Wednesday, February 5, 2020

France Girds its Loins for a Strike Which May Continue to Devastate the Country's Ports

Dock Workers Vow to Extend Action Over Pension Debate
Shipping News Feature

FRANCE – Human beings are pretty resilient when facing the little annoyances in life. Some like mosquitoes they generally regard with animosity, some, like people who discard rubbish on the street, with contempt, and, for the British, the news of a Frenchman on strike, yet again, often with a sort of puzzled amusement.

For the French themselves however it seems all their perceived causes are of the utmost importance. When faced with Brexit French customs officers worked to rule in the face of ‘more work’, a puzzle to those across the Channel who couldn’t envisage how an eight hour shift had suddenly gotten harder, yet still took exactly the same time.

Now we have the threats from French fisherman that they will blockade the Channel ports if they are prevented from casting their nets in British waters, but for now there is a much more costly dispute happening across ‘La Manche’, and it’s likely to get worse apparently.

Dock workers across the country are considering extending industrial action which is already reported to have cost the major ports hundreds of millions in trade so far. The Union Maritime et Portuaire de France (UMPF), which includes the Le Havre branch (UMEP) and whose members make up the bulk of privately managed port facilities puts the cost so far at half a billion euros.

One of the worst affected is Le Havre which, together with Rouen and Paris forms HAROPA, the fifth largest port association in Europe. Le Havre and its partners have seen over 200 port call cancellations and is somewhere adjacent to a quarter of a million TEU down since the strike began. Marseille in turn has lost around a quarter of its port calls in the period and now things are set to get worse.

Container shipping giant Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) rerouted its port calls away from French ports in December with a spokesperson saying:

“MSC is closely monitoring the situation in France where industrial action by labour unions is impacting maritime ports and overland transportation networks around the country. MSC is carefully implementing contingency plans wherever we need to re-route cargo to nearby European container ports.”

With demonstrations today around the country and an expected 24 hour strike tomorrow (6 February) as the latest tranche of protests at the government’s planned reforms of pension rights, HAROPA met today with stakeholders in the maritime, port and logistics sectors of the Seine axis to consider the effect so far of the 14 days of stoppages which it has been so far subjected to.

With the container logistics sector hardest hit HAROPA is offering a post-dated, one off commercial rebate on container ships for January and February 2020 as a loyalty measure acknowledging the maintenance of shipping commitments at the beginning of the year despite the disruption.

For the next two years a tariff discount will be offered to container ship operators whose vessels stop at the port of Le Havre during 2020 as part of the creation of a new service. This is to try and reinvigorate trade and establish new international routes for the benefit of cargo handlers and freight forwarding agencies. HAROPA says this brings its investment in promoting trade to 3 million euros.

HAROPA goes on to say the plan has been supported locally along by the Seine Port Union Association with many local workers likely to lose their jobs as the blockade of the Seine Maritime by dock workers is set to continue.

At the heart of this dispute is the government’s plan to reform the pension system which will doubtless be subject to a hot debate in the Assemblée Nationale with discussions officially due to commence on February 17 and opposition MP's tabling 22,000 amendments to delay things as much as possible. The plan, couched by President Macron is to reform the forty two existing schemes into one universal pension based on a points system. The government argues this will bring about a fairer system in line with French national values.

Pensionable age in France is 62 for most workers and the government already dropped a scheme to add a further two years to the working life under pressure from the unions. One of the country’s leading unions, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), with many port workers amongst its membership, has announced it will scale up protests much as it did when Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party campaigned for pension reform in 2003.

The potential long term effect on French ports and the workers and subsidiary industries which depend on them should not be underestimated. Both sides currently seem committed to a fight, the authorities’ say their proposals will mean a freer job market where people are more easily able to swap employments and the deal for the less well-off will be fairer than the current imbalance caused by so many different schemes with variable benefits.

In a BBC interview today with Andrew Neil, Nathalie Loiseau, MEP and former French Europe Minister said that ‘I am surprised that a journalist doesn’t know that there aren’t any more strikes in France’, which will come in turn as a surprise to both Parisians as garbage piles up in the city with no workers available to burn it, and around the country’s ports where unrest still reigns.

The French unions are used to getting their own way and say many of their members will not get what they were promised when they signed up for a pension. If the government doesn’t fold (which it so often has) this one could potentially run as long as Brexit despite Mme Loiseau’s optimism, and will certainly impact the movement of goods - deal or no deal.

Photo: Nobody does a protest quite like the French. Literally a case of Gallic ‘flare’.