Maritime union rejects claims medical supplies held 'at ransom'
There are fears container ships stuck off the Sydney coast could result in major delays to crucial medical supplies, while shelves could be left empty in the lead up to Christmas.
A standoff between the Federal Government and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is underway over a long-running pay dispute.
The MUA has denied medical supplies and fresh produce were being held up, saying exemptions were in place to allow these items into the country.
It also rejected reports up to 90,000 containers at Port Botany in Sydney were stuck in limbo as the union attempts to negotiate a pay rise. It's believed 20,000 of those containers are destined for Melbourne.
But Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the union was "wrong" in claiming there were no delays to medical supplies.
"We've had a meeting of what is called the Medicines Shortage of Working Group with the Therapy Goods Administration and there are delays," Mr Hunt told Today.
"There are risks and there are consequences and I would respectfully say to those in the union that are denying that there are risks to medicines, the advice they have is false, incorrect and untrue."
Mr Hunt said it was "so fundamental" that medical supplies were allowed in.
"Medicines which are vital for the health of Australians are being delayed. There's no question about that.
"And that could pose very shortly a real risk to Australians. So, at the moment, the supplies are already here, but the new supplies that we need are sitting in ships offshore."
In Sydney, up to 10 ships are waiting off the port, while others have been diverted to Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.
Operators are forking out $25,000 a day to cover costs while waiting to berth.
The world's biggest freight line, Maersk, has stopped sending ships to Sydney but is operating out of other ports across the country.
"We are not holding the country to ransom, far from it," the MUA's Paul McAleer told Today.
"We are seeking to negotiate a new enterprise agreement and these sort of hysterical ravings happen every three four years whenever we are negotiating."
He rejected suggestions of a huge backlog of containers waiting to come into port.
"There aren't 90,000 containers waiting to come," Mr McAleer said.
"There are no extensive delays. And what we are seeing is just small delays.
"Our farmers are hurting and it is not wharfies that are hurting them, it is climate change. It is not wharfies that are affecting their business.
"We went to Patricks (Patrick Terminals) and said that we would exempt any fresh produce. We have also exempted all of the refrigerated containers which have a great deal of the produce in them.
"There is no industrial action against any of those containers whatsoever and the idea that we are hurting farmers is ridiculous."
As for suggestions crucial medical supplies were being held up, Mr McAleer slammed the idea.
"We haven't stopped one tablet or one bottle of medicine reaching the Australian public. It is ridiculous."
Yesterday farmer Pete MacSmith from NSW Milling in the NSW Central West said the company had a bumper canola season, but were currently unable to get their product onto ships.
"We've got containers lined up for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, New Zealand, Fiji," Mr MacSmith said.
"It couldn't be more devastating to an industry that was starting to see some hope after three years of tough times."
Patrick Terminals went to the Fair Work Commission yesterday to force the union to call off the industrial action and the Federal Government has offered its support.
"We need to get our produce out of that port," Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said.
The union's actions are completely legal, and Patrick Terminals has to prove to the Fair Work Commission that the industrial action is having an economic impact and must be stopped.
The union wants a six per cent lift in pay over four years but Mr McAleer conceded wharfies probably won't get the pay rise they've been hoping for.
"We think it will be much closer to 2.5, than six, but you can never discount a bit of luck," he said.
Today – which happens to be World Maritime Day – Mr McAleer said it was important to recognise the contribution and sacrifice of seafarers and maritime workers around the world.
"All workers in this country are hurting at the moment and we will work alongside anybody how is willing to sit down and negotiate in good faith with us," he said.
"We understand the importance of our role in the national economy. We just want to be paid fairly for that and to make sure that we come home safe at the end of the day."