Ports of Auckland plans to approach at least three outside stevedore contractors this week in a bid to break an 11-month impasse with its own workers, whose strikes have been blamed for the loss of major customers.
"Change has got to happen," chief executive Tony Gibson told BusinessDesk. "We have a business to run and clients to keep happy."
Negotiations between Ports of Auckland and the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) have stalled over the company's plan to introduce flexible rosters that the union says will lead to a casualised workforce and loss of guaranteed hours for full-time staff.
By sharing the stevedoring work among several firms, the port would encourage competition, driving down costs and lifting productivity, Gibson says. That change would also see Ports of Auckland move closer to the model used by arch-rival Port of Tauranga, the biggest beneficiary of Auckland's loss of business.
"Tauranga has a very good model," he said.
Gibson's background is in shipping companies including Maersk, the biggest line servicing New Zealand, and his appointment came just seven months before the expiry of the collective contract with MUNZ.
Gibson said that when he took the position he was aware of the expiry date approaching, but he and the board had believed they could reach accord with the union "to build a strategic collaboration on what needs to be done here.
Instead, the union's response had been "underwhelming".
The port's decision to contract out shuttles between its wharves and its inland port to its Conlinxx transport unit angered MUNZ because it displaced work formerly done by its members.
The most recent port offer included a 10 per cent rise on hourly rates, performance bonuses of up to 20 per cent, and the retention of existing benefits and entitlements in return for the new roster system that the port says will provide increased operational flexibility.
Currently, about 35 per cent of hours paid for are for 'down time' meaning workers only work 26 hours out of 40, port spokeswoman Catherine Etheredge said.
As to whether the introduction of new rosters would force redundancies, Etheredge said the loss of the Maersk shipping and Fonterra contracts to Tauranga have made job losses "inevitable".
The MUNZ website states that "the union position is clear. It does not want the 10 per cent - it wants secure, ordered and transparent rosters".
Port of Tauranga, which is 55 per cent local-body owned, uses at least four contracted stevedore companies and has one of is own, which compete with each other for contracts.
The union says the introduction of such an operating system at Auckland would create an environment in which worker safety would be sacrificed for the bottom line.
The strikes in Auckland echo labour disputes across the Tasman. Australia's ports rounded out the worst 18 months for importers and exporters since 1998 due to industrial problems, Shipping Australia chief executive Llew Russell told the Australian newspaper yesterday.
Shipping Australia has made a submission to the federal government's review of its Fair Work Act, suggesting restrictions on industrial action by unions, a tighter definition of `good-faith' bargaining and for Fair Work Australia, the state-owned labour arbitrator, to have greater powers to intervene in disputes.
A shipping strike at Australia's largest port in Melbourne was avoided last week after DP World offered Maritime Union Australia (MUA) workers a 15 per cent increase over 3 years in exchange for productivity trade-offs.