Dockers and employers seek agreement to avoid port strike in Spain despite the government’s intransigence

Dockers and employers seek agreement to avoid port strike in Spain despite the government's intransigence

Employers and unions have agreed to find a way to save the 6,150 jobs in the country’s port sector in return for a pay cut of 10 per cent, together with other consensus-based measures.

(EC-Audiovisual Service)

Dockworkers and companies in Spanish ports have reached an initial agreement, on their own, enabling the suspension of strike action, despite the inflexible attitude shown by the government, which has passed a decree aimed at wiping out good working conditions in the sector.

Despite the intransigence shown by the government, which bypassed negotiations with the social partners and unilaterally decided to pass a royal decree that will govern future port operations, employers and the unions have agreed to find a way to save the 6,150 jobs across the country, in exchange for a 10 per cent pay cut, together with other consensus-based measures.

This has enabled the suspension of five of the eight days of strike action called on 24 May, although the call for stoppages on 5, 7 and 9 June has been maintained pending the conclusion of a final agreement between the two sides at their next meeting on Thursday 1 June.

Sector’s future in the air since 2014

The dispute stems from reforms promoted by the European Commission (EC) to harmonise the liberalisation of the port sector in the European Union.

Dock workers in Spain and Belgium were governed by a special regime whereby labour conditions, hiring arrangements, training and safety requirements were determined by the dockworkers themselves. The system was consolidated in both countries, but the EC referred them to the European Court of Justice, which ordered an end to the system on grounds that it contravenes the principle of freedom of establishment.

In its ruling of 11 December 2014, Luxembourg ordered the removal of the obligation for any company wanting to compete in the sector in Spain to register with the Dockers’ Management Public Limited Liability Company, (Sociedad Anónima de Gestión de Estibadores Portuarios), to hold shares in the company and to hire a minimum number of workers supplied by it.

In Belgium, which was faced with a similar situation, the government, employers and trade unions came to an agreement to ensure the transition was carried out smoothly and guaranteed the carrying over of existing jobs.

In Spain, however, the conservative government led by the Partido Popular (PP) acted unilaterally, seeking to pass legislation in a manner described by international transport unions as “authoritarian”, “beyond belief”, “beyond sense and potentially beyond international law”, and a “betrayal” of Spain’s dock workers and its national interests.

In the middle of 2015, the unions proposed an action plan to comply with Luxembourg, but the government ignored it and allowed the problem to drag on until February of this year when, without prior consultations, it presented a decree pushing for the eradication of both the SAGEPs and all existing jobs (so that companies would be free to hire workers on new contracts and under new working conditions).

This first attempt was blocked by parliament, so the PP negotiated with other parties to secure support for a second version, which was approved on 18 May. The decree now leaves scope, at least, for the employers and workers to come to a voluntary agreement on the carrying over of existing job contracts and the participation of both parties in Port Employment Centres (CEP), which will not be compulsory but will provide continuity to the role played by the SAGEPs in the country’s ports.

The CEPs will be set up to facilitate the hiring and training of new professionals in a way that will ensure respect for safety. The current members of the employers’ association ANESCO (Asociación Nacional de Empresas Estibadoras y Consignatarias de Buques) have all agreed to hold shares in the CEPs, as they did with the SAGEPs. ANESCO refused to comment on this article.

“The government’s initial proposal was an attempt to send all the workers to the dole queue, so that companies could hire whoever they wanted under the conditions they wanted, with no guarantee of safe training and no respect for the collective agreements in the sector,” Miguel Rodríguez, head of communications and spokesperson for the sea workers’ union Coordinadora Estatal de Trabajadores del Mar (CETM), which groups the country’s stevedore unions, told Equal Times.

By contrast, he points out, “In Belgium, the government negotiated from the very beginning and, of course, guaranteed the dock workers’ register and that all staff would be taken on by the new companies. Mechanisms have also been set up to ensure staff training with the necessary assurances in terms of quality, safety and productivity.”

This is precisely what Spain’s employers and unions are now working to secure, independently of the government, within the scope provided by the new decree.

They have also reached an initial agreement on “something that is very important to us, and all Spanish workers, I think: that sector-wide collective agreements carry the same weight as company agreements”. This sets a precedent, given that priority has been given to the latter in Spain since the 2012 labour reform.

“Privileges” or hard-earned rights?

“We would have liked to have seen all of this set out in the legislation, but they have left it conditional to there being a pact between companies and workers,” says Rodríguez. He nevertheless welcomes the understanding reached last week with ANESCO, ensuring the transfer of 100 per cent of the current jobs held, rather than just 75 per cent, as indicated in the version of the decree that was finally approved.

The trade unions, although excluded from taking part in drafting the legislation, will be negotiating the final shape of an agreement with the employers’ association, guaranteeing “the transfer of all current job contracts, training and the regulation of the CEPs, but on our own ground, where we are used to playing: at the negotiating table with companies. We will come to an agreement, I’m sure of it. We always have done,” he assured.

At least now the dock workers have seen the back of the smear campaign launched by the government and the media, portraying them as a “privileged” group capable of forcing the country to pay fines and sustain economic losses so that they could hold on to conditions presented as ‘unsustainable’.

“It has been the usual package of hostility shown by the government in such cases, and that we are used to seeing them deploy against the collectives they want to deregulate: public employees, teachers, professors, air traffic controllers, taxi drivers, etc.,” commented Rodríguez.

“It is stale, out-dated, mud-slinging, of the kind, ‘you are privileged because you have good labour conditions, rest periods and above-average pay’. Luckily, I don’t think it worked, but we’ve had to suffer it once again.”

“It seems the government is very put out at having to negotiate with workers on equal terms,” he concluded.

This article has been translated from Spanish.