Monday, November 24, 2014

Dock Unions Concerned with EU Attitude to the Future of Freight Handling in the Ports

Language Harks Back to Another Era
Shipping News Feature

EUROPE – In language reminiscent of the UK dock disputes of the 1960’s a meeting of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has issued what it describes as ‘a strong warning’ to the European Commission (EC) over the future of the continent’s ports. The union organisation is concerned that what it terms ‘fair practices’ will be abandoned by the authorities who they feel have a different agenda a regards the handling of freight.

We have written before how the British port scene was revolutionised with the abandonment of the Dock Labour Scheme which enabled containerisation to be fully introduced and many ports now have a very different look and feel to their predecessors. The ITF representatives feel threatened by changes and it is somewhat ironic that at a meeting in Hull this month delegates pondered ‘how unions can challenge the harmful impact of globalisation’, the very thing which fuels port activity.

The European Union would argue forcefully that it has endeavoured to take a fair and responsible view of the situation, valuing the worth of the million and a half or so people employed in the twenty two maritime EU Member States. It has listed 329 key ports to be included in the trans-European transport network (TEN-T), a scheme in which it will invest €26 billion between now and 2020. In July 2013 it published a report prepared by PWC which is an impact assessment of the measures to possibly be taken to improve port efficiency yet crucially seemed to avoid the potential social impact.

It seems the message put over by Siim Kallas, outgoing Vice President of the EC was what upset the ITF when he released the ‘Ports - 2030 Gateways’ brochure, his vision for the future in which the principal objective was to streamline all the ports, making them equally efficient and improving infrastructure to enable more short sea traffic to take freight off the roads. He said:

“Our challenge is to promote best practices and a more entrepreneurial spirit in all of Europe’s ports. An open business model that is based on fair competition, legal certainty and respect of the Single Market principles, is the pre-requisite for attracting private investment and creating job opportunities in the sector.”

This latest union meeting heard the ITF’s fair practices committee steering group calling for a drastic re-examination of the EC’s handling of port policy and making a list of resolutions. Terje Samuelsen, Europe chair of the ITF dockers’ section and chair of the European Transport Workers’ Federation dockers’ section explained the unions’ position, saying:

“The EC’s latest response to the early and justified demise of their ports packages seems to be to actively foment infringement procedures against ports where social dialogue between employers and unions is working well. We don’t know whether it’s sour grapes or a desire to smuggle in a new port package under another name, but it’s putting the whole model of successful and productive dialogue at risk. Dockers across Europe will continue to ram home the point to the EC that ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’.”

Resolutions formulated at the meeting on November 20-21 included regrets and condemnation that over the past few years a climate which fuels complaints against port labour organisation schemes has been created in Europe, one which attacks collective bargaining. The group also complains that those criticising such union activities can do so anonymously via the internet, something it would be fair to say they will have to learn to live with, and respond to, given the current social media situation.

The group also challenges what it calls ‘misinformation about well-organised ports in Europe, which contrary to allegations by some parties, are cost effective, efficient and have a high rate of productivity, making sizeable contributions to the economy both at the national and European levels’. It then calls on the European Commission, European governments and employers to act transparently and in good faith, not undermine workers and unions and focus on addressing the combined impacts of insufficient cargo growth, automation and overcapacity in European ports, and to work with unions to minimise the social consequences of this.

These arguments are of course somewhat counterintuitive, increasing the efficiency of a port and growing cargo throughput usually requires more automation and less labour and it is hard to see how to soften this blow to the traditional role which the unions play. The problems the unions face are primarily the major changes in the type and quantity of work now undertaken at a typical port.

In the modern scenario workers have to be adaptable and also prepared to undergo training in a range of skills and essentials for jobs which either simply never existed formerly or have been revolutionised by modern practices. Often the attitude of management is to give the option of joining a union but one that is frequently then rejected by staff who often have more the role of a technician than a traditional stevedore or wharfinger.

The situation is brought to a head as the union group notes the infringement procedures that have been, or are about to be, initiated against a number of European governments, including in Spain and Belgium, to challenge the existing rights of dockworkers. Meanwhile port administrators in some countries have to fight over a level of work which the newer more efficient practices and investment in facilities mean can be comfortably handled by many, making efficiency and lower costs ever more essential.

The row has conjoined some unlikely allies, Right Wing Conservative MP, John Redwood, has opposed what he sees as 'another EU power grab' as the EC intentions appear to be to run the ports along strictly defined lines saying that, whilst EU plans may suit subsidised Mediterranean ports, privately run British and other European ports would be constrained by more regulation, particularly in the matter of rates charged to customers.