Introduction

Strikes are frequent in the port of Lisbon. The main point of tension is the legal guarantee for the exclusive use of a licensed (unionised) labour force by port operators. Port workers argue that the guarantee is essential to safeguard their rights, working conditions and salaries. Port operators, on the other hand, complain that the excess protection of port workers and frequency of union action reduce the port's efficiency and competitiveness.

A previous period of strikes occurred in 2012 and 2013, during which the port of Lisbon lost approximately 40% of the average cargo that it handles. Labour peace was re-established and the port recouped the volume of cargo handled during the remainder of 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Strike action

Strikes recommenced on November 14 2015, triggered by the loss of existing collective bargaining agreements and the failure to negotiate a new agreement that satisfied the port's operators and labour force. Besides the customary complaints leading to industrial disputes (eg, salaries and safety conditions), the main accusation from labour unions was that port operators were engaging unionised and non-unionised labour to train new port workers, which the unions viewed as preparation for the replacement of the existing unionised labour force. Port operators rejected this accusation.

The port of Lisbon's work force has been on strike since November 2015. Instead of a full work stoppage, the strike has involved the selective stoppage of the services that are subject of the union's complaints.

Important owners abandon port

The strike has had tangible negative effects on the port's operations. On November 25 2015 Hapag-Lloyd decided to suspend the Lisbon stop of its Mediterranean-Canada service and call instead at the Portuguese port of Leixoes. Hapag-Lloyd identified "labor disruptions [that] resulted in service constraints" as the direct cause of the suspension. In December 2015 the Danish group Maersk also suspended its operations at the port of Lisbon.

By that time alarm bells were ringing loudly and MPs asked the government to intervene to avoid the port of Lisbon losing its position as Portugal's key port. A press statement from the Portuguese Association of Shipping Agents expressed the level of concern: "Owners are no longer willing to accept a port that did not guarantee stability in the past, does not guarantee it at present and shows no sign of guaranteeing stability in future".

From a legal standpoint, port operators and authorities are powerless against the effects of the strike. The unions have fulfilled their legal requirements under Portuguese law – namely, the timely issuance of suitable pre-notification. Portuguese law requires a list of 'minimum services' which workers on strike must guarantee, including:

  • operations in connection with cargo in and out to the Azores and Madeira;
  • the handling of certain types of cargo such as medical products, dangerous products and live animals; and
  • additional circumstances of a clearly exceptional nature.

It is unlikely that this rule will offer relief to common vessels calling at the port of Lisbon.

The nature of the strike (ie, selective stoppages where dock workers and stevedores believe that the goals of the strike are at stake) blurs application of the minimum services rule and disrupts the possibility of planning port operations, leading to what operators and owners describe as operational chaos.

New government and maritime sector

The newly appointed government has given priority to maritime concerns and is committed to investing in that sector of the economy.

The merger of the boards of the ports of Lisbon and Setubal (the second most important port in the greater Lisbon area) was approved as part of a plan to create synergies, a joint strategy between the ports and the 'single port invoice', which aims to simplify and optimise costs for vessels calling at Portuguese ports. There are also plans to build new terminals in the Lisbon area.

However, there are no signs to date that an agreement with the port of Lisbon's work force is closer than before and that is arguably the most urgent matter.

For further information on this topic please contact Carlos Costa e Silva at Barrocas Advogados by telephone (+351 21 384 3300) or email (ccs@barrocas.pt). The Barrocas Advogados website can be accessed at www.barrocas.com.pt.

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