Maritime union slams Svitzer pay cut move against tugboat heroes

July 12, 2022
The stricken vessel Portland Bay. Photo: Maritime Union of Australia

Tugboat crews off the coast near Sydney won widespread praise for taking to heavy seas to save the stricken bulk carrier Portland Bay, which had lost power near the Royal National Park on July 4.

Tugs, including the SL Diamantina and SL Martinique from Engage Marine and the Bullara from Svitzer Tugs, worked day and night to tow the 170-metre cargo ship to safety for engine repairs. A repeat of the 2007 Pasha Bulker disaster was narrowly avoided by the action of the skilled tugboat crews.

But Svitzer Tugs, one of the biggest players in the industry, is applying to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to terminate its employees’ collective employment agreement. It is also seeking to cut the pay, conditions and job security of more than 600 tugboat workers around Australia.

Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary Paddy Crumlin praised the skilful work of the maritime workers who prevented a potentially tragic disaster.

“For a vessel of its size, adrift within one nautical mile of shore, there was a strong likelihood it would have run aground if not for the skilful intervention of towage workers aboard the tugs which were dispatched from Port Botany and Sydney Harbour,” Crumlin said on July 5.

The ship, which was not carrying cargo at the time it ran into trouble, can carry up to 1000 tonnes of fuel oil, which could have caused an environmental catastrophe if the ship was damaged or ran aground.

“As tugboat workers employed by Svitzer are out in mountainous seas joining a flotilla of tugs saving a ship and its 21 crew from being smashed up on the rocks, Svitzer’s management is applying to the Fair Work Commission to strip these workers’ pay and conditions,” Crumlin said.

He said the daring rescue of 21 seafarers in wild seas demonstrates the importance of skilled, professional and experienced workers in such a dangerous, essential industry. “Svitzer should stop seeking to cut their workers’ pay and casualise their employment when it is these people we depend on in an emergency,” Crumlin said.

“Svitzer workers and members of International Transport Federation (ITF) affiliated unions throughout the globe remain dismayed by the aggressive anti-union management strategy at a time that their parent company Maersk has posted a $22 billion profit and foreshadowed ongoing returns in this ballpark.”

At the recent Maersk annual general meeting, ITF representatives said Svitzer’s anti-union position is in breach of the Environmental, Social and Governance commitment between the parent company and Danish and ITF unions representing stevedoring, shipping, offshore and port services worldwide.

Crumlin said international seafarers and dockers in a recent meeting in London condemned Svitzer and called on Maersk to “bring them into line with their existing commitments to labour standards, particularly freedom of association and collective bargaining".

“Svitzer is an international embarrassment to the Maersk parent company,” Crumlin said.

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