Port workers initiate protest action against illegal work

Disappointed by a new law approved recently by the Ministry of Transport, which contradicts an agreement signed in May 2006, the National Federation of Harbour Unions decided to begin protest action. Although the transport minister does not agree with all of the trade unions’ demands to modify the law, he showed his willingness to stamp out illegal work in ports, which is the main cause of dissatisfaction among the unions.

Scale of harbour activities

Romania has four sea ports and nine river ports, employing a total of 18,000 harbour workers.

The most influential trade union organisation in this sector is the National Federation of Harbour Unions (Federaţia Naţională a Sindicatelor Portuare, FNSP), affiliated to the National Trade Union Bloc (Blocul Naţional Sindical, BNS).

The employers are represented by the government through the Ministry of Transport (Ministerul Transporturilor, MT), the harbour administrations and the Port Operators Employer Organisation (Organizaţia Patronală Operatorul Portuar, OPOP).

History of conflict

After the fall of communism in 1989, several regulations relating to harbour activities were promulgated. The most important of these was Government Ordinance No. 22/1999 (GO 22), namely the Harbours Law.

The demands put forward by the trade unions during the first half of 2006 mainly concerned illegal or undeclared work in the ports. After an initial strike by harbour workers in the spring of 2006 in protest against illegal work, an agreement was signed between the trade unions, employers and other organisations involved in harbour work to eradicate the illegal work forms at the Port of Constanţa on the south coast – Romania’s main port. The agreement was signed by FNSP, BNS, the Constanţa County Labour Inspectorate (Inspectoratul Judeţean de Muncă Constanţa, IJMC), the Romanian Naval Authority (Autoritatea Navală Română, ANR), the National Company Maritime Ports Administrations Constanţa (Compania Naţională Administraţia Porturilor Maritime Constanţa, CNAPM), the police and OPOP. This agreement also included changes to the re-published GO 22.

New regulations and trade union objections

On 5 September 2007, the government published Emergency Ordinance No. 86, which modified GO 22. However, by mid August 2007, the proposed changes had not been approved by the Ministry of Transport’s Social Dialogue Commission. The government therefore disregarded the commission’s veto, and issued the ordinance without considering the suggestions made by the trade unions and the employer organisations.

The President of FNSP, Petre Costel, stated that they had asked for all harbour workers to be registered, a personal labour register to be issued and evidence to be kept of these registers. According to FNSP, ‘the ministry showed that they didn’t want this to happen, because there were big interests at stake, and these regulations would have made things more complicated.’ Backed by BNS, the trade union representatives asked Romania’s Prime Minister, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, to intervene in this ‘case which broke the principles of the social dialogue’. They also threatened to inform the International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Council (EC) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) of the situation. The trade union leaders believed that about half of the 11,000 workers at the Constanţa port worked illegally or partly illegally.

To support their demands, the trade unions organised a protest meeting on 9 October 2007 outside the ministry’s offices. More than 500 workers from the ports of Constanţa and Brăila – the latter being a port on the Danube in eastern Romania – participated in this meeting.

On 15 October 2007, the unions organised another strike which paralysed activities for 12 hours in the ports of Constanţa, Brăila and Tulcea – also a port in eastern Romania. About 2,000 workers took part in the strike action. Following this strike, the Minister for Transport, Ludovic Orban, visited Constanţa harbour to carry out inspections for illegal work and announced future visits to the port even at night.

Commentary

An important element leading to the start of the conflict has been the cancellation of Article 63 of GO 22, which stated that the organisation of labour in harbours was the responsibility of both the agency in charge of the employment and training of harbour workers and of some professional organisations of workers. By cancelling Article 63, the professional associations, set up on the basis of the respective normative act, controlled by the trade unions were suppressed.

As concern mounted due to the abrogation of Article 63, Minister Orban declared that port employees can establish any association they wish in order to control harbour activities, as long as it is in accordance with the existing legislation regarding associations and foundations. According to the minister, the trade unions do not need a special legal provision in this respect.

Concerning the existence of illegal work in harbours, Minister Orban demonstrated to the trade unions during his port visits his willingness to ascertain the level of such activities, and to act accordingly in order to eradicate the problem. By the end of November, negotiations were set to continue.

Constantin Ciutacu, Institute of National Economy, Romanian Academy

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