Just who is in charge at the port of Antwerp?
By Justin Stares, editor, The Maritime Watch.
"I’m very afraid of the unions", said the Antwerp port chairman, widening his eyes with earnestness as he pronounced the word “afraid”. In Brazil, I had heard stories of killers contracted by unions to take out troublesome port bosses. But such an open display of fear in northern Europe? In 2005? It was an odd thing to say. Then again, Antwerp is not your average port.
Over the last 15 years, Europe’s port landscape has changed dramatically. With dogged perseverance, the European Commission has largely wiped out union power on the quaysides. Brussels officials made no effort to hide their distaste for the inefficient practices of organised labour. The merciless crushing of unions by China’s Cosco in Piraeus, in the face of Greece’s hard-left government, was retold with pride in the EU capital.
While there have been other pockets of resistance such as Marseille, Antwerp port has over this period stood out as the exception to rule. It is today still a bastion of union power, despite the best efforts of industry and the Commission.
Rather than harp back to the good old days of Socialism, union leaders have transitioned successfully to the digital age. Pools of dockers no longer gather in the large Antwerp shed known as the ‘kot’ to divvy up jobs among themselves; they now use i-pads to organise.
Leaders have also shown themselves to be canny negotiators. When the Commission pushed Belgium to break the monopoly, unions came to the table rather than go out on strike. They negotiated a deal which on paper looked like an admission that their time was up. Non-unionised workers were to be progressively allowed onto the docks. Unions recommended the deal to their membership, who dutifully voted in favour. It came into force in 2016.
Terminal managers, who have long had to suffer the ignominy of being told to ‘F-off’ by un-sackable dockers, were satisfied. They began to send candidates to take the ‘psycho-technical’ tests required for building up a non-unionised workforce.
But it proved hard. Industry was shocked to discover unions had during the negotiations somehow retained a veto on approvals. Just three non-unionised workers passed the necessary tests in the first two years. "The interpretation of the approval criteria for the psycho-technical tests became more and more stringent," bemoaned Karl Hut, chairman of the port's logistics providers' association and manager of family-owned terminal Katoen Natie. "Before, if you could ride a bike, it was no problem. Now, you have to be a Formula One driver," he told the Maritime Watch.
Industry gradually lost faith in the agreement and the willingness of Belgium’s various layers of government to implement it. Key politicians have praised what industry considers a discredited arrangement, suggesting they are somehow invested in the status quo. Court cases are underway in both Belgium and Luxembourg, home to the European Court of Justice.
There is another fact that makes Antwerp stand out among European ports: it is one of the continent’s main cocaine gateways. Mafia-style drug-trafficking gangs have infiltrated the port and surrounding businesses, the town’s mayor, Bart De Wever, has publicly admitted. "It’s bad but not as bad as in ‘Narcos’," Mr De Wever said, referring to the Netflix series.
Much of Europe seems oblivious of the sheer scale of the Antwerp drugs trade, though local residents are very much aware. So much money is at stake that gangs fight for control on the city’s streets with automatic weapons and grenades. In one week alone there were five armed confrontations. Police have been forced to patrol in armoured cars.
Local newspapers run stories suggesting crane drivers receive tens of thousands of euros for one ‘special’ container movement. Asked if he thought there was link between the drug lords and certain dockers, Mr Huts declined to comment.
Antwerp’s share of breakbulk traffic in the northwestern range has declined, which industry says is due to a lack of worker flexibility. It is however still one of the European Union’s biggest ports in the container, bulk and liquid bulk trades.
As to who exactly controls these traffic flows, it is sometimes not very clear.
This is the twelfth in a series of Maritime Watch editorials. If you want them straight to your email inbox, sign up for the alerts at the top of the homepage.