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Environnements portuaires

Anne-Lise Piétri-Lévy
John Barzman
Éric Barré

Troisième partie. Métiers, Gestes, Techniques

Labour Regulation and Competitive Performance in the Port Transport Industry: The Changing Fortunes of Three Major European Seaports

Harry Barton et Peter Turnbull

Texte intégral


1Port transport is vital to the economic health and future prosperity of the European Union (EU). Europe’s ports handle over 90 per cent of EU trade with third countries and over 30 per cent of intra-EU traffic. In addition, ports are an integral link in multi-and increasingly inter-modal transport systems that connect maritime services with road, rail, and inland waterways: they represent the confluence of not only a variety of transport modes but also multi-functional trade, industrial and distribution areas. An efficient port transport system is therefore central to economic integration within the EU, the proper functioning of the EU’s transport systems, the competitiveness of Member States’exports in world markets, and regional and national economic growth (European Commission, 1998 and 2001). In an attempt to promote the competitiveness of Europe’s ports, the European Commission has recommended the adoption of ‘common principles’ and a uniform ‘management philosophy’, based on the principles of ‘free competition’ and a more ‘permissive’ institutional environment (European Commission, 1992, 1998 and 2001). But significant differences between ports persist in terms of management and labour regulation on the one hand, and operational efficiency and international competitiveness on the other (Barton and Turnbull, 1999).

2The divergence of both institutional processes and competitive outcomes flies in the face of ever more intense competition between ports and the deeper intrusion of international shipping lines and other forces of globalization in the day-to-day operations of Europe’s major seaports. In particular, globalization in the maritime and port transport industry has yet to signal a convergence of industrial relations across countries over time. Nonetheless, attention to the forces of globalization serves to highlight two important developments. First, the growing inter-dependence of Member States and the closer integration of international markets. Secondly, the institutional diversity of European industrial relations. The former, as Streeck (1992a: 308) has argued, increases the potential for inter-regime competition. The latter raises the possibility that competitive inter-dependence among diverse institutional arrangements will favour certain kinds of regimes over others. The ‘systemic effects’ of contemporary capitalism, most notably the progressive annihilation of space by time and the ever more rapid application of science and technology, especially in transport and communications, certainly generates pressure for structural convergence. But these forces are subject to the diverse ‘societal effects’ of different nations, which Smith and Meiksins (1995: 254) denote as ‘a level of institutionalization which encultures systemic forces with unique properties’ (original emphasis). Put differently, national and sub-national institutional arrangements will continue to ‘filter’ common socio-economic pressures, ‘so that the valence of particular issues and changes in practices are quite varied in different national contexts’ (Locke and Kochan 1995: 365).

3In the ensuing battle of regime competition, ‘dominance effects’ at the micro level are particularly significant, both in the narrow sense of the organizational level being more dynamic and variable relative to the social institutions of the state and civil society (Smith and Meiksins, 1995: 259) and in the broader sense of the dynamic process of capitalist economic development which has always been dependent on the creation of innovative organizational strategies (Lazonick, 1991: 8). However, despite the contemporary importance of micro-level dominance effects, societal effects may, at different times and place, be in the ascendancy. Thus, it follows that comparative international analysis must embrace an historical dimension to incorporate the unfolding interaction between system, societal and dominance effects (Smith and Meiksins, 1995: 260-1). Moreover, it is important to establish the different ‘starting points’ or ‘initial endowments’ of any given firm, industry or nation as these will also, in turn, filter common (international) pressures for change (see Locke and Kochan 1995: 378-9).

4Clearly, it is not sufficient to simply identify common ‘exogenous’ pressures for change and then describe the impact on national industrial relations. Herein lies the discourse of the long-running and frequently unproductive debate on convergence/divergence in industrial relations. To explain competitive performance and the processes of change in the port transport industry, or indeed any other industrial sector, requires careful consideration of precisely what to compare in an international comparative context, and how? There are two principal dimensions to each of these questions.

5The traditional approach to questions of ‘what’ to compare has been to undertake ‘matched comparisons’ of the same practices or developments across countries. However, given that:

international trends are not in fact translated into common pressures in all national economies but rather are mediated by national institutional arrangements and refracted into divergent struggles over particular national practices... [there is a risk of]... arriving at oversimplified, perhaps even misleading, conclusions (Locke and Kochan, 1995: 338 and 359, original emphasis).

6There is little to be gained if we compare ‘apples with apples’ but simultaneously fail to account for the significance of particular practices or developments in a specific national context. Thus, we should ‘select analytically parallel (even if formally diverse) phenomena for comparison’ (Locke and Thelen, 1995: 344, original emphasis). It is the struggles or ‘sticking points’ that we must seek to compare (ibid: 343). In other words, it is not sufficient to compare ‘apples and apples’ as the process of eating may be more important, and in particular what happens when fruit gets stuck in the throat (regardless of whether the fruit in question is an apple or an orange). This requires a ‘contextualized comparison’ of industrial relations, which is used to supplement, rather than replace, a matched comparison (ibid: 338-9).

7If the first dimension of our comparative approach is a contextualized account of the processes of change and associated struggles, the second dimension of ‘what’ we compare should be the diverse outcomes of such processes (see Katz and Darbishire, 2000). In an international context it is often noted that similar outcomes (e.g. rapid economic growth, high productivity, low unemployment and industrial peace between capital and labour) can emerge under quite different national institutional arrangements (Streeck, 1992b). Increasing regime competition, however, threatens to undermine the integrity of European industrial relations systems based on social partnership and quality competitive strategies. This raises the question ‘whether effective “functional equivalents” might exist at enterprise and sectoral levels for legal and institutional buttressing of the kind that might suffer erosion through regime competition’ (Roche, 2000: 274). ‘Equivalence’ of outcomes in this context refers to the ability of these sub-national institutional arrangements to deliver competitive market performance and socially acceptable conditions of employment.

8‘How’, then, should a contextualized comparison of diverse processes and competitive outcomes proceed? On this question there are both theoretical and methodological dimensions to address. We have already noted that international comparative research should be historically grounded and incorporate a multi-level analysis (i.e. system, societal and dominance effects). More importantly, our analysis focuses on the social institutions and informal processes of labour regulation, because social conflict is still a key determinant of capitalist economic development and the ‘competitive advantage of nations’. The central premise of a political economy based on a social-institutional perspective of modern industrial organizations is that social institutions can make a positive contribution to competitive economic performance (Streeck, 1992b). Public policy might increasingly assert the propriety of markets over institutions, but a socialinstitutional perspective suggests that market-based (institutionally minimalist) forms of organization do not inherently or necessarily fare better than socially regulated (institutionally saturated) forms. Theoretically, therefore, a social-institutional perspective rejects any notion of a simple ‘convergence’ of national economies or the unproblematic adoption of ‘best practice’ at the organizational level.

9Empirically, the utility of industry-level analysis in a comparative international context is well established (e.g. Ferner, 1988). Moreover, recent studies have highlighted the fact that ‘sub-national labor-management arrangements appear to have more in common with their equivalents in other countries than with other industrial relations patterns coexisting within the same national borders’ (Locke, 1992: 230). As Roche (2000: 278) has argued, ‘national regime effects appear likely to attenuate as sectoral effects and a variety of organizational contingencies become more pronounced.’ In particular, the importance of local socio-political arrangements and resources that influence the strategic choices of different actors such as firms and unions have been emphasized (e.g. Locke, 1992: 242), giving rise to the ideas of ‘strategic specialization’ and ‘customized social regimes’ in specific sectors (Roche, 2000: 276). Nonetheless, workplace comparisons are still comparatively rare, despite recurrent calls for researchers to integrate the micro, meso and macro dimensions of a changing world of work and employment (e.g. Hyman, 1995: 43). A case-based approach is clearly apposite (see Bélanger et al, 1994), but each case should be analysed as part of, and not separate from, broader industrial, national and international developments.

  • 1 The research combined secondary information (e.g. port traffic statistics, company reports, indust (...)

10Research in comparative industrial relations which seeks to explain institutional diversity and differential performance outcomes must therefore be historically grounded and investigate the determinants of sub-national patterns of labour regulation and the ensuing struggles between management, labour and the state at both the industry and workplace levels. In the following section we outline the key dimensions and determinants of international competitiveness in the port transport industry, as well as the impact of labour regulation on port performance. We also establish a methodology for comparing similar ports (‘apples and apples’) and identify the principal ‘sticking points’ that have influenced the process of restructuring and the competitive performance of different ports (the ‘apples and oranges that occasionally get stuck in the throat). We then proceed to a detailed comparative study of three major European entrepôt ports, namely Antwerp, Le Havre and London1. These data demonstrate how labour regulation facilitated change and international competitiveness in Belgium but retarded the potential of technological and other productivity enhancing developments, in different ways, in both Britain and France.

1. Labour Regulation and Port Performance

11One of the most important determinants of port performance and international competitiveness is simply the scale of port operations. For example, the waiting time for a berth when a ship arrives in port, which is a major factor for shipping lines, is in large part determined by the number of berths: the probability of a vessel having to wait (or queue) for a berth is much reduced, for the same berth utilization level, if the number of identical berths in the port is higher (UNCTAD, 1987). It follows, therefore, that any international comparative study should focus on ports of similar size (as measured by, for example, total traffic, the number of commercial ship visits, the vessel size of ships calling at the port, and the infrastructure provided). In addition, the predominant ‘function’ of the port can significantly influence performance. For example, entrepôt ports offer a wider range of services and face more complex operational problems (integrating sea, quay and inland transport activities) than transhipment ports that simply focus on the sea/quay interface. Alternatively, some ports are run on a purely commercial basis whereas other ports seek to meet a wider range of social and strategic objectives (e.g. employment creation and inter-modal transport integration).

12Simply to compare ‘apples with apples’ at any given point in time, however, misses the historical and dynamic aspects of port development and international competitiveness (the fact that some ports have been transformed into a different type of fruit). For example, international ports must be able to service ever larger vessels as shipping can exploit economies of scale to a much greater extent than other modes of transport. Ports must therefore develop their facilities by investing ahead of immediate demand. Consequently, if we compare ‘apples with apples at a particular point in time, one port might have lower utilization as a result of excess and oversized’ capacity. But in the immediate future this port will secure a competitive advantage over its more intensely utilized rivals who are unable to handle the next generation of larger vessels.

13Labour regulation plays an important part in determining both dayto-day levels of efficiency and the long-term dynamics of competitive advantage between seaports. This is because labour is a key component of all three elements of total transportation, namely cost, time and risk. First and foremost, labour costs account for around 60-70 per cent of operating costs, even on capital-intensive container terminals. More importantly, labour demand and therefore labour costs fluctuate widely from one day to the next. During a recent field visit by one of the authors to the Europa container terminal in Antwerp, one of the busiest ports in Europe, the terminal was completely empty at mid-day. The previous day, however, five deep-sea container vessels had been un/loaded in less than 24 hours. Labour arrangements must therefore be sufficiently flexible to match labour supply to (fluctuating) labour demand without imposing excessive costs on port operators as a result of idle time/surplus labour, and without jeopardising turn-round times for port users as a result of labour shortages.

14In addition to costs, labour arrangements largely determine a vessel s time in port and the risk of disruption. The former is principally a function of utilization rates and physical productivity. In a modem port, of course, cargo operations such as container handling are highly mechanized. Nonetheless, both crane rates (the movement of boxes from ship-to-shore, and vice versa) and yard operations (transferring boxes from ship-side to container stack or road/rail vehicles, and vice versa) are ultimately determined by labour arrangements and working practices. Most notably, even a marginal improvement in physical productivity (higher crane rates) and the time a vessel spends at berth (higher ship rates) can have a disproportionate effect on reducing expected waiting time for a berth. In other words, the probability of a vessel arriving at port and finding a vacant berth is greatly increased as a result of higher physical productivity (see UNCTAD, 1987). Our interview and other data from port authorities, operating companies and employee representatives revealed that the key variables determining physical productivity are: training and the availability of a suitably skilled workforce; flexibility and mobility of labour; permanent or at least regular employment of crane drivers and other machinery operators (as familiarity with equipment increases the speed of operations and reduces downtime and damage); and worker motivation (the desire of port workers, for whatever reasons, to ‘get the job done’).

15In many ports, recurrent strikes and other forms of industrial action have caused significant delays to shipping and increased the risks, in the eyes of man port users, of calling at particular ports. However, although dockers have a worldwide reputation for militancy, the risks of disruption to shipping differ markedly from one port to the next, even within the same country (see Turnbull and Sapsford, 2001; and Turnbull et al, 1996). This is because systems of labour regulation, or ‘dock labour schemes’, must not only promote an efficient service for port users and adequate returns on capital for port authorities/operators, but also protect the interests of port workers. These interests relate primarily to income and employment security, equity or agreement in the allocation of available work, and a safe and healthy working environment. Thus, throughout the world, dock labour schemes have sought to: (i) control labour supply (e.g. via the restriction of dock work’to recognized ‘dock workers’ or union members), (ii) ensure to availability and mobility of labour (e.g. via centralized ‘hiring halls’, training programmes, and inter-company transfers), and (iii) provide a minimum guaranteed income even when no work is available (e.g. via government unemployment insurance or an additional levy on the employers’wage bill and/or cargo handling charges). The effectiveness of these schemes, in combination with the propriety and speed of dispute resolution procedures, largely accounts for the marked variation in strike activity and other forms of disruption to shipping that can be observed in different ports around the world (Turnbull and Sapsford, 2001).

  • 2 Port authorities are typically statutory/public bodies responsible for the general administration (...)

16Given the potential variation of physical, temporal and institutional determinants of port performance, it is hardly surprising that numerous studies have documented significant differences in the international competitiveness of major ports (e.g. Drewry Shipping Consultants, 1998; and WIRA, 1991). The consensus amongst port specialists is that institutional arrangements matter a great deal (Goss, 1990: 222), but ‘There is no single “best” structure of organization and management of seaports’ (Suykens, 1986: 125). The standard (structural) classification of ports, illustrated in Figure 1, is based on port authority responsibilities for infrastructure (e.g. access channels, break-waters, internal locks, quay walls, etc), superstructure (e.g. cranes, handling equipment, buildings and warehouses) and port operations (e.g. pilotage, mooring, and most importantly cargo handling activities)2. There are examples of efficient ports in each of the three categories described in Figure 1. Singapore, for example, is owned and operated by a ‘comprehensive’port authority and is one of the most efficient ports in the world (Turnbull, 1999). Historically at least, the ‘tool’ port model worked tolerably well in many ports around the world, especially for break-bulk (general cargo) operations (Goss, 1990: 232). Europe’s most efficient ports (e.g. Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg) are all ‘landlord’ ports (Barton and Turnbull, 1999), as are the highly efficient ports of the US western seaboard (Turnbull and Sapsford, 2001).

Figure 1: Models of Port Organization

Figure 1: Models of Port Organization

17Despite this structural diversity, there is evidence of a world-wide shift towards a landlord model (see Barton and Turnbull, 1999; ESPO, 1996; and Turnbull. 1999). Providing all the ‘tools for the job’ (i.e. infrastructure and superstructure) can prove to be prohibitively expensive for the public port authority, especially for capital-intensive operations. Containerization, for example, requires not only massive capital investment in new facilities and equipment (which the public sector is typically loath to supply) but also more sophisticated forms of managerial control over the work process and greater awareness of, and responsiveness to, customer requirements (which is typically beyond the expertise of public sector port administrators and civil servants). Under the landlord model, in contrast, where private operators invest in port superstructure and assume responsibility for cargo handling, operational expertise can be developed by specialist companies and the costs of port investment can be shared between the public and private sectors. In many ports, international shipping lines have also invested in port operations, either directly or in co-operation with local stevedoring companies (e.g. Algeciras, Antwerp, Bremerhaven, Kaohsiung, Gioia Tauro, Rotterdam and the West Coast ports of the USA). Such co-operation can lead to a more integrated (inter-modal) transport system and further reduces the financial risks of long-term port investments (given that the shipping line can guarantee business for the port). This has led to positive effects on port performance. The landlord model is also more compatible with social peace as both operational companies and port users are (financially) committed to the future of the port, thereby creating greater employment security for dockworkers.

18Of our three case study ports, Antwerp was progressively transformed from a tool port to a landlord port from the late 1960s onwards. London and Le Havre, in contrast, had to wait for government reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s before they could embrace a landlord model. This is consistent with Streeck’s (1998: 440) observation that structural convergence is invariably slow ‘due to the stickiness of national institutions. Put differently, societal effects frustrated the development of new ‘customized social regimes’ in the ports of Le Havre and London, despite the emergence of technological and operational developments at the international and organizational levels that clearly favoured a landlord model. These effects were particularly robust in maintaining extant patterns of labour regulation during the 1970s and 1980s. In the port of Antwerp, in contrast, the system of labour regulation served to facilitate structural change and the more effective exploitation of new technologies. In an historical context, therefore, the interaction of systemic and dominance effects with established port structures and patterns of labour regulation (societal effects) created the ‘sticking points’ that explain differential competitive performance in the port transport industry. These conflicts are still important today, as the contemporary performance of major European ports serves to illustrate.

2. Labour Regulation and the Competitive Performance of the Ports of Antwerp, Le Havre and London

19As previously stated, the principal criteria used to determine a ‘like-for-like’ comparison of seaports are function and size. Unlike most other European ports, British ports are run on a commercial basis and enjoy less ‘interference’ from the state than any other maritime nation of the EU (ESPO, 1996). In principle, a laissez-faire policy has prevailed. In practice, the British State has been forced to intervene in the financial affairs of major ports such as London on numerous occasions, largely as a result of losses arising from the redundancy and early retirement of dock workers (see Turnbull et al, 1992: 49-51). At one time, the port of London generated thousands of jobs in and around the port area (ibid), but the decline of traffic and employment in the 1970s and 1980s created massive social and economic costs. The employment of registered dock workers fell from well over 16,000 in 1970 to less than 6,000 in 1980 and just 1,753 in 1989. Job losses and company closures occasioned widespread unrest on the British waterfront and especially in the capital (Turnbull et al, 1996). This in turn led to a reluctance on the part of shipping lines to call at the port of London, which further reduced traffic, revenue and employment.

20Whereas the British approach to port transport is laissez-faire, the French approach is dirigiste. Major French ports are nominally ‘autonomous’ from the local or regional administrative system, but the French State determines the principal aspects of port policy by defining types of superstructure for each port (see Kreukels and Wever, 1998: 20-1). This in turn dictates the role of the port and its integration into the State’s general policy for social and economic development. In the case of Le Havre, the French State determined that the port would be a ‘corridor port’ for Paris. This placed an emphasis on ‘rapid transit’ through the port, based on the principles of ‘fluidity’ applied to the petrochemical industry (which is a very important component of Le Havre’s traffic) (Baudouin and Collin, 1998: 83-5). According to this criterion (i.e. the rapid transit of full containers through the port) Le Havre can be adjudged to be efficient. However, the failure to offer freight consolidation and break-bulk services (as in Antwerp) constituted a missed opportunity and a denigration of Le Havre’s role as an entrepôt port. The port gained little from the new logistics potential of containerization in terms of traffic and employment, and conventional traffic has declined to very low levels (ibid). The result was ‘a significant under-achievement of potential’ and the loss of traffic to Benelux ports (Wiehler and Fernandez, 1993: 4). The employment of dockworkers in the port of Le Havre remained relatively stable throughout the 1970s, but only because the vast majority of dockers were casual workers hired from a government employment bureau (Bureau Central de la Main d’Œuvre, BCMO), which effectively cross-subsidized the costs of employment for individual employers. In the 1980s, employment declined by almost 40 per cent. Following the abolition of the BCMO in 1992, when port employers assumed the full direct costs of employing dock labour, the number of dockers in Le Havre was almost halved.

21The superior performance of Antwerp in comparison to either London or Le Havre is reflected in the traffic figures for each port. Data on total port traffic, presented in Table 1, reveal that Antwerp is now a much larger port than either Le Havre or London. Antwerp is also a much larger container port, as Table 1 also demonstrates. As a result, the Belgian port is able to reap significant economies of scale and scope and record much higher levels of efficiency. For example, Antwerp records a much higher number of TEUs moved per crane hour/shift than either Le Havre or London and a much higher crane intensity rate (more cranes deployed per vessel per shift). Not surprisingly, our interviews with shipping lines revealed a higher level of ‘customer satisfaction’ with the port of Antwerp than any other major European seaport. Our data also indicate that the port achieves superior levels of capital utilization, with TEUs per metre of quay, TEUs per hectare of berth area, and TEUs per crane per annum more than double that recorded by either Le Havre or London (Tilbury). As a result, the employment of dock workers declined by only 18 per cent in the 1970s (from 12,368 in 1970 to 10,109 in 1979) and 21 per cent in the 1980s (from 9,530 in 1980 to 7,489 in 1989). These data might appear to negate any contemporary ‘matched comparison’ as much of Antwerp’s present-day competitive advantage can be clearly attributed to size. However, the data presented in Table 1 also indicate that all three ports handled a similar traffic volume in the early to mid 1970s. Antwerp and Le Havre were still of comparable size by the late 1970s. Moreover, all three ports entered the container business at the same time. Contemporary performance outcomes evidently conceal an important historical (process) dimension.

22Labour regulation can have a significant influence on the long-term grow th of major ports, not only in terms of efficiency and the reputation of the port with shipping lines and other customers but also in terms of investment decisions. For example, private operators are understandably reluctant to invest in expensive cranes and other superstructure unless they are able to employ dock labour directly to operate such equipment. In addition, cargo-handling companies demand numerical flexibility of labour in order to minimize the costs associated with fluctuating labour demand. In Le Havre, cargo-handling companies enjoyed numerical flexibility but even today they are unable to employ ship-to-shore crane drivers on a direct basis. In London, cargo handling companies were required to employ all their dock labour on a permanent basis between 1967-89, which minimized labour flexibility and maximized (fixed) labour costs. The system of labour regulation in the port of Antwerp, in contrast, combined the benefits of direct employment with numerical flexibility of dock labour and very high levels of labour productivity.

Tableau 1: Total Tonnage (Million tonnes) and Containerized Traffic (Million TEUs) Handled by the Ports of Antwerp, Le Havre and London

Tableau 1: Total Tonnage (Million tonnes) and Containerized Traffic (Million TEUs) Handled by the Ports of Antwerp, Le Havre and London

Notes: Data for London 1975 and 1980 include private riverside wharves, data for 1985-99 refer to Tilbury
Sources: Port of Antwerp, Port Autonome du Havre, Port of London Authority, and Containerisation International Yearbook

23Table 2 summarises the key features of labour regulation in the ports of Antwerp, Le Havre and London according to the three criteria discussed in the previous section. Formally, there are clear similarities between the dock labour schemes of each port. For example, ‘dock work’ was defined by stalute in all three countries and only registered/recognized ‘dock workers’ were allowed to perform such work. In addition, the state played a role in (overseeing) the allocation of dock labour to various operating companies in each port. The differences between the ports, however, are more significant. One of the most notable differences between London and the ports of Antwerp and Le Havre, for example, was the inflexibility of labour supply arising from permanent employment.

24With the introduction of containerization in Britain in the late 1960s came ‘decasualization’ (in September 1967). Henceforth, instead of being hired on a daily basis from the National Dock Labour Board (NDLB), all registered dock workers were assigned to an individual employer on a permanent basis. In fact, containerization was assumed to be predicated on permanent employment, which it was believed would facilitate specialist training and development, greater familiarity with equipment and working procedures, stronger attachment between employer and employee, and high(er) levels of labour productivity. But with 100 per cent permanent employment the new system of labour regulation proved to be excessively costly for three reasons. First, without the ‘discipline’ of daily hiring, whereby foremen could refuse to hire ‘trouble-makers’ or ‘low quality’ workers, the bargaining position of labour was consolidated and dockers’ earnings outstripped comparable jobs outside the port transport industry (see Turnbull et al, 1992: 23). Secondly, although it was assumed that there would be no redundancies as a result of decasualization, employers experienced persistent surplus labour due to labour-saving technology, most notably the containerization of general cargo (Turnbull et al, 1992: 50-1). Thirdly, operating companies carried the entire cost of financing any idle time payments. Provision was made for intercompany transfers in the event of labour shortages, but this compounded demarcation and comparability disputes over wages, employment security and other conditions of work. Dockers employed in container terminals, for example, received much higher wages than those employed on conventional cargo operations, which created a succession of disputes (Turnbull et al, 1996). London dockers imposed a ban on all container operations for over 2 years (January 1968 to April 1970) in a dispute over the allocation of work and job security.

25The costs and inflexibility of employing dockers on a permanent basis were exacerbated by an industrial agreement signed in 1972, ostensibly to promote job security. This agreement made provision for any registered docker who was not prepared to accept voluntary severance when his employer went out of business to be reallocated to another employer in the port. However, this agreement increased costs for the remaining employers and more redundancies and closures followed. As a result, one operating company after another went out of business. Following decasualization in 1967 there were 346 employers in the port of London. By 1970 there were just over 200, fewer than 100 by 1975, less than fifty by the early 1980s, and just twenty-five in 1989 prior to the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme (NDLS). From this basic incompatibility between labour regulation and operational requirements in the port of London stemmed a vicious spiral of decline that afflicted Britain’s premier port throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Tableau 2: Labour Regulation in Belgian, French and British Ports


Control of labour supply

Availability and mobility of labour

Maintenance/guaranteed income


‘Dock work’, as legally defined, is restricted to ‘dock workers’ in the ‘port zone’ under the joint control of employers and the unions

All dockers are ‘casuals’, but around two thirds work on a regular basis for the same employer. Extensive training to ensure flexibility.

Currently around 60% of basic salary paid from state benefits (68%) and employer contributions (32%) financed via a levy on gross wages.


‘Dock work’ was legally defined and restricted to registered dockers. De Jure control of labour supply by the BCMO (state labour office in each port), de facto control by the union.

All dockers were casuals with preference given to professionnel over occasionnel. Labour was allocated through the BCMO workers. Some ports used a rota (e.g. Rouen), others a ‘free call’ system of hiring (e.g. Le Havre).

Professionnel dockers were guaranteed 300 half day shits (4 hours) per annum, financed by a levy on the employer’s wage bill. Occasionnel dockers were not required to report to the BCMO every day and were not eligible for the guarantee.


Direct employment with operating companies, but some dockers retained their professionnel status.

Most dockers are permanently employed by the operating companies, but crane drivers are still employed by the port authority in Le Havre. Casual work is still regulated by the state.

Permanent workers receive a weekly or monthly salary. The state no longer indemnifies the unemployment cost of dock workers.


The NDLS provided a legal definition of ‘dock work’ and dockers were registered with the NDLB. The National and Local Boards were jointly controlled by the employers and the unions.

Prior to 1967, dockers were casuals. Most were allocated by the Port Labour Office, but London retained a ‘free call’. After 1967 all registered dockers were permanently employed by operating companies.

Attendance payments and a guaranteed weekly wage (set nationally) applied until 1980 (replaced by port or company guarantees). Payments were finances by a levy on the employer’s wage bill.


Employers recruit labour directly. Trade unions derecognised by most employers, including Tilbury (TGWU since regained recognition).

Most dockers are permanently employed but the majority of employers also use casual or agency labour as required. Training now provided by individual companies.

Permanent workers are paid a weekly or monthly salary. Casuals only paid for hours worked, although some are paid a nominal ‘retainer’.

  • 3 This permitted the PLA to levy port charges over and above conservancy needs to meet the costs of (...)

26Company closures were met with a succession of strikes in London and other British ports, which in turn drove away shipping to private ports such as Felixstowe and Dover and even Continental ports such as Antwerp and Rotterdam. But labour regulation had a more pernicious effect on port performance. Most notably, shipping companies and port users were reluctant to invest in the port of London or employ a direct labour force since they too would be saddled with excess labour (all the major shipping lines withdrew from stevedoring in London in 1967). The costs of investment fell increasingly on the Port of London Authority (PLA), which transformed London from a ‘tool’ to a ‘comprehensive’ port structure (see Figure 1). In 1975, the PLA became a major stevedore when it took over the business of Scruttons Maltby (the PLA was already involved in warehousing and other shore-side operations). The following year, the PLA voluntarily agreed to become the ‘employer of last resort’(i.e. it would take on the registered dock labour of any other employer in the port of London who went out of business)3. Thus, London was starved of private sector investment and the public sector port authority was now saddled with the costs of surplus labour. By January 1988, these costs amounted to over 17 per cent of the PLA’s annual revenue. In the words of one of the PLA’s senior managers, ‘One either paid for surplus manpower or paid for new facilities. The former won hands down because the business had no choice under the law’ (interview notes).

27The system of labour regulation in London and other British ports was transformed in 1989 following the abolition of the NDLS. The PLA played a leading role in the campaign for the abolition of the NDLS and was at the forefront of moves by port employers to derecognize the Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU). This gave the PLA a ‘free hand’ to restructure the port and embrace a landlord structure, but deregulation has failed to revive the fortunes of the port. In a comparative context, for example, British ports are still far less efficient, and more costly, than their north European counterparts (Barton and Turnbull, 1999). Once again, labour regulation has played a crucial role. Casualism has returned to the waterfront and some employment practices in the port of London are reminiscent of pre-1967 or even pre-1947 when the NDLS was first introduced. Casual labour caused concerns amongst many customers over service quality and led directly to the transfer of several contracts from London to other ports. Total traffic has stagnated below the pre-reform level (Table 1) and even PLA managers now regard London as a short-sea shipping port rather than a deep-sea hub or entrepôt (interview notes). More recently, the port of Tilbury, which is under the regulatory control of the PLA, increased container traffic (Table 1), but at a significantly slower rate than other UK container ports such as Felixstowe and Southampton.

28In contrast to the fully permanent labour force employed in London, both Antwerp and Le Havre employed a casual workforce, with labour allocated to operational employers on a daily basis. But here the similarity ends. In Le Havre, dockers were employed by the port as either professionnel dockers who were guaranteed 300 half day (i.e. 4 hour) shifts per annum, providing they attended the port labour office (BCMO) on a daily basis, or occasionnel dockers who received no guarantee but likewise were under no obligation to attend work on a regular basis. The guarantee, as in London, was financed entirely by the employers, based on a percentage of the employer’s wage bill. Costs were therefore high-handling charges in French ports were generally 30-50 per cent above the European average-not only because the port employers had to bear all the costs of idle time but also as a result of excess labour and low productivity. In all ports, a reserve of labour is needed if labour requirements are to be met during peak periods and ships un/loaded without delay. By the mid-1980s, however, Le Havre’s ‘working surplus’ had become, in the words of one employer, a ‘permanent excess’ (interview notes). More importantly, the size of the reserve was increased by barriers to the movement of labour (e.g. ‘make work’ practices such as the union’s refusal to allow dockers to transfer between vessels during a shift) and the absence of predetermined engagement.

29Attempts had been made during the early 1970s to introduce permanent employment for a proportion of French dockers, both to minimize the necessary labour reserve and to increase productivity through more systematic and dedicated training of mechanical equipment operators and the development of a close(r) ‘attachment’ between individual dockers and the direct operational employer. But these initiatives were strongly resisted by the Fédération Nationale des Ports et Docks-CGT, which retained a strong anarcho-syndicalist tradition. The view of both employer and trade union representatives was that professionnel dockers looked to the FNPD-CGT and the BCMO to protect their interests, especially as the union held a closed shop in the port and de facto control over labour supply and allocation through the BCMO (interview notes). As a result, very few dockers accepted permanent employment. Some continuity and specialization of employment was possible because Le Havre retained the ‘free system’ of hiring, which in effect constituted a ‘quasi-permanent’ system of employment whereby employers could select the same workers day-after-day. But professionnel dockers still reported to the BCMO on a daily basis and they continued to defend their ‘right’ to work when, for whomever, and on whatever cargoes they chose. As one stevedore acknowledged, ‘We tried to develop a strong relationship with our dockers and hire the same men whenever we could. But the union was still the real master of the game’ (interview notes). As in London, port users and even operational companies were reluctant to invest in Le Havre. The costs of such investment fell instead on the port authority and the State. By default, therefore, Le Havre and other French ports retained their inefficient ‘tool port’ status (see Figure 1).

30Even after the reform of the French dock labour scheme in 1992-4, elements of the tool port structure remain in Le Havre and the system of labour regulation continues to play a crucial role in the competitiveness of the port. For example, ship-to-shore gantry cranes, which ultimately determine the rhythm and speed of container un/loading, are still owned and operated by the port authority. As one stevedore complained,

Drivers come under our supervision but they are still paid by the port authority and we cannot control which drivers are allocated to us. We have terrible trouble getting really skilled drivers, especially at weekends. Their productivity can vary by up to 50 per cent (interview notes).

31More importantly, Le Havre’s new system of labour regulation has replicated the high fixed cost structure that characterized the port of London from 1967-89, driving several port operating companies out of business. The determination of employers to abolish the BCMO and break the ‘stranglehold’ of the union, or as one port authority manager put it ‘to create a real role of subordination between the dockers and the companies’ (interview notes), created new rigidities and (ironically) spawned deep uncertainty among the workforce. As a result, even though Le Havre’s dockers are now company employees they have retained their professionnel registration cards. They could therefore revert to industry employment if their employer went out of business (i.e. they would still be entitled to guaranteed pay for 300 shifts per annum). In fact, dockers retained their professionnel cards precisely because they feared that the costs of permanent employment, when combined with the costs of redundancy and early retirement, would force many employers out of business. Private operators have only recovered these costs by increasing cargo charges by 20 per cent, which in the short-term reinforced the view held by many shipping lines that Le Havre was over-priced, comparatively inefficient and unreliable.

32In more recent years, traffic levels have slowly recovered in Le Havre, with the tonnage handled in 1997 (60.2 Mt) finally surpassing the pre-reform total (57.9 Mt handled in 1991) (see also Table 1). Container traffic has increased significantly (see Table 1) and the latest port development project (called Port 2000) has deliberately set out to make Le Havre a container distribution hub. This should enable the port to finally realise its full potential through the promotion of logistic activities (e.g. distribution, freight consolidation and break-bulk services) (see Baudouin and Collin, 1998: 86). In a context of continuing uncertainty, however, the port was recently (September-October 1999) hit by further strikes by dockers (on the grounds that new logistics work should be classified as ‘dock work’) and port authority crane drivers (who are concerned about the transfer of ‘their’ work to the private sector). For many observers, the recovery of traffic volumes in Le Havre has been achieved in spite of, rather than because of, port labour reform, which certainly did not signal the renaissance of French ports (Lloyd’s List, 20 March 1995).

  • 4 This figure includes foremen and tally clerks. Among dockers, the proportion of permanent workers (...)

33As in Le Havre pre-1992, and London pre-1967, dockers in the port of Antwerp are predominantly (and de jure) casuals. De facto, however, just under a quarter of the workforce are currently ‘permanent’ workers with the major stevedoring companies (compared to 16.5 per cent in 1970)4. It is precisely because private operators can employ just the (mode) average, or even fewer, regular workers, principally to operate specialist equipment, that they have been prepared to invest massive sums of money in the superstructure of the port. In general, container terminal operators, such as Hessenatie, employ a higher proportion of permanent workers than general cargo companies, such as ACT, which employs predominantly casual labour. During a field visit to the port in 1997, for example, ACT was employing between 30-50 gangs per day, but the previous week had employed as few as two gangs during one shift. This flexibility is highly valued by employers, but it does not preclude the development of a strong psychological contract. Even the port’s ‘casual’ dockers are effectively ‘quasi-permanent’, working for the same employer on a regular basis. Thus, although the port has four ‘calls’ per day, held at a central hiring hall overseen by government officials, only 2,000 of the 6,000 casual dockers currently registered in the port work out of the hiring hall. The vast majority of dockers work on repeat hiring with a regular employer and will only return to the hiring hall in the event of a prolonged period of unemployment.

34Numerous studies have documented the preference of dock workers for a system of labour regulation that combines the freedom of casual engagement with the ‘protection’ of employment conditions more usually associated with permanent contracts (e.g. employment security provisions which preclude compulsory severance and guaranteed income when no work is available) (e.g. Davies et al, 2000). Dockers in Antwerp enjoy precisely such a combination. The port has always relied on voluntary redundancy and early retirement to reduce long-term labour requirements and when no work is available in the short-term dockers receive around 60 per cent of their basic pay. This is sufficient, in the words of one union official, ‘to maintain their basic standard of living but not so high that they are no longer keen to work’ (interview notes). This contrasts sharply with both London and Le Havre where fall back payments were always much lower relative to weekly earnings. One of the ‘perks’ of the casual system in Antwerp is that dockers will sometimes ‘bank’ overtime hours and record these hours as a normal working day at a later date, thereby avoiding having to work out of the hiring hall and/or claiming unemployment pay. This enables them to sustain continuity of employment with their preferred employer and maximize their earnings. Publicly, both union officials and employers condemn such practices. Privately, the unions acknowledge that such ‘perks’ play a crucial role in the employment contract and worker motivation, while employers condone (if not orchestrate) the system by providing ‘credit notes’ to dockers rather than stamp their registration book with an accurate record of hours worked.

35Rather than begrudge such perks, therefore, Antwerp’s employers acknowledge the many benefits of the port’s system of labour regulation and use it to their advantage. The operations manager of Hessenatie, for example, accepted that casual dockers, including some of the company’s crane drivers, ‘like the “freedom” to go back to the hiring hall, even though they never do. Knowing they can leave makes them want to stay. But only because we look after them properly. So you can see why they are all highly motivated’ (interview notes). More generally, employers in the port of Antwerp acknowledge the contribution and recognize the status of their workforce. Dockers are certainly well-paid relative to comparable occupations outside the industry, but this is oft-set by high productivity and the fact that employers can return labour to the hiring hall as labour demand dictates. Moreover, the costs of unemployment are heavily subsidized: guaranteed payments are financed predominantly by the state (more than two-thirds of the guarantee) rather than employers (less than a third of the guarantee). According to the Managing Director of the port’s major general cargo stevedore, ‘Per shift, the labour system might look expensive. But when the average cost is calculated it is very cost effective’ (interview notes).

36The competitiveness of the port is further reinforced by the strategies of employers and trade unions. For their part, the unions have adopted a very pragmatic approach in contract negotiations. For example, in recognition of the port’s strategy to locate activities that ‘add value’ to the cargo within the boundaries of the port, the unions have negotiated a warehouse agreement which sets pay at 75 per cent of the basic wage for dock workers. As one union official pointed out, ‘One of the unions’ main concerns has always been to keep work in the port and maximize employment. This is also important for the dockers, but their main concern is usually to get the most out of the system in terms of pay and other benefits’ (interview notes). In Antwerp, therefore, union strategies have reinforced the competitiveness of the port. In London and Le Havre, in contrast, cargo consolidation and other value-added work were driven out of the port, to a significant extent, by the relatively high costs of dock labour and the unions’ insistence that such work should be classified as ‘dock work’.

  • 5 The unity of CEPA is in stark contrast to Union Nationale des Industries de la Manutention dans le (...)

37Antwerp’s employers, for their part, have developed a highly unified approach to labour regulation. All employers belong to Centrale der Werkgevers aan de Haven van Antwerpen (CEPA), the port of Antwerp employers’ association, and all wages and other benefits are paid through CEPA, even those of regular workers. If an employer breaks the Codex, a very detailed collective agreement negotiated by the unions and CEPA, a fine is imposed on the company by CEPA5. In the words of the association s President, ‘CEPA reduces the costs of employment for its members and allows them to focus on what they do best-cargo handling’ (interview notes). For example, CEPA takes responsibility for port-wide training, ensuring very high levels of competency across the entire labour force. A study of dock workers’ skills in Melbourne and Antwerp undertaken by Patrick Stevedores of Australia, which un/loads exactly the same vessels as Hessenatie, found that Antwerp’s dockers had a knack of anticipating, avoiding and recovering from delays, which maintained the ‘rhythm and ‘integrity’ of cargo handling operations. Moreover, Hessenatie achieved much higher crane rates as a result of faster spreader positioning time (i.e. greater precision in locating and locking the crane spreader on top of the container box prior to lifting), which is predominantly a function of the operator’s skill and aptitude (Lloyd’s List, 18 March 1996).

38Interaction between the principal actors is also crucial to the competitive performance of Antwerp. High levels of efficiency are sustained by competition between the major operators in the port, and between Antwerp and other major north European ports. This is not, however, a market-based, institutionally minimalist form of competition of a neo-liberal ilk. On the contrary, competition in the port is highly regulated. For example, competition that simply involves a customer transferring business from one operator to another, without bringing any new business to the port, is actively discouraged. More importantly, the system of labour regulation takes wages and conditions of employment ‘out of competition’ through the Codex. The result is that operators in Antwerp must compete predominantly on the basis of service and productivity rather than (labour) costs. Put differently, the system of labour regulation imposes a ‘productive constraint’ that promotes innovative behaviour by port operators who strive to develop service quality, operational flexibility, reliability, high vessel handling rates and rapid turnaround in order to compete. These are precisely the factors that shipping lines and other port customer cite as the most important determinants of their choice of port of call.

39Social institutions and social interaction have also reduced the risks of disruption to shipping. To quote CEPA’s President once more, ‘We’re the buffer between the companies and the unions. There are many channels of formal communication in the port, and many more informal channels. All this dialogue takes all the sharp edges off the system’ (interview notes). For example, Belgische Transportarbeidersbond (BTB), one of the principal unions in the port, characterises its approach as ‘diplomatic syndicalism rather than fighting syndicalism, talking rather than warring’ (interview notes). When disputes do arise, the port has a very effective disputes resolution procedure in place, which ensures that problems are quickly resolved to the satisfaction of the protagonists and without any delay to shipping (see Turnbull and Sapsford, 2001). But perhaps the clearest indication of the propriety of labour regulation in the port of Antwerp is the fact that is was not subject to any radical transformation in the late twentieth century, unlike the labour arrangements of virtually every other EU maritime nation (Barton and Turnbull, 1999). In the words of one port employer, ‘Continued refinement, rather than structural reform, has been the preferred approach of all parties’ (interview notes).


40According to Roche (2000: 278), a paradigm shift may be emerging in the study of industrial relations systems that focuses on the complexities, contingencies and intra-regime variability of current developments. The present study of major European seaports can be regarded as a contribution to this new paradigm, utilizing social-institutional theory to analyse the impact of system, societal and dominance effects. As researchers have found in other industrial sectors (e.g. Katz and Darbishire, 2000), changing patterns of labour regulation cannot be conceptualized as either a process of progression towards best practice’ or as ‘random deviations from best practice. In the port transport sector, both product and labour market outcomes are substantially the result of social conflict between the principal actors, each ‘endowed’ with different resources in their particular national, industrial and organizational setting.

41These findings are consistent with one of the dominant themes to emerge in recent comparative industrial relations research, namely contingency as trend. This research has identified a range of sector-specific factors (e.g. product market conditions, the composition of capital, preexisting levels of unionization and traditions of representation) as the key ‘determinants’ of new and ever more varied patterns of management-labour relations (see Roche, 2000: 276-8). In the case of European ports, outcomes are clearly contingent, but they are also consistent with social-institutional theory. Thus, contrary to neo-liberal economic theory and the preferred (deregulatory) policy of the European Commission and many individual Member States, most notably the UK, it can be demonstrated that institutionally saturated patterns of labour regulation can be more efficient than institutionally minimalist forms of organization. More specifically, when we look beyond, or below, the national (macro) level, we discover ‘customized social regimes’ at the enterprise (micro) and sector (meso) levels that can still deliver social partnership and quality competitive strategies.


42The financial support of the Economic & Social Research Council is gratefully acknowledged.



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1 The research combined secondary information (e.g. port traffic statistics, company reports, industry newspapers, trade journals and the like) with survey data and detailed case studies of sixteen ports in eight EU Member States (see Barton and Turnbull, 1999). Full details of the research are also available from the ESRC’s database ( ESRC Ref No R000235425).

2 Port authorities are typically statutory/public bodies responsible for the general administration and regulation of the port (including conservancy, safety and port development).

3 This permitted the PLA to levy port charges over and above conservancy needs to meet the costs of surplus labour. However, this merely compounded the cost disadvantages of the port in comparison to UK ports excluded from the NDLS (e.g. Felixstowe and Dover) (see Turnbull et al, 1992: 67-71).

4 This figure includes foremen and tally clerks. Among dockers, the proportion of permanent workers is around 15 per cent.

5 The unity of CEPA is in stark contrast to Union Nationale des Industries de la Manutention dans les Ports Français (UNIM), the French port employers’ association. In the words of one official, ‘UNIM has as many positions as it does members’ (interview notes), a situation not too dissimilar from the (now defunct) National Association of Port Employers in Britain (see Turnbull et al, 1992).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Models of Port Organization
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Titre Tableau 1: Total Tonnage (Million tonnes) and Containerized Traffic (Million TEUs) Handled by the Ports of Antwerp, Le Havre and London
Légende Notes: Data for London 1975 and 1980 include private riverside wharves, data for 1985-99 refer to TilburySources: Port of Antwerp, Port Autonome du Havre, Port of London Authority, and Containerisation International Yearbook
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