Ship operators file complaint with EC about restrictive lashing practices

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[container lashing equipment, image for representation only]

Six European shortsea and feeder ship operators have filed an official complaint with the European Commission. They claim that  the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has in the past and continues to attempt to force ships to use dockers for container-lashing. The operators said that this restrictive practice, which the ITF is necessary because the crew on board are often not sufficiently skilled to undertake the lashing process, violates EU competition law.

A letter to the Directorate-General for Competition dated May 19th saw the operators call for an official investigation into the ITF and its affiliate, Dutch union FNV Bondgnoten, and their campaign to compel operators to stand down seafarers from shipboard container lashing.

The ship operators’ complaint focuses on the Dockers’ Clause, which was part of an agreement reached in 2018 between the ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group of maritime employers. That agreement covered approximately 15,000 seagoing vessels worldwide.  However, the six operators do not accept that the JNG acted on their behalf in agreeing to a change in long-established working practices. 

Law firm AKD, representing the operators, said that the Dockers’ Clause contravened the EU cartel prohibition and that it restricted the operators’ freedoms to provide services.

The 2018 agreement sought to prohibit seafarers from undertaking lashing if qualified dock workers, who were members to an ITF-affiliated union, were available.

The ITF has argued that this approach is safer. However, the safety imperative is conditional. Should dockers from an ITF-affiliated union not be available, the Clause says that lashing can be carried out by crew, subject to ITF permission.

The complaint notes that, traditionally, seagoing container vessels of less than 170 metres in length had been considered suitable for onboard-crew to lash. The complainants insisted that seafarers were fully trained to undertake such work, were more familiar with their ships than shoreside ITF-members, and had a vested interest in maintaining safety.

The operators argue that replacing a proven way of working with one that involved a separate request for manpower, which might not even be available, brought the threat of delays and added costs.

They said that ships could also face the prospect of needing lashing gangs at multiple terminals in the same port, for only a small numbers of containers at each. In an economy where the shortsea sector faced cut-throat competition from truckers, such efficiency losses or delays could encourage shippers to shift their business to road transport, which was more polluting.

Noting that the Dockers’ Clause became effective in 2020 after a five-year ITF campaign, AKD quoted a 2015 article published by FNV Ports in De Containerkrant. “The existing port trade unions have all seen a drop in membership numbers on account of automation and the introduction of new technologies. This means that every job in the port sector must be, or become, a dockworker job in order to recruit enough members for the trade unions to remain a force to be reckoned with.”

The owner grouping asserts that acceptance of such a restrictive practice could have severe anticompetitive consequences for short sea and feeder shipping in Europe and even worldwide.