By Phoebe Sedgman and Jasmine Ng
May 12 (Bloomberg) — Tugboat workers at Australia’s Port Hedland approved work stoppages amid a dispute over wages and annual leave, risking disruption to iron ore shipments to China from the world’s largest bulk-export terminal.
The Maritime Union of Australia approved unlimited stoppages of 24 hours, 48 hours and seven days, the Fair Work Commission said today after members were balloted. The union represents deckhands at Teekay Shipping (Australia) Pty., which is contracted by BHP Billiton Ltd. to run tugboat operations at the port, located 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) north of Perth. Two other unions are also balloting workers on possible action.
Industrial action may slow iron ore exports by companies including Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. and BHP, which said it was vital the port remain opened and estimated that disruption may cost users about $94 million a day. Shipments through Port Hedland surged to a record in April as stockpiles in China, the biggest buyer, reached an all-time high. Prices fell into a bear market in March amid forecasts for a widening global seaborne surplus as Fortescue, BHP and Vale SA boosted shipments.
“Any hint of disruption, even if it’s relatively modest, can have an exaggerated effect on prices,” said Andrew Shaw, Singapore-based head of base metals and bulk commodities research at Credit Suisse Group AG. Miners “could have stockpiles and would be able to make up for the lost tonnages if it’s for a small number of days. If it escalates and strike action lasts a lot longer, then it’s a different thing.”
Ore with 62 percent content delivered to the Chinese port of Tianjin fell 1 percent to $102.70 a dry ton on May 9, the lowest level since September 2012, according to The Steel Index Ltd. The commodity has lost 23 percent this year.
Teekay operates 14 tugs in Port Hedland and is responsible for the technical management and crewing of towage operations, according to KT Maritime Services Australia Pty., a joint venture between Kotug International B.V. and Teekay Shipping Australia. BHP owns nine of the tugs, with five of the vessels chartered through Kotug, according to KT Maritime’s website.
The Maritime Union of Australia hasn’t decided whether to take action or which option will be exercised, it said in a statement. Workers have 30 days in which to act and must give Teekay three days’ notice, it said. Talks with Teekay are continuing and the two parties will appear before the commission on May 20 in Sydney, according to the union.
The Australian Maritime Officers Union, which represents tug masters, is balloting members and expects results in early June. The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers expects ballot results from its workers on June 10.
“We estimate this will cost suppliers who ship out of Port Hedland around A$100 million a day,” BHP said in a statement. “It is vital for our economy and for Australia’s international standing that the Port Hedland port continues to operate.”
Fortescue is seeking to ensure possible action at the port doesn’t impact operations, Chief Executive Officer Neville Power said in a statement. Shipments halted during any action would result in lost exports that can’t be retrieved, he said.
More than 2 million tons of iron ore were shipped through Port Hedland on April 28, the most in a 24-hour period, the port authority said April 29. Iron ore exports reached a record 34.8 million tons last month from 26 million tons in April 2013, port figures show. Shipments to China were also a record in April.
“Because the big increase in supply is coming out of Australia, any industrial action is going to have an immediate bearing on the supply dynamics,” Mark Pervan, head of commodity research at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., said May 9. China is “not going to be able to get that easily elsewhere, so the natural release valve would be higher prices,” he said.
China’s iron ore imports climbed to 83.39 million tons in April from 73.96 million tons in March, according to customs administration data. Stockpiles at ports in China reached a record 105.19 million tons in the week ended April 25, according to Beijing Antaike Information Development Co. Inventories stood at 104.27 million tons on May 9.
The Maritime Union of Australia is pursuing four weeks’ leave a year for members, who currently receive none, the union said in the statement today. The union is also seeking an agreement on a pay increase for members, it said.
BHP, Fortescue Metals, Australia’s third-largest producer, and Atlas Iron Ltd. ship through Port Hedland. Rio Tinto Group exports through terminals at Cape Lambert and Dampier. Fortescue spokeswoman Yvonne Ball couldn’t immediately comment on the ballot result when reached by phone.
BHP shares fell 0.5 percent to A$37.16 in Sydney today. Fortescue dropped 1.9 percent to A$4.72, while Atlas Iron slumped 3 percent to 81.5 Australian cents. Rio Tinto advanced 0.1 percent to A$61.
The global seaborne surplus will rise to 77 million tons this year from 14 million tons in 2013 as exports from Australia and Brazil increase, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Brazil’s Vale is the world’s biggest producer.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg. –With assistance from David Stringer in Melbourne and Rebecca Keenan in Perth.