Strikes hang over Brazil's leading port

The Port of Santos in 2015 Photo: RenatoThadoo/Pixabay/Pixabay License The Port of Santos in 2015 Photo: RenatoThadoo/Pixabay/Pixabay License
Industry Database

Casual dockworkers supplied by OGMO at Santos, South America’s largest port for containers, have entered their third week of strike action and continue to demand a return to 25% of the shift allocation.

However, Santos association of port terminals Sindicato dos Operadores Portuários do Estado de São Paulo (SOPESP) has made it clear that it will not use casual workers anymore.

Robert Grantham, a director at consultancy SOLVE, has suggested that the heavy power wielded by the likes of stevedore unions for the Santos region, including OGMO, will consign Sindicato dos Estivadores de Santos (Sindiestiva) to the “dustbin of port history”.

Led by its charismatic president Rodnei Oliveira da Silva (also known as “Stevedore Nei”), Sindiestiva recently met with the mayor of Santos, Paulo Alexandre Barbosa, asking him to broker a deal between the two parties. After the meeting, Mr da Silva declared that his members would continue to picket some of the five box terminals in Santos — Libra Terminais, Brasil Terminal Portuaria (BTP), Ecoporto Santos, Santos Brasil and DP World Santos — and organise protests around the port city until SOPESP gives in to its demands.

A new port law from 2013 meant that the percentage of OGMO workers required in Brazilian container terminals could fall from 75% to 50% to 25%, and then to 0%, from March 1 of this year, the day the strikes started. OGMO is currently comprised of around 4,000 registered stevedores and the five terminals are said to be offering around 500 to 600 new full-time jobs to its members as and when the strike actions end. So far, shipping agents in Santos have reported only “minimum disruptions” to port operations, although these might increase “if the strikes continue for much longer”.

At the start of the strikes and picketing, Sindiestiva dockers tried to enter Libra Terminais but were repelled by a mix of federal police and Guarda Portuária (port guards employed by Companhia Docas do Estado de São Paulo, or Codesp, the Santos port authority). With the new government of Brazil, under right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, touting several anti-union and pro-market/business policies, military police were also on hand in case the violence and potential invasion escalated. On top of this, wily operations managers at BTP, a joint venture between CMA CGM’s Terminal Link and APM Terminals, erected a barricade of empty containers to prevent any invasion. Mr da Silva argued that the attempted invasion of Libra Terminais was to check if unqualified labour was being used at the facility.

“The companies are working with labour that does not have qualification for the stevedore function, and are thereby breaking the labour laws,” he insisted.

But those accusations have been falling on deaf ears, with SOPESP remaining tight-lipped, although they did release a statement reiterating their position:“We no longer need to employ casual workers and we are complying with the laws,” it said.

In August last year, after several days of picketing, Sindiestiva led an OGMO invasion of a CMA CGM vessel berthed at the Libra Terminais facility on the right bank of the port.

“What the union bosses need to realise is that they must reinvent their unions in terms of offering social protection and defence of workers’ interests and not trying to maintain their old privileges,” Mr Grantham, who used to be the president of the port operators association of Itajaí, told Port Strategy.

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