More than 130 Port Kembla stevedores have joined a national strike in their campaign for improved pay and conditions.
Employees of P&O Automotive and General Stevedoring (POAGS), which is one of the major stevedores of the port, stopped work at 7.30am yesterday as part of a 48-hour protected stoppage.
Garry Keane, southern NSW branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, said a third day of limited action was intended tomorrow, however the national stevedore responded with a lock-out of staff from 7am.
Mr Keane said the unions had been negotiating with POAGS for the past 12 months, however the talks had "hit a wall".
"We've made some progress but when it comes down to anything with a financial cost, this crowd is adamant that any increases they give must be met with a trade-off from the enterprise agreement," he said.
"One of the trade-offs is to have no paid meal breaks - something that has been paid in this industry since the 1940s."
Mr Keane said the Port Kembla POAG stevedores were the lowest paid in the country, despite one third of the company's profits coming out of the Illawarra port.
In exchange, their working conditions include a minimum of 12 hours' notice for being called in to work, 21 different start times in a 24-hour period and seven different shift lengths.
"There's weekend shift cancellations with no payment, so they can allocate you for Sunday, you make all your arrangements and then Saturday they can cancel you," Mr Keane said.
"Employees can be allocated and are expected to work up to 156 hours in any fortnight."
Mr Keane said POAG brought in two mini-bus loads of hired labour from around the country to staff the Port Kembla operation.
He said the work included unloading a car carrier containing 600 vehicles.
Other ports joining the strike are Bunbary, Fremantle, Port Headland and Melbourne.
POAG did not respond to Mercury calls.