Writing on the wall

Slow working and other measures are leading to vessel diversions and loss of earnings in Spanish ports Slow working and other measures are leading to vessel diversions and loss of earnings in Spanish ports

COMMENT: The Spanish Government has passed a draft law which aims to achieve compliance with European Union regulations governing the hiring of port labour.

In practical terms, the new law seeks to liberalise port labour hiring procedures – and put power back in the hands of employers – with the overall objective of making Spain’s port system much more competitive. Spain has been one of the last outposts in Europe where mandatory European port labour arrangements have not been adopted and as such it has been under pressure from the European Commission to achieve compliance.


The reaction from port unions to the initiative essentially mirrors the reaction of port unions worldwide when confronted with major reforms, that is adoption of a confrontational stance that seeks to strongly maintain the status quo. Nine days of strikes have been announced by the unions but if the truth be told the State Coordination of Sea Workers (CETM), the main port union, has previously threatened strike action and been quietly supporting slow working, wild cat strikes and other negative actions designed to make the introduction of the proposed reforms as difficult as possible.


The Bill, in order to be fully adopted, still has to achieve parliamentary approval and the prospect of this is by no means straightforward. The governing People’s Party does not have a parliamentary majority and requires support from opposition parties if the draft is to become law. There is a period of 30-days running from the adoption of the draft in which the Congress of Deputies have to validate the new law and thereafter a three-year period in which to replace the current, closed shop, labour hiring system with the new liberalised system.  

Politicised process


The unions clearly sense an opportunity to apply a brake to the reform within the political process, and they are achieving some political support.


Albert Rivera, head of the fourth ranked Ciudadanos (Citizens) political party, has publicly voiced his disapproval of the Decree, although informed observers suggest this his stance, prompted by political considerations, may yet see another U-turn, back in favour of the reforms.


The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and left wing Podemos political party have also criticised aspects of the reform. PSOE regional premiers Susana Diaz (Andalucia) and Ximo Puig (Valencia) have observed that the decree, “does not seek consensus and understanding between employers and workers”. There is obviously a degree of self-interest here, Andalucía being home to the major port of Algeciras and Valencia similarly one of Spain’s major ports.


It is clear that the government will need to work hard to enlist the necessary support to have the port labour reform bill fully adopted.


The politics associated with the reform process also extend into the province of port labour employers. There are one or two port employers that have traditionally enjoyed more union support than others with this becoming most evident with their exclusion from industrial action on various occasions. They have benefitted from this approach in the past with no reform process in train but it is questionable now how they can expect to benefit from a pro-union stance? Their interests appear to be much better served by committing fully to the reform initiative. Human nature being what it is, however, it is reasonable to assume that there will be some sitting on the fence and taking the benefits of this while other employers take the brunt of negative actions.


It is no accident that the vast majority of EU member countries operate port labour systems that are compliant with EU requirements. Such systems deliver much more efficient and economic work practices which, in turn, boost the competitiveness of the supply chain overall. The writing is on the wall; there may be resistance to change in Spain but ultimately it is inevitable – worldwide experience and common sense tells you that. It is equally clear that while radical elements in the unions may be preparing for a fight, ultimately, they may achieve much more by engaging with government and unions now to jointly shape the future of port labour employment in Spain.


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