Labor Reform and Related Social Issues
LABOR INVOLVEMENT IN
A realistic and responsible port reform initiative
must recognize and deal with the possible
adverse human and social effects that may
result from implementation. To ensure that
dock workers’ rights and interests are properly
taken into account, the International Transport
Workers’ Federation (ITF) recommends that
policy makers should involve labor at all stages
of port reform.
The principal areas of interest for port labor
include, but are not limited to:
- Stable and fulfilling employment.
- Reasonable incomes.
- Decent working conditions.
- Social security and pension provision.
- Education and vocational training.
- Health, safety, and the environment.
- Workplace democracy.
- Freedom from discrimination on the basis
of race, religion, social status, or gender.
- Freedom from corruption and coercion.
Historically, trade unions have worked to advocate
these interests. And trade unions can be expected to continue to play an important role in
the port community during and after the period
of reform implementation. Government authorities,
when undertaking reform, must recognize
this legitimate and important role and should not
view port reform predominantly as an opportunity
to break trade unions or otherwise undermine
their role in protecting workers’ interests.
Despite the critical role that labor plays in
ports, many countries have designed and implemented
port reform adjustment programs without
the involvement of workers’ representatives
Failure of governments to secure constructive
labor involvement in port reforms can typically
be traced to:
- Mistrust stemming from historic disputes
and the recurring conflicts over capitallabor
- Inadequate and untimely preparation of
port reform proposals, making it difficult
for labor to take part in consultations
- Financial resources that are too limited to
cover training needs created by port reform.
Governments, however, have much to gain from
involving labor early and effectively in the port
reform process. Port labor is one of the most
valuable assets of the port community. This
pool of trained personnel is a deep source of
practical knowledge with vast experience in
port operations. This source can be tapped to
contribute problem-solving expertise and innovation
to add value to the goods and services of
On the other hand, labor unions themselves
must face a number of crucial challenges to
adjust and optimize their own effectiveness
when dealing with reform. As listed by a former
ITF official, the main challenges include:
- Union participation. The participation of
trade unions in the reform process is a
big challenge because it requires a commitment
from trade union leaders.
Negotiation implies compromise and this
may not always be to the liking of all
affected trade union members. Union
leaders must accept that once they have
negotiated the best deal possible, it is
their responsibility to defend it strongly
to their members.
- Unification of workers’ short- and longterm
interests. The issues confronting
labor during the transition period to
reform versus the period following the
introduction of reform are different. In
the transition period, the challenge for
trade unions is primarily to defend the
short-term interests of workers. At the
same time, trade unions have to look to
the future and to defend the workers’
long-term interests. This means that they
have to understand longer term trends
affecting the port industry and to be able
to develop appropriate policy and a strategy
for the future.
- Increase expertise within the union.
Participating actively and effectively in a
reform process requires trade unions to
become thoroughly knowledgeable about
shipping, ports, and international trade,
and to commit significant human
resources to the reform process. In addition,
trade union structure must allow for
the internal exchange of information and
debate. In some cases this expertise needs
to be developed, as it has been within
those unions more experienced in reform
processes. There are several ways to
develop this expertise within a union,
- Introduction of new trade union structures.
One obstacle to successful port
reform could lie in outdated union structures
that divide workers into many
small, different unions, that sometimes
compete among themselves for membership.
Efficient trade union structures, covering
the whole industry, should be created
to enable union officials to exchange
information within the union, to organize
the necessary internal debate, and to
present a consistent approach in their
dialogue with public authorities.
- Finding solutions to social problems
caused by reforms. The main source of
port workers’ opposition to reform is
uncertainty. Faced with the fear of unemployment
or major cuts in income, labor’s
first reaction is always to say no. Unless
workers can be given an interest in the
results of the reform, they will resist any
change. Employment and income guarantees
for port workers affected by reform
are, therefore, essential in creating the climate
required for successful and lasting
port reforms. The costs of severance pay,
unemployment benefits, pensions, cash
payments for early retirement, or other
measures must be considered a legitimate
part of the overall cost of reform. The
challenge for the trade unions, which
comes prior to solving social problems, is
to develop their own policy on those
issues and to reach common ground with
public authorities and private employers.
- Reform acceptance. Unions increasingly
recognize the need for a differentiation of their policies on reforms and reform.
Resolutions adopted at ITF’s Latin
American and Caribbean and African
Regional Dockers’ Conferences in Lima
(November 1996) and Mombasa
(December 1996) indicated for the first
time that unions acknowledged that there
is no standard model for port restructuring
and that increased involvement of the
private sector is an option that cannot be
discarded. The basis for this changing
attitude toward reform was the increased
awareness that it is not reform that
threatens working conditions, but the
process through which it is implemented.
- New culture of competition. A major
consequence of reform is an increase in
competition. This usually calls for new
flexibility in working practices. There are
many forms of flexibility, and trade
unions should understand this aspect of
reform and competition thoroughly to
again find a balance between what is presented
as necessary and what is recognized
as socially acceptable.
- Understanding the need for new labor
relations. Reform brings with it a complete
realignment of labor relations. In
the case of state-owned ports and related
companies, the relationship is between
only two parties: government and labor.
Reform means that a third party is introduced:
the private entrepreneur or
employer. For many trade union officials
this change requires a complete overhaul
of the way they used to think about labor
relations. Moreover, it also requires from
managers a completely different attitude
and approach. Trade unions, employers,
and would-be entrepreneurs can no
longer rely on governments or other
authorities when decisions need to be
made. In many instances, entrepreneurs
have to make their own decisions, in
some cases in consultation with labor
representatives and in some cases in consultation
with authorities. Authorities
must learn that the state, on many occasions,
should no longer take the lead, but
should provide an environment in which
entrepreneurs are encouraged to make
their own decisions and in which trade
unions and employers are encouraged to
develop joint approaches to addressing
labor issues. Box 7 describes Ghana’s
approach for addressing a number of
Box 8 presents an example of the reference to
the port labor clauses in a concession agreement.