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Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 25 October 2006 > TI Briefing: The ports of convenience

TI Briefing: The ports of convenience

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The ITF has formally launched a long term, worldwide campaign against “Ports of Convenience”, following a vote by dockers’ unions represented at the ITF’s 41st Congress in Durban in August 2006. The campaign has been developed over a period of two years, during which time ideas were thrashed out at formal meetings of the dockers’ section, and in the course of four regional campaign seminars.

The campaign, to ensure that decent standards apply across the world’s ports, will first focus on the world’s largest global network terminal operators (GNTs), which set standards in docks across the world.

ITF dockers’ secretary Franks Leys explains: “This is an exercise in dialogue and co-operation to ensure across the board good conditions. Working with the GNTs we aim to develop International Framework Agreements, which national unions will know set certain basic standards they can rely on when negotiating locally.”

"Different strategies will be used for different companies. Where good relationships exist, they will be utilised to explore the possibility of negotiating acceptable standards. Where the company is unwilling to enter dialogue, a coordinated global campaign will be necessary"

Allied to this industrial strategy is a political one, by which networks of support and communication will be built up to tackle crises, events and trends such as casualisation – replacing experienced dockers with temporary workers – at a global or regional level.

 Key steps to better standards




  • Maintaining trade union strength where ports and terminals are organised.

  • Organising non-unionised workers, including in “inland” or “dry” ports.

  • Strengthening trade union democracy, unity and solidarity at the national, regional and international levels.

  • Building the capacity of unions through education and training.

  • Raising the awareness of the membership.

  • Tracking important developments in the industry (eg the growth of logistics) and their impact on the ports.

  • Cooperation with other transport unions, particularly seafarers’ unions, is vital.


It is now important that ITF-affiliated dockers’ unions familiarise themselves with the objectives and plans for the campaign, in order to ensure that they can support and benefit from it in the most effective ways.

Campaign aims
The campaign name deliberately links to the ITF’s long standing fight against flags of convenience, which have long been associated with a general lowering of standards for commercial gain. The aim of the campaign is to ensure that acceptable standards apply in ports and terminals around the world. The terms “port of convenience” and “terminal of convenience” refer respectively to ports or terminals that fail to meet these standards.
The POC Campaign will focus on the following key themes, which have been consistently identified by affiliates as the most important issues that they face:

  • confronting Global Network Terminal Operators (GNTs)
  • competition
  • privatisation
  • casualisation
  • lack of trade union rights, or lack of respect for such rights by either governments or employers.

These issues, which create major obstacles to achieving decent working conditions for dockers, are clearly related. However, affiliates’ experiences in different regions vary and for this reason, specific strategies are being developed for each of these issues and promoted together under the banner of the POC Campaign.

The issues, especially privatisation, casualisation and lack of trade union rights, have played a key role in the fragmentation of the union movement in many countries. We are now seeing a multiplicity of weaker unions, including the creation of employer-dominated (or “yellow”) unions. The POC campaign will aim to strengthen the dockers’ union movement by tackling the problems that can undermine it.

International Framework Agreements


Any ITF International Framework Agreement (IFA) with a GNT would minimally include the core labour standards covered in the eight fundamental ILO Conventions:

  • Convention 87 on Freedom of Association

  • Convention 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (this must incorporate a neutrality clause which prevents the employer from obstructing organising activities)

  • Conventions 29 and 105 on Forced Labour

  • Conventions 111 and 100 on Discrimination

  • Conventions 138 and 182 on Child Labour.
An IFA could also include, for example, an equality clause and general clauses addressing working time, what constitutes fair wages, occupational health and safety, security, and professional standards.

In addition, a section of the agreement should be devoted to the means of implementation, which would cover monitoring and infringements and build in
an annual review and reporting process.

An IFA is of no value unless it can be made to deliver real benefits to the unions concerned, in terms of removing obstacles to organising.

The IFA would be between the company and the ITF on behalf of the relevant affiliates. It would set out only the broad minimum acceptable standards that should apply throughout the company’s operations. It would still be up to unions to negotiate workplace CBAs.


The support of seafarers’ unions will be sought to promote the POC Campaign in the light of the longstanding cooperation between dockers’ and seafarers’ unions on the FOC Campaign.

The ITF dockers’ section will coordinate campaign actions relating to political and corporate targets at the international level. However, implementation at the regional level will also be important to accommodate the different experiences and priorities that may exist in different regions.

Targeting the big players
The campaign will focus on the four biggest operators which due to their dominance are likely to have an impact on the largest number of affiliates. They are also the industry’s standard setters. However, attention will also be paid to other companies that are important regional players. Two have already been identified through POC campaign seminars: Bolloré in West Africa; and SSA Marine in the Americas.

Different strategies will be used for different companies, depending on their willingness to engage in dialogue. Where good relationships exist, they will be utilised to explore the possibility of negotiating acceptable standards in all the company’s operations globally. Ultimately the ITF will be looking to reach an International Framework Agreement (see page 28) with the company. Where the company is unwilling to enter dialogue, a focused and coordinated global corporate campaign will be necessary.

The recent takeover of P&O by Dubai Ports World, for example, opened a window of opportunity to engage in discussions about workers’ conditions with the company, which has so far demonstrated a willingness to talk. Following the takeover, Dubai Ports World approached a number of European affiliates and the ETF. An initial meeting was held in August 2006.

How will each campaign start?
The decision to initiate a GNT campaign will be taken by the dockers’ section committee, and in consultation with the home country union, and affiliates with a presence in other ports where the company operates.

The GNT contact networks will be relied upon to disseminate information and consult on the campaign strategy, as speed will be crucial. It is therefore important for affiliates who have not yet nominated a contact person for these networks to do so urgently.

Campaign priorities
In general our priorities will be:
1) Where collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are in place, to ensure that these are respected and there is a commitment to ongoing collective bargaining;
2) Where there are no CBAs or no recognition of unions, or where anti-union policies are in place, to seek respect for freedom of association, the right to recognition and collective bargaining, and to call for dialogue to begin with any affiliated unions working in the port; and
3) To discuss the conclusion of an International Framework Agreement with the global management of the company. This would also facilitate organising in terminals where affiliates do not yet have a presence.

Key regions
A number of key sub-regions have been identified as requiring urgent action, due to their strategic position on trade routes, and the potential impact that developments in these regions could have on trade union strength globally.

These sub-regions are: North East Asia, the Baltic, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The dockers’ section, working with the ITF regional offices, will convene discussions with unions in these regions as soon as possible to develop strategies and to set up project groups to lead on activities.

Unions organising in the main ports on the key shipping routes to these regions will also be invited to participate, with a view to maximising trade union strength on the major maritime trade routes and transport corridors. Organising will also be a key strategy in these regions, as non-unionised ports are creating a downward pressure on wages and conditions.

The ITF is carrying out work in Hong Kong to identify organising opportunities in cooperation with unions in that country. More generally, communications, cooperation and solidarity needs to be strengthened between unions organising in competing ports in all regions.

Privatisation
Affiliates have three main concerns relating to privatisation:
1) Port restructuring and its impact on
labour, particularly with regard to retrenchment, consequences for wages
and working conditions;
2) Use of non-unionised labour, competing with unionised ports; and
3) The elimination or weakening of unions.

The ITF’s practical guide for unions dealing with World Bank privatisation projects will help unions prepare their campaigns and responses as early as possible. The opportunities identified could be used to press for consultation if unions are being excluded from the process, as well as to make interventions in ports that are already undergoing reform.

While the response to privatisation needs to take place at a national level, regional support could assist many unions. The experiences of unions that have run successful campaigns on privatisation are a valuable resource that should be broadly available.

The global network terminals are major promoters of privatisation, as it offers them new markets. In certain regions, the privatisation process is seen as a means of facilitating the elimination of trade unions. Company-based unions and those that only organise specific types of dockworkers rather than all the workers in the port are particularly at risk. In some countries the company union will cease to exist by law if the original company has disappeared.

Some unions need to restructure to reduce their vulnerability to such situations, for example through broadening their scope of representation beyond just workers in individual companies to all port workers nationally. The broader representation of workers would also help reduce the risk of unionised workers being replaced by unorganised workers in the port as part of the privatisation process.

The multiplicity of unions, competition between unions and weak unionisation have also been identified as issues that need to be addressed. Trade union unity and cooperation, and organising unorganised workers are important approaches, especially to prevent one group of workers being used to undercut another.

Casualisation
Many unions identify casualisation as a major problem, but this is a wide-ranging term. Clearer understanding is needed among affiliates as to what casualisation constitutes. We also need strong evidence of the impact of casualisation on safety, security, social standards and productivity, in order to counter the arguments for liberalisation and deregulation.

As with privatisation, a strategy for engagement with regional and international institutions is also needed.

Trade union rights
Lack of trade union rights, or lack of implementation, remains a major issue for unions in many countries. Of particular concern to affiliates are:

  • lack of respect for collective bargaining rights and non- implementation of agreements;
  • lack of recognition of legitimate trade unions and the creation of “yellow unions”; and
  • denial of decent working conditions.

The ITF will work with other Global Union Federations and the ICFTU to intensify the international campaign to promote the ratification and implementation of international labour standards for the benefit of workers.

The ILO Freedom of Association complaints procedure will be utilised in appropriate circumstances, as will mechanisms existing with the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Coordination at the regional and international levels should also be improved to support national campaigns by affiliates. The ITF will support this by providing strategic campaigning skills training as part of its training and education programme.

The viability of building broad alliances at all levels to promote this issue will be explored with other union organisations and possibly, human rights groups. The campaign for trade union rights will also promote ratification and implementation of ILO Convention 137.

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Copyright © 2012 ITF
ITF House, 49-60 Borough Road, London SE1 1DR  |  +44 20 7403 2733   |  mail@itf.org.uk