The modern European dock worker is likely to be a technically savvy operator whether studying a VDU in a booking office or perched inside a container handler, looking at the world through a series of cameras via a computer screen. His or her counterpart on the other side of the world however is sometimes almost operating in a time warp, with much of the labour still physical as boxes are loaded or unloaded at quayside, and in these environments lines can potentially be crossed by both sides of the workforce.
The latest flash point is in Madagascar where 43 dock workers were recently dismissed, allegedly because they joined a union, SYGMMA, a practice proscribed by their employers. The action has caused the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) to launch a campaign on the web and in the streets, which now will see protests outside of Madagascan embassies across three continents. The Madagascan embassies in Sydney, Washington, Brussels, Rotterdam, Paris, Istanbul and Helsinki will all bear witness to an action prompted by the treatment of the men by the ICTSI operated Port of Toamasina. The Philippine based container terminal operator is itself of course no stranger to labour disputes at its facilities.
The employers would doubtless point out that the workers involved were casual staff but what reinforces the union case perhaps more than anything is the fact that some of those involved had been working for over 11 years on a casual piece rate with a maximum daily rate of USD $9.24. This however depends on whether or not there are containers to load each day. If not, and despite a set roster, then none are paid. No containers, no pay and no possibility to take other work. The ITF claims this has led to an average monthly income of just $40 or $1.33/day.
This situation led the union taking the company to Court arguing that under article 9 of the Madagascan labour law, these workers should be made permanent, a ruling which despite a union victory, has apparently been ignored by the employers, the SMMC, which has the concession for the handling of conventional goods, and has the state as its only majority shareholder. Ongoing containerised cargo is handled by a separate entity, MICTSL not involved in this dispute.
Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, has of course had a troubled history of late with effectively a coup d'état in 2009 which prompted US sanctions, lifted only after an election in 2013 was judged to be fair. The ITF states that the Port of Toamasina is the main gateway for $360 million worth of textile products exported to Europe, $100 million to South Africa, and $60 million to the US, with major international brands such as Levi Strauss sourcing clothing there. Steve Cotton, ITF General Secretary, said these protests were the first actions in an ongoing campaign to get the 43 dock workers reinstated, commenting:
“These workers were sacked for fighting for better wages and against dangerous conditions. After joining their union, they faced intimidation and retaliation from management, who gave them two options, leave the union or lose their jobs. The workers refused and were sacked, contravening their rights to freedom of association. Most are struggling to survive. The Court of Madagascar recognised that SYGMMA had the right to organise at the Port of Toamasina. To date, none of the 43 workers who were dismissed for union activity have been reinstated,”