Breaking ranks

Growth: Barcelona’s BEST terminal won by taking the path of least resistance. Credit: BEST Growth: Barcelona’s BEST terminal won by taking the path of least resistance. Credit: BEST

COMMENT: The European Union-mandated liberalisation of Spain's port services, which generated a period of significant unrest in the sector earlier in the year, is progressively leaving in its wake a changed pattern of container handling along Spain’s Mediterranean coastline.

Ironically, this has basically come about because those on both sides of the table – employers on the one hand and dockers on the other – that have been least fervent in promoting their respective causes have been the biggest winners in a redistribution of container handling activity by shipping lines.

Barcelona dockers were, generally speaking, less militant than their Valencian counterparts in seeking to maintain their employment arrangements. Similarly, Barcelona container terminal employers, notably Hutchison’s Barcelona Europe South Terminal (BEST), were not staunch supporters of the employer association-led reforms, and were ultimately among the first to capitulate and sign what are regarded as soft revised local labour agreements.

Against this background, the half-year figures for the port of Barcelona tell a significant story. The highlights are that container traffic increased by 27.2% to 1.3m teu and the port realised over 100% growth in transhipment traffic.

It could be argued that BEST, an automated terminal, from the perspective of both employers and employees had the least to lose and most to gain by taking the path of least resistance. Indeed, as a strategy it has already shown significant returns in the uplift of container volume and there is the promise of much more to come. It has been reported that Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) will be transferring 500,000 containers from Valencia to Barcelona.

BEST will no doubt argue that its increased volumes come about as a result of straight commercial competition and the inherent advantages of its automated facility and there is certainly a measure of truth in this. But this growth could also be attributed to a large degree of self-interest on the part of its management and employees as opposed to solidarity with their respective peers in the industry during the period of industrial unrest.

Back on track

APM Terminals, which operates the former TCB terminal in Barcelona, was another port employer that appeared to ‘break ranks’ relatively quickly, agreeing individual terms with labour in order to restore as near as possible ‘normal’ operating conditions. As with Hutchison, there was seemingly a limited desire to stand united within the body of the employers’ association ANESCO and its attempt to push through broad and meaningful reforms.

The desertion of these large operators from ANESCO’s cause had a ripple effect, leading ultimately to the resignation of Joaquim Coello, president of Anesco. He reportedly considered his position to be untenable after up to 40 members abandoned ANESCO, which undermined the body’s united front among port employers that the organisation had originally presented to the unions.

Giving reasons for his resignation, he cited those local pre-agreements made with representatives of stevedoring unions which ended strikes in those terminals.

The market will need to wait for the next port labour strikes in Spain to understand the longer-term effect of undermining the strength of an employers’ collective. But, safe to say, that effect is unlikely to be positive.

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