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Revamp for Port Directive

The EU's port directive aims to provide cheaper loading and unloading of ships – but paves the way for solidarity between port workers and seafarers.


For two weeks, the European Parliament's transport committee turned its thumb down for a new port directive proposal. The majority was rightly scarcely possible, 24 against 23. The Social Democrats, the Left Socialists and the Greens voted no, but would have lost the vote if they had not been followed by a couple of British Conservatives.

Over the New Year, the directive will be debated in parliament in parliament – where the previous version of the directive was stopped two years ago. It came as a great surprise to anyone who was not aware of the efforts made by port and transport workers across Europe to stop it.

And a rare victory

In December 2003, the Left in the European Parliament won one of its few victories. Then a proposal from the EU Commission for a port directive was voted down – in a vote with a clear right-left pattern. That should have meant a clear right-wing majority in the vote. But the turnout was so much better on the left that the Ports Directive was voted down.

Following the June 2004 election, the right-wing majority was strengthened in the European Parliament. The European Commission therefore saw the opportunity to obtain a majority for a new version of the Port Directive in the new parliament. The Commission therefore submitted a new proposal last year in new packaging, but where all the important things were still included.

The European Parliament decides

EU laws must be adopted by two EU bodies – by a majority in the EU Parliament and by a so-called qualified majority (at least 232 of 321 votes) in the Council of Ministers where ministers from the twenty-five EU governments meet.

In 2003, all fifteen EU governments then voted for the directive. There is little reason to believe that governments from the ten new EU countries should be more critical than Persson's and Schröder's governments were.

The real decision is therefore made in the European Parliament when the directive goes to plenary treatment there over the New Year. It will then prove whether the professional opposition to the Port Directive has once again been large enough to stop one of the most dramatic liberalization directives ever promoted by the European Commission.

Effective professional campaign

The European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) has for years strongly mobilized against the Port Directive. In September 2001, there was a political strike at all major ports in Europe. In Norway, work was stationary in 45 ports. There have been similar days of action every year thereafter.

Prior to the parliamentary session in the autumn of 2003, the Transport and Port Workers' Union across Europe launched an effective campaign to influence the outcome. Actions were carried out in the ports and worked to get the widest possible support from other unions, from national trade unions and from Euro-LO. Members of the European Parliament were contacted personally with information on the effects of the Port Directive. As leader of the Norwegian and Nordic Transport Workers' Federation, Per Østvold was one of the key players in this campaign of influence.


In August 2001, the European Commission presented a proposal for a directive requiring competition for the loading and unloading of ships in all major ports. For example, it should be allowed to use the crew on board to load and unload.

The proposal for a port directive will undermine the exclusive right of unloading and cargo offices in most European ports, an exclusive right that has been important in protecting the wages and working conditions of the port workers.

This is also the case in Norway. In the largest ports in Norway, the cargo and cargo workers are employed at a cargo and cargo office, which rents them out to shipping agents and other port users. In smaller ports, the unloading and loading workers are communicated to the port users through the unions in the ports. This exclusive right to carry out unloading and loading work is stipulated in the collective bargaining agreements of the port workers.

If the Port Directive is adopted, pay and working conditions will be the means of competition for assignments in each port. When a ship can be loaded and unloaded by the ship's own crew, it will allow for wage dumping without a lower limit. On ships with flags of convenience, wages are often a fraction of the port tariff.

Wild west at sea

Many more than the port workers depend on the existence of such exclusive rights for loading and unloading around the ports. The only thing that can contribute to fairly decent pay and working conditions in international shipping is precisely the position of power for port workers in Europe, North America and Australia.

On the seven seas, there is no international regulation of wages and working conditions – other than international conventions that no shipowner is obliged to follow. Large parts of shipping are without collective agreements, and in few places it is more difficult to start a trade union than on ships under flags of convenience with owners hiding behind stacks of holding companies.

At the same time, the competition is so fierce that even serious shipowners flee to where the regulations are weakest. In countries such as Norway, it has forced so-called "international ship registers" with weakened regulations for ships in foreign trade – so that not all shipowners would move their ships out of the country.

ITF's only safety net

In this situation, the work of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has proved absolutely indispensable. Both seafarers and port workers have the ITF as a professional umbrella over their national unions, and the ITF has built up a network of inspectors who notify if a ship violates the minimum wage and labor rules set by ITF itself. Such a ship is boycotted in all ports where the port workers are well organized. Cargo is not unloaded and new cargo is not brought on board until wage and working conditions are settled.

This solidarity between port workers and seafarers is the only thing that has prevented full demolition of the standards of international shipping.

Rather cheap than socially responsible

The EU's port directive erodes the basis for this solidarity by unleashing competition in every single European port and putting port workers against crew when ships are to be unloaded or loaded. Without well-organized port workers with the exclusive right to unload and unload, it will not be possible for the ITF to set its minimum requirements for wages and working conditions in international shipping.

But all that matters little to the European Commission and the right side of the European Parliament, only competition can make it cheaper to unload and load ships in European ports.

Through the EEA, the Ports Directive will also affect our ports. The red-green government must say clearly from now on – to the EU Commission and the EU governments we are most in agreement with – that the ports directive must be rejected. It should also be possible to support those who are most concerned about the competitiveness of Norwegian shipping.

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