Australian coal port workers to strike on Friday

PERTH (REUTERS) - Workers at Australia's Newcastle port, the world's largest thermal coal export facility, plan to stop work for eight hours on Friday to protest proposed changes to their work contract that could hit working conditions and jobs.

The strike, in which about 220 unionised workers will participate, comes on the heels of a four-hour stoppage last week and is part of a two-week campaign during which workers plan to stage similar such halts, ranging from 8 to 24 hours.

If strikes continue for a prolonged period at the port - which ships thermal coal mostly to countries such as Japan, South Korea and China, they could trim bulging supplies in the region and boost prices of the raw material that have dropped 8 per cent over the past two months.

But last week, traders shrugged off the work stoppage and Australia's Newcastle spot index closed at US$87 (S$109) per tonne on Monday, down from US$87.63 per tonne a week earlier, data from online trading platform globalCOAL showed.

Port Waratah Coal Services (PWCS), which operates the Newcastle port facility, held unsuccessful negotiations with the unions on Tuesday morning, and a union spokesman said he did not expect a resolution when negotiations resume on Thursday.

"An agreement would require the company significantly changing its position from this morning," Mr Glen Williams, a spokesman for the Maritime Union of Australia, said on Tuesday.

A PWCS spokesman said that non-unionised employees were able to load ships during last week's work stoppage.

PWCS has about 450 permanent employees, about half of which are unionised, and an additional 200 contract workers.

The Newcastle coal port will export around 110 million tonnes of coal this year and has a capacity of around 145 million tonnes of coal a year.

Thermal coal exports from Newcastle fell 20 per cent in the week to May 20, due to rail maintenance.