Spanish port reforms: trouble ahead?

A controversial government plan to change the rules that govern Spanish ports has been approved by the country’s parliament. Is this the end of the road, or the beginning of yet more concern for Spain’s maritime sector?


Spanish ports

“This is a betrayal of Spain’s dockworkers,” said International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) president and dockers’ section chair, Paddy Crumlin, on 18 May. “What we’re looking at here is a piece of cynical horse-trading by political parties who don’t care what the effect will be on the human beings who work in these ports.”

Crumlin’s irritation follows the announcement that a royal decree to reform port labour has been approved by the lower house of the Spanish parliament – 174 votes in favour, 165 against, with eight abstentions.

“We warned back in February,” continued Crumlin, “that the government was tearing up the rule book with a callous disregard for jobs, Spanish prestige and international conventions, and what the consequences would be. The[y] will now face a unified front of the world’s dockworkers supporting their Spanish colleagues.”

This is not, however, a new development. Indeed, back in March, a previous royal decree was rejected by the congress, with 175 votes against, 142 in favour and 33 abstentions, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's ruling minority government and forcing parties back to the negotiating table.

At the time, it was labelled a “victory”, although the likes of the ITF and national unions agreed that while that particular battle had been won, the war was not yet over.

Prediction has now turned into reality. But what are the proposed reforms, and why are they necessary?

Bringing Spain in line with EU rules

Speaking in March, ahead of the initial rejection by congress, Rajoy explained: “It is a European directive that we must follow. We have delayed its approval; we have given all the time in the world to reach an agreement.”

What Rajoy was referring to is Article 49 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. In essence, Rajoy and his government are attempting to bring Spain in line with EU law in terms of its port labour practices, by deregulating stevedoring to allow the hiring of non-union port labour. Currently, firms can only hire dockers from groups known as Sagebs, which select, train and provide personnel.

Such a system, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2014, is a violation of EU laws on the freedom of establishment. Then, in April last year, the European Commission referred Spain to the Court for failing to comply with its directive to liberalise the market. In a press release, the Commission stated: “The Commission invites Spain to rapidly undertake the necessary reforms in order to comply with this judgement; otherwise, the Court may decide to impose financial penalties on Spain.” To date, the Spanish Government has incurred fines of approximately €25m.

"A royal decree to reform port labour has been approved."

“The allegation was that the way the dockers are recruited and employed could dissuade enterprises from establishing themselves in Spanish ports,” explains Livia Spera, political secretary for Dockers and Fisheries at the European Transport Workers’ Federation

Spain’s Minister of Development Íñigo de la Serna told reporters in May that the country “cannot be European for some things, yes and for others, no. We are a serious country and we would not have the authority to ask a community or a citizen to comply with a sentence if we do not do it [ourselves].” The Spanish Ministry of Public Works was contacted for comment for this article, but failed to respond before deadline.

However, in a statement, José Llorca Ortega, president of Puertos del Estado, the government agency responsible for implementing port policy, said they have laid the foundations for the future of the sector, adding “we have taken a very important step.”

EU sources, meanwhile, say the Commission supports approval of the decree, and based on what they have been told by authorities, it does address the restrictions identified by the Court of Justice in 2014, namely the freedom of establishment of port operators.

The reform, sources believe, will also contribute to the competitiveness of ports and protect dock workers, to a degree.

The difficulty for the Spanish Government lies in pleasing both sides – on the one hand, complying with EU directives, and on the other, trying to stave off the threat of strikes and the consequences of such action on trade in an economy that is still recovering from the global financial crash. Add to that, approximately 60% of the country’s trade relies on ports, while Spain is home to the Mediterranean's largest ports: Valencia and Algeciras.

Dockers fearing for jobs

Union opposition has stemmed from the fear of job losses. Jordi Aragunde, general coordinator of the International Dockworkers Council, said in May: “Our main demand is maintaining all our jobs.” Latest reports confirm there has been some progress on this front, however.

On 24 May, unions cancelled the first five days of planned strikes, after reaching an agreement with the port employers association, Anesco, which involves wage cuts of up to 10%. Antolín Goya, a spokesperson for CETM, Spain’s largest longshore union, said: "We will accept a national collective agreement – provided it guarantees 100% of employment – and we will assume the reduction of wages.” On its part, Anesco will continue its representation for ports in collective bargaining.

Minister de la Serna has called the development “very positive”, and thanked unions for their “willingness to reach an agreement.” He added that the government would now implement the royal decree as soon as possible.

"It is a European directive that we must follow."

Speaking before the approval of the decree, Spera outlined her concerns. “The point is that we are not saying the system cannot or shouldn't be changed. It can be reformed in a way that the working conditions are kept and you ensure the participation of the unions.”

What's more, despite the progress over recent weeks, there is latent anger with how the situation has played out. “We found it [to be a] very dogmatic approach,” adds Spera. “We are not against freedom of movement for workers in European ports, but there should be conditions that apply to everybody.

“The system may be too closed [and] we need to adapt to European law, but does it mean [you need] to completely open the regulatory system and have no protection?”

The union-Anesco agreement is a step in the right direction, but by no means is it the end of the matter. At the time of writing, dockers have just held the first of what could be many strikes – a prospect that the government will no doubt be keen to avoid as it seeks to end years of uncertainty.