Friday, November 7, 2014

Peace May Break Out at Costa Rican Ports but West Coast Container Freight Crisis Worsens

Unions Say They Have Central American Government Assurances but No Harmony in California
Shipping News Feature

COSTA RICA – US – Whilst the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Japdeva (SINTRAJAP) dockers’ union in Costa Rica says this week it has won a commitment from the country’s government to re-examine the future of the vital container ports of Limon and Moin, along with a promise to cease police violence against strikers, relations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) which we reported on yesterday have taken another turn for the worse as freight continues to stockpile.

Trouble at the ports of Limon and Moin began after APM Terminals won a thirty three year deal in which APM would finance the construction of the new facilities at Moin but receive a concession to run what the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has called a monopoly with full control of container traffic entering and leaving the ports. Monopolies are forbidden by Costa Rican law but APM and the Costa Rican government won their case in the Supreme Court of Justice on October 9 and had their agreement ratified in law. An appeal by the unions before the same Court is still ongoing. The unions point out that the APM deal threatens the state owned port company, JAPDEVA, which earns 70% of its revenues from box handling.

Attempts to denationalise the port company previously have failed but this dispute then engendered the threat of strike action by dock workers which culminated in a battle with police on October 23. Now the unions say there has been civil unrest in Limon as a result of the police action and the threat of higher tariffs for container shipments. The unions are demanding a development plan for the state’s port group saying that JAPDEVA is currently used to support infrastructure and service improvements in what is one of the poorest provinces in the country, despite the fact 80% of all the international commerce of the country passes through its port.

Now the dock workers representatives say they have shelved their proposed fifteen day strike under the guarantee that the government will curb the police actions and review the future of both the affected ports. Paddy Crumlin, ITF President and Chair of its dockers’ section, stated:

“This affair is a long way from over, but there’s been a first victory for legality and reason today. The government will have to return to the negotiating table rather than ignoring the nationwide objections to their plans for Puerto Limon. The negotiation process that now starts must be taken seriously by the government, and a proper, fair and positive agreement reached so as to end this conflict and ensure the viability of JAPDEVA. There are also guarantees of no reprisals against the dockers who have been defending this national resource. We hope that peace comes to the province on Limon and we recognise that the people of Costa Rica have shown themselves willing to defend their port and their future.”

Meanwhile the West Coast dock labour situation we covered recently has deteriorated even further after a statement issued by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) claimed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) had ramped up the pressure on the congested ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by refusing to send hundreds of skilled dock workers into the ports. The shortage of workers, primarily crane drivers needed to maintain full shifts on the ports’ container handling equipment, are normally sent into work on a daily basis, a practice the PMA says has been in place for fifteen years.

The union has complained vociferously that the employers, the shipping companies whose vessels they work on, have repeatedly used non-unionised labour wherever possible, something obviously out of the question in this case. The PMA also say this latest move by the ILWU means, when added to the disruption already caused at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, over 80% of containerised traffic on the West Coast has been placed under threat.

According to the PMA a longshoreman working 1,600 hours a year, two-thirds of the longshore workforce, earns about $123,000 whilst Clerks receive $147,000 and walking bosses (foremen) make $209,000 for similar working hours. In addition, workers are said to receive a benefits package worth about $93,000 a year.

Photo: Costa Rican trade unionists conduct a street protest against the proposed port management.