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ILO Meeting Focuses on Social and Labour Problems in Ports


Press release | 20 May 1996


GENEVA (ILO news) - The ever increasing use of containers and the introduction of new cargo-handling techniques has led to a spectacular drop in the number of port employees around the world in recent years, with job losses ranging from 40 to 60 per cent in many countries, according to the International Labour Office.

Government, employer and worker representatives from 20 countries Endnote1 opened a five-day meeting (20-24 May) this morning in Geneva to discuss social and labour issues related to structural adjustments in ports "and to adopt conclusions and guiding principles on these questions, with particular reference to issues relating to labour reorganization and its consequences, social security and dock labour schemes." The meeting will seek to identify ways to encourage constructive labour-management relations with a view to ensuring both increased productivity and good employment and working conditions in ports.

Transformations brought about by rapid technological change have led numerous governments to reconsider the role of the State in the port industry. Many have vigorously pursued divestiture programmes aimed at reducing direct government involvement and stimulating a process of privatization.

Containerization has "revolutionized the national and international transport and port industries", says an ILO report Endnote2 prepared for the meeting. It has had "a decisive impact on the design and sizes of general-cargo ships; on the layout, equipment, development, operations and employment in ports; on inland transport requirements; and on land use, human skills and shippers' perception of the functioning of the overall transport chain."

Substituting capital for labour, containerization and related developments have also "resulted in substantial reductions in port employment, accompanied by substantial increases in labour productivity". A striking example, cited in the report, is given by Australia where the "waterfront industry had been known for its large labour force, container-handling rates and vessel turn-around times that compared unfavourably to ports outside Australia". A reform plan was introduced by the federal Government in 1989 to improve port performance. In Melbourne, the resulting increases in productivity were accompanied by a workforce reduction of 59 per cent.

Other examples highlighted in the report include the United Kingdom where port employment fell by 44 per cent between 1989 and 1992 and France where a 1992 reform led to workforce reductions of up to two thirds in six major ports.

Similar trends can be observed in developing countries. "In the port of Cotonou (Benin), the number of operational and administrative personnel has decreased by 50 per cent in the last five years".

Workforce reductions have been managed most of the time through a combination of redundancy schemes and early retirement. Experience suggests that success is conditional on early consultations between the government and the social partners.

"A structural adjustment programme that from the outset reflects the concerns of those affected by it is more likely to win support", notes the report. "Until today, representatives of employers and workers have often been involved in a structural adjustment programme at a very late stage, often when the priorities have already been set. Participation by the social partners could help give such programmes a more human face."

Job profiles also have changed radically as a result of structural adjustments calling for new management techniques and working skills. "Multi-task workers and multiskilled operations are becoming more common in ports", the report points out. Workers now have "more individual responsibility and work according to instructions received through radio communications, computer printouts or information displayed on a computer screen". These developments have increased the need for better educated and trained port personnel.

"It seems that supervisors, foremen and equipment operators are the groups most in need of training, followed by checkers, tallymen and clerical staff", says the report.

The drive for improved efficiency is not the only reason why increased private sector involvement is being encouraged, according to the ILO. Huge investments are needed to adapt ports to modern requirements. "It is estimated that by the year 2000 the Asian and Pacific region alone will have to invest approximately US$ 1,500 billion to create additional capacity in infrastructure, of which the transport and communication sectors make up an important part". Today, the container throughput of the Hong Kong port is already the highest in the world.

Discussions among participants in this week's meeting at the ILO are expected to focus, among other issues, on the design of structural adjustment programmes, labour-management relations, manning levels and working conditions in ports, and training systems.


Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Ghana, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, Netherlands, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States of America.


Social and labour problems caused by structural adjustments in the port industry. Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting on Social and Labour Problems caused by Structural Adjustments in the Port Industry. ISBN 92-2-109793-5. ILO, Geneva, 1996.