Tugboat workers at Port Hedland are threatening to strike for up to a week, bringing iron ore exports at Australia’s largest shipping hub to a standstill.
Mining giant BHP Billiton estimates a seven-day strike could cost suppliers who use the port up to $700 million at around $100 million a day.
On Monday, 45 deckhands voted to walk off the job for periods of 24 hours, 48 hours and seven days over the next 30 days.
However, the Maritime Workers Union (MUA) says workers will not take protected strike action before meeting with Teekay Shipping in the Fair Work Commission in Sydney on Tuesday May 20.
Deckhands want better pay and increased leave entitlements.
They argue their conditions should be brought into line with the better paid tugboat engineers and masters.
“There are still a number of sticking points which we are trying to work through,” MUA Assistant WA Secretary Will Tracey said.
He said the parties had not been able to agree on annual leave.
Still, he said workers had not yet decided whether to take industrial action.
The MUA has recently been in talks at the Fair Work Commission with Teekay Shipping, the company that is contracted by BHP Billiton to provide tugboat services for all iron ore exporters at the port.
Other exporters which use the port to transport Australia’s most lucrative commodity include Fortescue Metals Group and Atlas Iron.
BHP Billiton said if port operations were suspended, Australia’s iron ore exports would be significantly affected, costing suppliers around $100 million a day.
“Significant royalty and tax revenue will be lost to the Western Australian and federal governments,” a BHP spokeswoman said.
She said mining companies like BHP Billiton were unable to make up lost volume of this nature and governments could not recover those lost royalties and taxes.
Still, BHP said it remains hopeful that Teekay will be able to reach agreement with the maritime unions.
The tugboat workers have 30 days in which to take the protected action and the MUA must give Teekay three days notice ahead of any industrial action.
Two other unions representing tugboat masters and engineers are also holding ballots concerning industrial action at the port.