The Netherlands wants less Brussels: Hands off the dockworker!

30 May 2009

The Netherlands wants less Brussels: Hands off the dockworker!

Dockers want less Brussels and, what's more, they have seen their wish come true. Mass, sustained resistance to the liberalisation of dock work led in 2006 to the European Parliament voting down the EU's neoliberal Ports Services Directive – a victory for the SP, the dockworkers and the labour movement.

From 2000 onwards Brussels tried to impose a thoroughgoing liberalisation of docks. Time after time the European Commission's plans came up against the determined resistance of the dockers themselves and of the SP. And time after time they tried, in spite of this, to force the liberalisation plans through, on each occasion with cosmetic changes from the previous text.

The Dutch government decided, in 2005, as the best pupil in the EU class, to renounce International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 137, which states that only qualified and registered dock workers should be allowed to load and unload ships. The ILO Treaty also guarantees a certain level of income and gives registered dock workers priority access to employment in ports. The Dutch government's intention was to steal a march on a possible new European ports directive.

Working with untrained and therefore cheaper employees carries risks for personal and general safety. Moreover, renouncing the ILO Treaty's stipulation would undermine the position of dockworkers in relation to working conditions and security of employment.

According to Niek Stam, who at the time was ports coordinator for the FNV, the Netherlands' most important trade union federation, the Ports Services Directive would have had disastrous consequences for safety in the docks. “Seafarers are simply not accustomed to doing the work of loading and unloading and don't know how to go about it. Dock workers have to communicate closely with each other. If personnel aren't trained, it's not impossible that, for example, a container could fall on someone. In the least troublesome case the cargo would end up overboard, and in the worst possible scenario someone would end up under a machine, dead.”

Spirited demonstrations of dockworkers were seen in Rotterdam, outside the Dutch Parliament in The Hague and the European Parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg, when ten thousand dockers came from all over Europe. In the Dutch national Parliament and the European Parliament, SP parliamentarians took up the cudgels just as fiercely, while a damning report from consultants Deloitte condemned the proposal: it would lead, the investigators predicted, to higher costs, higher tariffs, the formation of monopolies, a decline in employment and in the quality of port services.

Eventually, in January 2006, the European Parliament rejected the Ports Services Directive by a sizeable majority: a victory for the dockers, the labour movement and the SP, in Niek Stam's view. “Together we proved that resistance to Brussels can actually be successful. And that it is necessary. Ever more regulation comes from Brussels and for that reason it is important that parties such as the SP are represented in the European Parliament.”

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