Spanish Government Backs Down However EU Regulators are Watching
SPAIN – Different time, different country. How things have changed with regard to employment throughout Europe as the Spanish government is reported as having retreated from its sworn plans to liberalise the country's ports. The authorities revealed plans in February to dismantle the current dock workers registration system in a move somewhat reminiscent of the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme in the UK in April 1989 by Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government. The Spanish announcement led to the threat of widespread industrial disturbances and now we are told the plan has collapsed, at least temporarily.
Ironically the British move was designed to eliminate so called ‘Spanish Practices’ whereby short cuts at work become the norm and under which workers effectively got a guaranteed job for life. A deal cut between the dockers’ union with Jack Dash at its head and a previous Tory government with Ted Heath as prime minister. The freeing up of employment then led to major changes, just at a time when containerisation had become the norm and rendered many traditional handling methods redundant. After the blood and thunder of the miners’ dispute the dock workers problem was solved in many instances with generous redundancy payments.
This move by Spain however has not been propelled by the authorities, far from it, as the government acted on strict instructions from the European Commission which referred the country to the Court of Justice of the EU for failing to comply with a previous judgement in 2014 which found that the obligations for cargo-handling companies in Spanish ports to register with a 'pool company' and to hold shares in that company and to employ as a priority workers provided by that company, runs counter to Article 49 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).
The judgement against Spain was launched after complaints that it was effectively running a ‘closed shop’ preventing fair competition from other EU members as they are unable to set up a cargo handling operation without being forced to abide by the restrictive practices required under the Spanish regulations. Similar complaints have been made against other EU members and, in this case, the Court ordered the Kingdom of Spain to accede and also to pay all Court costs.
Whilst 28 years ago Britain pushed through the changes which revitalised places such as Teesport, Hull, Bristol and Tilbury, it seems for the moment nothing is changing in Spain judging by the jubilation expressed by unions involved. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has supported the dockers position from the start claiming that dismantling the registration system which the EU says is illegal would in fact be in breach of Spain’s international obligations under ILO (International Labour Organization) Convention 137.
The ITF claims that the agreements between the employers' association, ANESCO, and the dock workers unions were only recently drawn up and apparently chooses to ignore the ruling of the Court with president and dockers' section chair, Paddy Crumlin saying the plans were ‘beyond belief’ and ‘wrecking the social partnership’. He continued:
“This just shows the power of the dockers in Spain and I congratulate them for making the government back down. Anyone who cares about Spain, Spanish jobs and its international standing knows that this plan stinks to high heaven. But it took the steadfast opposition of the workers, with international solidarity behind them, to make the politicians stand up and defeat this measure.”
It is doubtful that many will share Mr Crumlin’s usual enthusiasm in this particular case although unsurprisingly support came from affiliated operation the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) with political secretary for dockers and fisheries Livia Spera describing the government’s proposals as an ‘aggressive and destructive neo-liberal economic plan’ saying this was a ‘struggle for a fairer transport sector in Europe’, precisely the exact opposite of what the EU says that repeal of the current regulations is aimed at.
ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith gave a hint however that the unions surely know this matter is very far from concluded. No matter what the Spanish government says now, the EU regulators are sure to want to see the Court of Justice ruling obeyed and penalties imposed on the Spanish state are likely to be extremely punitive if Spain insists on what will widely be viewed throughout the rest of the EU as no more than restrictive practices.
Although it can be argued the abandonment of the Dock Labour Scheme in the UK led to a sharp rise in employment in the transport industry, albeit across a much wider base with many private container handling operations springing up, this was mainly due to the sudden attractiveness of the country’s less regulated ports. Whether the changes envisaged by the EU in Spain would have a similar effect is far less likely, in fact it might well lead to more jobs for foreign workers from other EU countries and less for the Spanish themselves, particularly if, when the dust settles, native workers are considered more militant.