potential strike by tugboat workers at Port Hedland port could cost Australia up to $100 million per day in iron ore exports, warned BHP Billiton.
In a ballot conducted by the Maritime Workers Union (MWU), 100 per cent of workers voted in favour of work boycotts for 24 hours, and 98 per cent voted to strike across 48-hour and seven-day periods at the world’s largest bulk export port.

The industrial action – reportedly stemming from unsatisfactory payment and annual leave entitlements – can be lawfully undertaken within 30 days of the ballot, according Fair Work Australia guidelines. The workers would also have to give their employer, tugboat operator Teekay Shipping, three days notice before any stop-work action.

MWU said the industrial action particularly related to deckhands – one of three types of tugboat workers, alongside masters and engineers – who earn the least of the three workers’ categories. According to media reports, most deckhands at Port Hedland cannot accrue annual leave, working instead on a four weeks on, four weeks off schedule.

ABC News reported that the ballot outcome did not guarantee a strike, but that action was increasingly likely unless US-owned Teekay could negotiate a last-minute enterprise bargaining agreement with its workers.
Teekay is a major marine service provider for Fortescue Metals Group and BHP Billiton. Two other maritime unions, the Australian Maritime Officers Union and the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, are also considering strike action.

BHP labelled the potential industrial action “irresponsible” and emphasised the irreplaceable royalties and tax revenue the federal and WA governments would lose if the action proceeded. “We estimate this will cost suppliers who ship out of Port Hedland around $100 million a day,” the company stated.

“Significant royalty and tax revenue will be lost to the WA and federal governments. “Mining companies like BHP Billiton are not able to make up lost volume of this nature, and governments cannot recover these lost royalties and taxes.” Fortescue chief executive Nev Power described the maritime industry’s laws as “outdated” and said they required a complete overhaul.

“There is a need to reform the outdated industrial laws that allow a handful of workers to hold to ransom the jobs of thousands of people, threaten state revenue, jeopardise the sustainability of local communities and damage our international trade reputation,” Mr Power said.
MWU representative Will Tracey said industrial action was a last resort and workers would endeavour to solve the dispute without striking.

“We are pursuing a claim of four weeks leave a year,” Mr Tracey said. “We think this is very reasonable, given our members work 12 hours a day for 28 days straight in very tough conditions.” Mr Tracey said the union was also seeking a pay rise and said it had already agreed to a number of tradeoffs to secure the motion.

“We’ve had a number of meetings but when the company continues to slide backwards on what we thought was a previously agreed position, workers have no other option but to go down that path,” he said.