Port strikes continue to hold Australia to ransom and damage small businesses

supply chains asialink port strikes

Source: Unsplash/Paul Teysen.

‘Brand Australia’ is being damaged each day — and the entire nation is being held to ransom — as port strikes on our waterfront continue.

I’ve run a freight forwarding company for 15 years (and in the logistics industry for 25 years) and I’ve always considered myself part of ‘Team Australia’. 

Like more than 37% of small business owners in this country (according to the latest Austrade figures), my tribe is a community of international trade professionals — importers, exporters, customs brokers, transport providers and my colleagues in the  freight forwarding sector — doing our bit to get goods in and out of Australia and then onto their final destination. 

Through the work we do, we’re on the front line of Australia’s global brand management, spending our days dealing with clients in every corner of the globe. 

I’ve never seen our reputation being tarnished as badly as it is right now though. Sovereign risk is an understatement.

Australia is an island nation, so, inherently, we’re also a nation of importers. Thankfully, we have plenty of natural resources to export too. We bring in some $187 billion worth of goods each year and export more than $195 billion. Needless to say, you’d be hard pressed to find many Australians who would disagree with the work we do being labelled an “essential service”. 

Which is why it beggars belief that immobilising strike action at our ports is allowed to continue. 

Since mid-2020, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has been locked in a bitter dispute with our country’s major container terminal operator Patrick over a 2.6% pay rise for its workers. Patrick’s has agreed to 1.75% so the gridlock is over, literally, $27 a week.  

You’ve probably read the headlines lately about some of the most popular presents not making it to retailers’ shelves in time for Christmas this year. And, while the problem is a real-life “nightmare before Christmas” for consumers, it’s become a never-ending nightmare for those of us in the international trade community.

Most Australian businesses operating in our industry, like mine, employ fewer than 50 staff. We’re mums and dads with mortgages, school fees and day-to-day bills to pay. Like all small businesses, we’ve been hit hard by the headwinds of the past 18 months.  

Coupled with skyhigh container rates and delays due to global congestion, disruption on our waterfront is causing further costs and delays. 

The ongoing MUA strikes are an absolute kick in the guts for every person in our industry, and, every day they continue, they cause further damage to Australia’s global brand and reputation.

We can no longer tell our international clients with any certainty when or where we’ll be able to receive delivery of stock. Patrick’s ports in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle are all affected.

Earlier this year, the situation became so dire that shipping lines stopped calling into Port Botany and vessels were forced to reroute to Brisbane or Melbourne. Containers then had to be carted by road or rail to Sydney, at huge additional cost. 

Many of my industry colleagues have been forced to refinance their homes in order to buy stock so they can trade their way out of a pandemic. The MUA call their action a “human rights issue”; we call it extortion. 

Each day these strikes occur, small business suffers, every Australian consumer pays more and our international reputation is sullied even further.

Patrick CEO Michael Jovicic came out last week saying:

Enough is enough. The world has changed and we need to be able to recruit and promote the best people for the job rather than be hamstrung by antiquated union-led processes and policies that restrict our business. Our customers are demanding that we take action to resolve this situation.”

My tribe is very grateful for Michael Jovicic’s determination and commitment to the cause. The industry is also appreciative of the advocacy work being done by Paul Zali and his team at the Freight Trade Alliance and the Australian Peak Shippers’ Association.

‘Team Australia’ deserves a hell of a lot better and Australian SMEs in the international trade community deserve way more recognition.

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