Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Container Shipping Port Faces Union Dilemma

Site Was Once the Scene of Drawn Out Dock Labour Disputes
Shipping News Feature

UK- For those old enough to remember, there is a certain sense of irony about the labour situation developing at the new deep water container port under construction on the Thames. As cranes rise above the horizon and London Gateway begins to take shape ready to accept the first commercial shipping at the end of this year the unions have started to take an interest in how the vessels will be handled and by whom.

London Gateway is the largest current construction project in Europe, if successful it will grow into the largest logistics park on the continent with distribution centres blossoming mere yards from the point where the box ships load and unload. Generally in the UK modern construction crews take little heed of formal unionisation. Stricter Health and Safety regulations and widespread subcontracting have radically altered the face of employment for such as those building the new infrastructure, but what however lies ahead when crews are assigned to drive the trucks and cranes, to stow and tally and maintain the throughput of freight?

This week comments as to how the DP World management should set their employment agenda has flooded in from union interests. A meeting in London this week of world dockers’ representatives unanimously backed the involvement of Unite at the London Gateway terminal and International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) president and dockers’ section committee chair Paddy Crumlin, a figure whose speeches often strike the same chord as dock leaders of a previous generation, has issued what is for him, a fairly guarded statement saying:

“The situation is simple. London Gateway is a major DP World project. DP World is firmly on record as valuing the contribution of workers and unions. Unite the Union is equally committed to a positive outcome at London Gateway. The company should be talking to them right now about how to achieve that.”

Readers may recall that the ITF boss does not usually use such dulcet tones when speaking on workers’ rights and for the past few months labour disputes at other freight terminals around the world have struck the same chord as those stoppages and work to rule actions that plagued this same river fifty years ago and brought about abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme resulting in thousands of dock workers effectively selling jobs guaranteed to themselves and their offspring for generations in exchange for redundancy payments.

The abolition of the scheme, which for sixty years made it a criminal offence to employ any but registered dock workers in a British port, was widely welcomed as it enabled the full use and development of containerisation and international road haulage movements, without which the UK would have become a backward state in terms of international trade. On the 3rd July 1989 the end of the scheme passed into law and made way for the streamlining of ports and the development of the inland clearance depots and private freight terminals we see today.

What is often overlooked is that the traditional role of the stevedore, wharfinger or docker has largely disappeared. No longer do men in much of the world work deep inside a ships hold physically handling cargo into nets for carriage to the quayside. The modern dockworker, certainly within a container facility, is far more likely to be a qualified technician, employed in far lower numbers than hitherto with most of the actual labour occurring at the premises of the consignor or consignee and thus away from the influence of the transport unions.

The meeting in London on the 17th April of the ITF Dockers’ Steering Committee, comprising seventeen dockers’ unions noted that, ‘Unite the Union has sought to engage DP World in a meaningful discussion over union recognition at London Gateway, most recently in a meeting with London Gateway management on 16 April 2013, and also on several previous occasions in the past 12 months.’

Many will watch with interest to see how the labour situation within this brand new environment, carrying no such baggage as the outdated ‘container royalty’ agreements which have plagued industrial relations right up to the present day, will evolve.

Photo: Dock workers ‘going slow’ taken from ‘The Labour Government versus the Dockers 1945-1951’ (a worthwhile read for those interested in the archives of – a ‘libertarian Communist group).