(Reuters) - Israel's Haifa seaport, one of the country's main trade arteries, has been shut indefinitely after management told employees involved in a work slowdown to stay home.
Since last week, workers at the port on Israel's northern Mediterranean coast have been operating cranes that load and unload 11 to 13 containers an hour - well below its normal 30 containers an hour, a spokesman at the port said.
"The port will not reopen until we get a strong declaration from the union that workers will work at full force," he said on Monday, the first day of the closure.
He said ships were either going to Israel's other main port in Ashdod further south or stopping in Cyprus, Greece and Italy and eventually make their way to Israel.
The port's 1,100 unionised workers were angered last week when management decided to cancel overtime pay and special "fun days", prompting what the spokesman called an "Italian strike".
"It led management no choice but to do something never done at the ports in Israel. We did not let any more ships enter the port and told workers not to come to work," the spokesman said.
A spokesman for the Histadrut labour federation had no immediate comment on the situation.
Haifa port is Israel's largest for containers, with about 5,000 containers loaded and unloaded each day.
The spokesman said negotiations with workers will probably start in the next few days.
He noted that the port lost financially strapped Zim - Israel's main shipping company and the world's 17th largest line - which moved to the Greek port of Piraeus to save money.
The loss of 20-30 million shekels from Zim led management to try and cut costs. Zim, the spokesman said, offered to come back to Haifa if its fees were lowered but workers were opposed to reductions in their extra salaries.
Zim last month reached a restructuring deal with most of its creditors that will see part of its $3 billion in debt swapped for shares.
(Reporting by Steven Scheer)