* Union says stoppages planned at low tide for minimal
* Port handles more than half of Australia's iron exports
* BHP says engineers' work stoppage would be illegal
(Recasts with BHP comment)
By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, Aug 6 Tug boat engineers at Port
Hedland, Australia's biggest iron ore port plan to stop work for
four hours on Aug. 9, 11 and 13 over a pay dispute, which would
slow exports from BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals
The threatened industrial action marks a step up in the
dispute between tug workers and operator Teekay Shipping
at Port Hedland, which handles a quarter of the world's seaborne
iron ore, mostly going to China, Japan and South Korea.
However BHP, the top exporter out of Port Hedland, and
Teekay said they would take steps to stop the industrial action
by the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers
(AIMPE) as they believed the union had missed a deadline to file
notice of a work stoppage.
"BHP Billiton believes the proposed action by the AIMPE is
unlawful given it falls outside the protected action ballot
order, and the company intends to pursue all options available
to prevent it," the company said in a statement emailed to
Tug boat captains, engineers and deck hands have been
demanding higher pay and more leave from Teekay following a
one-third increase in iron ore shipments through Port Hedland
over the past year that has stretched their work hours as the
tug boats guide iron ore vessels in and out of the port.
"Teekay is continuing to negotiate with the three unions and
is considering its legal options," the company said in a
statement emailed to Reuters.
The engineers' strike would be the first to hit Port Hedland
following three months' of threats, but the union said the work
stoppages would have minimal impact on shipments as they have
been timed to coincide with low tides at the port.
"It's a shot across the bow. We're hoping it focuses minds
so we can sit down and common sense will prevail," Andrew
Williamson, senior national organiser for the Australian
Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, told Reuters.
The union said it had given three days notice to Teekay,
just ahead of the expiration of an approved period for taking
industrial action at the port. It believed the deadline for
starting to take action was Aug. 9.
(Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Richard Pullin)