Meeting tomorrow’s labour demands

The unsociable working hours of ports could be revisited The unsociable working hours of ports could be revisited

COMMENT: Providing a series of training sessions for the European Transport Workers’ Federation allowed me and fellow members of the knowledge-dissemination platform www.porteconomics.eu to develop and discuss ideas on the future of labour in ports, writes Peter de Langen.

In my case, this took shape in the context of a global discussion on the viability of a ‘post-work’ future. The main claim of the ‘post-work’ advocates is that we need to move towards a society where work takes a less central place. While people will obviously continue to work, the goal of the post-work advocates is a reduction of (average) working hours and, lower levels of inequality and more financial security, even for those who only work limited hours. That may sound ridiculously optimistic, but both automation and the needed transition towards sustainability may force us to rethink the central position of work (and income) in society.

In my view, the case for a shift towards a ‘post-work’ society is very strong, and perhaps less revolutionary than one would think at first sight, given the historical shift towards more ‘free time’ and less ‘work time’. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ratio between lifetime work time and lifetime free time was about 4 to 1, but by 2040 it is expected to be around 1 to 4 (i.e. four times as much free time as work time).

Shifting dynamics

Specific to ports - and shipping and a range of other industries – is that port work, certainly at terminals, is shift work. Employees work in different shifts, often three, one of which is the night shift. Shift work, especially over a sustained period of time, has proven to have very negative health effects, and is associated with a reduced life expectancy.

Keeping this in mind, the most attractive principle for port work would be to regard it as the main income generating activity over the life-span of a port worker, but at the same time secure it as temporary, in the sense that there is a maximum period (say 20 years) and/or a maximum age (say 50) for port workers.

Ideally, port workers would earn a ‘lifetime living wage’ (i.e. as much as the median person earns in a lifetime) with 20 years’ employment in the port. While current port workers may rather earn more than work less, this model would be fair in the sense that it provides opportunity for more workers to earn a ‘lifetime living wage’ in 20 years. At the same time, it would from the outset provide clarity about the reduced time span of port work and prepare port workers better for the period after working in the port.

This idea may sound utopian but in quite a few countries, such as Sweden, the US and France, the accumulated earnings of a 20-year employment in the ports industry are close to or more than the nationwide median lifetime income. In other countries, fiscal or pension measures could make sufficient lifetime earnings viable.

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