Global shipping line Maersk yesterday announced a penalty charge for freight crossing Auckland's wharves, as more than 300 port workers began a three-week strike.

The company told customers it could no longer afford to carry "significant extra costs" caused by the industrial turmoil, which in December it blamed in part for a decision to move about 40 per cent of its Auckland business to Tauranga.

What it is calling its "Auckland strike surcharge", to be lifted only if and when stability can be restored to the port, would amount to an extra US$80 ($95.60) for each 20-foot (6.1-metre) container, and double that for 40-foot (12.2m) boxes.

Importers Institute secretary Daniel Silva estimated that would increase freight charges from China by about 6 per cent and be passed on to consumers.


Maersk, which is the world's largest shipping line, said the levy would apply to all export and import cargoes.

Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson said the surcharge was not unexpected and reinforced the need "to bring closure to this issue".

But Maritime Union president Garry Parsloe said any losses were on Mr Gibson's head, as the workers were striking against his threat to sack them and contract out their jobs.

"If he rang us up now and said he would stop the contracting-out, the port would be back to work five minutes later. You'd think a bloke who had half a brain would do that."

Mr Parsloe was speaking before flying to Australia to attend two union conferences, at which he expects support from the international labour movement.

He said donations to the striking workers were already "pouring in" from New Zealand unions "and you can imagine what the international [unions] will be giving us".

Mr Gibson, who has indicated that non-union labour is likely to be used to operate cranes to unload a ship due at the Fergusson container terminal tomorrow, has raised concern about the possibility of international union retaliation: "It's highly illegal - I find that abhorrent, actually."