Storm clouds gather again over Spanish ports

The threat of industrial action lingers in Spain The threat of industrial action lingers in Spain

COMMENT: There are now rumblings of discontent among Spain’s stevedoring workforce regarding what they see as an ‘unjustified’ delay to the approval of the negotiated terms for the Royal Decree that is intended to achieve port sector reforms.

Such is the discontent among the port unions that it has been publicly stated, notably by the union Coordinator of Workers of the Sea (CETM), that they are now actively considering implementing new strikes.

As the statement from CETM makes clear, the unions are particularly unhappy that the Government has not yet formalised the approval of the funding provided for in the reform measures approved in May 2017. This funding is mainly for the early retirement of certain stevedores and for the conversion of the current management companies of stevedores – now used to employ port workers – into the Port Centres of Employment envisioned in the reforms. This latter step will realise a move away from port employers having to hire labour from unionised labour pools and allow them to hire labour in a free and open market situation.

There is also concern expressed by the unions that the delay in processing the reform agreement is, in turn, delaying the closing of a new National Framework Agreement assembled in the spirit of the reforms and reached between employers and unions in June 2017.

CETM says: “This situation of instability generates a great, and logical, preoccupation, especially among the workers, who ask their union representatives to take actions that vindicate compliance with what has been agreed.”

The new National Framework Agreement is, however, presently being reviewed by Spain’s National Markets Competition Commission which is examining it, among other things, to ensure it does not restrict competition. Individual Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) at a port level are agreed from the National Framework Agreement.

Fit for purpose

It will certainly be interesting to see in the final analysis whether the reforms agreed between employers and unions are enacted into law as envisaged – these include productivity agreements, reduction of some stevedores’ salaries by up to 10% and the early retirement of nominated stevedores. There is also an ad hoc agreement, that sits outside the reform package, to protect the sector’s current 6,000 jobs. The Spanish Government decided on this mechanism as it said it could not guarantee jobs by law as this would be against European Treaties.

The overall process has reached an interesting hiatus with the unions becoming restless again, and anxious to push through a deal that many observers see as heavily loaded in their favour. Dis-unity on the employer side, with certain employers showing little will to hold out for meaningful reforms, was without doubt a major factor in this.

There is also the big question, will the reforms when enacted be fully compliant with the EU-mandated liberalisation of port services?

The initial reaction of the EU was favourable: “Based on the information transmitted by the Spanish Authorities, it appears that the reform does address the restrictions to the freedom of establishment of port operators identified by the European Court of Justice,” said Enrico Brivio, speaking on behalf of the European Commission.

It remains to be seen, however, if the reforms stand up to detailed scrutiny. Are they fit for purpose? With various employers having strong doubts this remains a key question. The big question is will the new laws be compliant with EU law and EU principles? Which, in turn, begs the question will meaningful reforms have been achieved? And following on from this how will the success of the new laws, if any, be measured?

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