Safety concerns underpin unions’ appeal over Dockers’ Clause court ruling

A ship worker tightens the lashing bars that hold the containers. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A preliminary court hearing in the Netherlands has ruled that the Non-Seafarers’ Work Clause, the so-called Dockers’ Clause of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that came into force on 1 January, should be set aside during the current pandemic. The Dockers’ Clause was amended in February 2018 as part of an agreement between the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the international maritime employers that make up the joint negotiating group.

Trade unions in the UK are appealing the preliminary ruling in a Dutch court that could result in a jointly negotiated agreement on who carries out cargo handling and lashing operations between shipping lines and maritime unions ruled as unlawful. Safety concerns over crew lashing incidents are a key consideration in the appeal.

The Dockers’ Clause states that neither seafarers or anyone else on board can carry out cargo-handling services in a port, terminal, or on board a vessel if an ITF-affiliated dockworker is available. If the number of dockworkers is insufficient on board, the crew may carry out the work if there is a prior agreement in place.

An ITF statement to SAS said, “We will be making our case in the courts.”

Unions took court action after a number of feeder operators and ship managers refused to comply with a negotiated CBA; however, the court ruled that there was an issue with the “reasonableness and fairness” in the negotiation of the Dockers’ Clause.

Shipping lines often use crew, sometimes on moving vessels, to handle lashing operations on board vessels. Unions claimed the practice is dangerous and that there have been casualties as crew are not trained in lashing work.

In a preliminary hearing, the court decided that the safety issue was not conclusive and that the current pandemic made it difficult for employers to comply with the Dockers’ Clause.

The hearing took place on 6 August, but the ruling was released on 27 August, with the judge saying that compliance with the Dockers’ Clause during the current pandemic is “onerous” for ship managers and operators, and therefore, “the interests of the shipowner and the crew in the context of [public] health outweigh the importance of claimants in the present observant [sic] of the Non-Seafarers’ Work Clause”.

Furthermore, the court decided that the Dockers’ Clause may be considered anti-competitive, in the sense that it contravenes EU competition law, preventing free competition for lashing work. A further hearing on 6 October will be heard in the future to determine a final ruling on the case.