Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Portugal Dockers / Ports Package 3 Through The Back Door

121126: Report from Portugal, Monday 26th Nov

Having arrived in Portugals´s capital Lisbon yesterday, I spent Monday morning at the office of the dockworkers' union SETC. 

Portugal is a small country with a long coast and several important islands, like Madeira and the Azores. The dockers are spread out and with few exceptions the ports are relatively small. There are estimately 800 regular and 200 casual dockworkers nation-wide. 

Lissabon port

The port of Lisbon is the nation's biggest waterfront employer, with it´s wide-ranging quays spread out all along the river in the inner parts of the city. In this city there are currently seven different port operators handling the cargo, but only some 200 of the dockers are directly employed by the different firms. The rest, about 180, are assigned work day by day through a common pool in which the companies are all shareholders. The pool distributes the available job opportunities according to a system, much like the ones we had in many ports in Sweden some 25-30 years ago and which is still in effect for the casuals in Gothenburg. To guarantee that the system runs fairly and according to the rules the union has a representative, José Carlos, assigned to control the hiring of the worker pool. 
Dockers unloading sand from a bulckfartyg

Some of the terminals are quite old fashioned while others have brand new cranes and machines but a little ragged exterior. There is, of course, very little activity in the ports these days but according to government decrees, indsutrial action is not allowed to shut down all port operations indefinately. On Monday, some of the dockers worked a day shift to provide what the goverment calls "minimum services". Union board member Gaspar and other representatives from the SETC thus invited me to see the TMB terminal, where "minimum services" meant that the dockers were unloading one of the several holds on a bulk ship filled with sugar. They were also loading containers and general cargo onboard a ship destined for Madeira. 
The dockworkers handle the whole operation. They rotate on all the jobs, ranging from manual labour, tally work and driving cranes to supervising the operations as foremen. Even the head of all daily operations at the terminal is a dockworker. The work is often quite risky by Swedish standards but most of the machine park is fairly modern. The terminal also has several big warehouses where pallets are stored awaiting further transport.
Gaspar, Member of SETC Board, meet a colleague 

Just beside TMB terminal lies the container terminal SOTAGUS. The principal is the same here. Dockworkers handle most of the tasks, not only loading and unloading of ships. They man the gates, operate the warehouses, planning and rearranging the container park etc. These jobs are now at risk. The new bill that the Portuguese goverment is presenting to the parliament this week, excludes all these tasks from the dockworker profession.
Container terminal SOTAGUS

The mood at the union, where a lot of people pass through, is very friendly but it is obvious that the situation here is very troubling and that the fighting dockers are under a lot of pressure. Many of the union organizers work from early morning well into the night to keep everything on track. Their phones are ringing constantly. The Portuguese dockworkers, port clerks and port pilots have now been on strike off and on for three months. This has had a profound impact on the industry. For example, according to the employers it has reduced the monthly imports and exports passing through the port of Lisbon by at least 26% so far. Big business associations and the Portuguese goverment are worried but still unwilling to compromise. The bill for total deregulation of the port sector will be presented to the Portuguese Parliament this Thursday, the 29th of November, without any prior negotiations or talks between the goverment and the affected worker organisations. The port operators are also unwilling to negotiate any compromise, saying they are under pressure from the authorities. 
Dockers on their way home after finishing shifts

Instead, the goverment and the employers are trying hard to shift focus away from the key issues of the bill, which include anullment of occupational training and many of the current safety regulations and dissolving the division of tasks between seafarers, dockers and outside temp agencies regulated in the UN´s ILO Convention 137. They want to play down the fact that the dockworkers here are fighting to keep their jobs and maintaing the status of dockwork as a profession. Employers, shipping companies and the government are currently running a media campaign about the dockers´salaries, shamelessly claiming dockers make over 5000 Euros a month, which in Portugal is very high. The unions have responded by publicly displaying all their payment schemes. It is true that a docker can in theory make up to 5 600 Euros a month, if he works all three shifts (24 hours) thirty (30) days a month. A docker working 166 hours a week would probably die of exhaustion within months, though. Not to mention the fact that the proposed new laws and attitudes are threatening to roll back worker safety reforms in the ports at least forty years.
Some port operators, big shipping companies and business associations are even trying to push the government to break the strikes by force, refering to what they call "civil request". This could in fact mean introducing martial law against the workers. The dockers have already been slammed with legal requests to provide "minimum services" in the ports even during industrial action. 

The Portuguese dockers are staying strong, though. They are refusing to back down and cave in to threats. The dockers are constantly re-inventing themselves and their industrial action not to be pushed into a corner. They have left several suggestions about a social compromise concerning the new port laws. They are preparing to present a proposal to the Parliament on Thursday, hopefully signed by all visiting dockworkers' unions coming to Lisbon this week. The proposal is that they suspend all strikes and international solidarity action for thirty days if they are invited to discuss the bill with the employers and the government. They are thereby offering all involved parties some breathing space to initiate constructive discussions. With the current outside pressure put on the Portuguese politicians by the 'Troika' (EU, IMF, ECB) it is unsure if the Parliament will respond positively, though. Chairman Vitor, IDC-representative Joao and the others are very realistic. Their aim in the current confrontation is not to strike until all proposals for new laws are withdrawn but reaching a negotiated solution which still protects the dockworkers´profession.
Vitor, Chairman for SETC and Joao, IDC-represnt for SETC 

The upcoming dockworker demonstration in Lisbon on the 29th is obviously regarded as highly problematic by both the Portuguese Goverment and the Public Security Police. The latter are expecting hundreds of dockers to show up in solidarity from France, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Cyprus and Sweden. The families of the dockers has now decided that they too will march on the 29th, in a special block in the demonstration.
International solidarity is also a factor that makes the Goverment hesitate about "civil request"-measures. As one journalist, António Ribeiro Ferreira, wrote last week:
 "[It] has to do with the strong bond and team spirit that characterizes the dockers worldwide, particularly in Europe. Tougher Government action in Portuguese ports could lead other European unions to move to other forms of struggle. That could mean boycotts against any vessels carrying goods from Portuguese ports. Ultimately, they may even impose partial or general strikes in European ports, which would export the Portuguese conflict to other European countries. This situation leads the Portuguese authorities to consider the successive strikes with particular care in an explosive situation that is being handled with discretion in many capitals of the EU countries."
António Ribeiro Ferreira missed one important fact, though: The first partial solidarity strikes in European ports have already taken place, back in September. Now European dockworkers are escalating solidarity actions for their Portuguese comrades. Many of the European ports will be shut down completely by solidarity strikes for two hours between 1 and 3 PM on the 29th of November.

/Erik Helgeson


Swedish Dockworker's Union 

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