Unions concerned about liberalisation of port services

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In June 2002, the EU Transport Council agreed a common position on a draft Directive on market access to port services, aimed at breaking up monopolies in port services. The text of the Directive approved by the Council is considerably watered down compared with earlier proposals, especially in terms of allowing 'self-handling'- ie loading and unloading by a ship's own staff instead of by dockworkers. Belgian dockworkers are, however, very anxious about the country's Dock Work Act, which reserves loading and unloading for approved dockworkers, being circumvented. On 7 June they held a 24-hour strike. Further action can be expected when the draft Directive goes to the next stage of the legislative procedure in the European Parliament.

On 17 June 2002, the European Union Transport and Telecommunications Council of Ministers reached political agreement on common position on a draft Directive on market access to port services. Once the common position is formally adopted, it will go to the European Parliament for a second reading under the co-decision procedure for EU legislation (scheduled for December 2002). The draft Directive, also known as the 'port package', is aimed at creating a common legal framework to avoid monopolies in the provision of port services. Thus the proposed Directive stipulates that at least two independent service providers must always be allowed at each port. The service providers can be both private and public companies, provided that they are subject to the same conditions and do not receive competition-distorting subsidies.

The draft Directive will also liberalise dock work. For example, ship owners will have more opportunities to have their ships loaded and unloaded by their own staff on board, instead of by dock workers - known as 'self-handling'. The pilotage and towing of ships will also be open to more competition. In the current amended version of the draft Directive, there are a considerable number of qualifiers and delays. For example, there is a transitional period of 10 years for the liberalisation of the market for port pilots. Moreover, a national government can block the public contracting of pilotage services for reasons of security or environmental protection.

The liberalisation of dock work will come two years after the final approval of the Directive. The Transport Council went along with the Belgian representative, Minister Isabelle Durant, with regard to market access to port services by specifying that self-handling will be possible only if an agreement to this effect is concluded in the country where the port is located. The reason being that liberalisation may not go against a country's social and employment regulations.

The Belgian situation

Belgian trade unions had responded particularly nervously to the earlier drafts of the port services Directive. For example, a delegation of Belgian dockworkers took part in a demonstration held on 14 March 2002 during the European Council summit in Barcelona, opposing the draft Directive originally proposed by the Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, in February 2001. On 22 March 2002, a common trade union front, known as 'Ports of Belgium', was received by the Minister of Mobility and Transport, Isabelle Durant. At this meeting, Ms Durant took up the cause of the dockworkers. She declared that she would defend their position at a European level, which she evidently did at the Council meeting on 17 June 2002.

There is much at stake for Belgian dockworkers. The Dock Work Act, which dates from 1972, specifies that loading and unloading may be carried out only by approved dockworkers. This Act is also known as the 'Major law', after Louis Major, the then Minister of Social Affairs and former general secretary of the socialist union (1952-1968). It turned dock work into a protected occupation, with requirements regarding approved technical competence and training in safety and languages.

The Major law in itself does not go against free competition and flexible working practices. It only sets the requirements for professional qualifications. However, without international standards and controls on these qualifications, self-handling is very difficult under the Major law. Naturally, the dock workers also use the argument of professional requirements to defend their work and income. Moreover, at a meeting of the joint committee for ports on 18 December 2001, representatives of employees and employers decided to preserve the Major law.

Given this situation, it was seen as somewhat surprising when the 8,000 dockworkers at the four large Belgian seaports - Antwerp, Gent, Zeebrugge and Ostend (see the table below for details of these ports) - held a 24-hour strike on 7 June, supported by all unions (this formed part of a set of protest strikes against the Directive in various European countries, with dockworkers in Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Norway and Sweden taking action on 14 June). In Antwerp, and then in Zeebrugge, the strike was particularly angry, with traffic blockaded - the effects included bringing the General Motors factory to a standstill. The Antwerp port alderman, Leo Delwaide, spoke out publicly against the strike and pointed to the economic damage it was causing. Eddy Bruyninckx, the managing director of the Antwerp Port company said that the unions had harmed their allies, the Belgian employers. However, he also said that Antwerp port had long been anticipating liberalisation in line with the draft EU Directive.

On 13 June, there was a strike at Vlaamse Zeewezen. Both the 'traditional' trade unions and the members of the Flemish Maritime Pilotage (Beroepsvereniging van Loodsen) association stopped work from midnight to 08.00 in protest against the possible commercialisation of pilotage. Currently, pilots are public employees of the Flemish government. In the text of the draft Directive approved by the Council on 17 June, commercialisation seems to have been considerably slowed down. In the Belgian case, security reasons can be invoked to rule out public contracting.

The main Belgian seaports
. Antwerp Gent Zeebrugge-Bruges Ostend Total
Added value (EUR millions) 6,597 2,441 798 141 9,977
Employment (full-time equivalents) 54,751 26,749 10,725 3,106 95,331
Maritime goods transport (1,000 tonnes) 130,531 24,039 35,475 4,307 194,352

Source: Het economische belang van de Belgische zeehavens (boekjaar 2000) [The economic importance of Belgian seaports (year 2000)], National Bank, 2002.

Despite the considerably watered down text approved by the Transport Council on 17 June, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond/Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens, ACV/CSC) and the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond/Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique, ABVV/FGTB) did not want to comment on the Directive until they had the official texts in their hands. Only the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België/Centrale Générale des Syndicats Libéraux de Belgique, ACLV/CGSLB) commented, stating that, as liberalisation was now being left to the Member States, there was a real risk that the more liberalised ports would be set against the less liberalised ones. Employers would be able to use reduced competitiveness as an argument in order to deregulate regulated ports.

Further action against the draft Directive may be expected in September 2002, in consultation with other European ports and trade unions.

Commentary

The liberalisation of port services has long been on the agenda of the European Commission, as testified by the 1997 Green Paper on seaports and maritime infrastructure and the 2001 Communication on Reinforcing quality service in seaports, which presented the draft port services Directive. It can also be noted that the Commission is contributing to the forming and taking of decisions in this area in a particularly high-handed way. For example, despite the fact that the proposal is for a 'Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council', it seems that the resolutions of the European Parliament (EP) have so far been only of marginal importance. The initial draft of the port services Directive was submitted to the EP, which drew up a series of amendments at first reading stage in November 2001. On 19 February 2002, the Commission brought out a revised proposal, but only took very partial account of the amendments proposed by the EP. For example, the EP's proposal that self-handling should be limited to ships belonging to EU Member States was ignored.

With regard to the substance of the issue, ports are complicated logistical chains where goods are received, stored and redistributed. 'Just-in-time' production is a key element in current management. However, thinking in terms of flexibility is sometimes conveniently cut short in cases where the work involves protected occupations. The position of the employers in the ports joint committee seems to indicate that, for the time being, for Belgian employers flexibility is compatible with the protection and regulation of certain functions and occupations.

In this debate, all parties are adopting a particularly 'muffled' position. Employees talk about safety and professional competence, but are also or mainly thinking of their incomes. Employers and government are talking about solidarity with employees to a greater or lesser extent, but are definitely anticipating further liberalisation. (Jan De Schampheleire, TESA-VUB)

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