A DUTCH court has ruled that ship managers, ship owners and charterers must comply with a clause stipulating that cargo stowage work should be entrusted to dockworkers rather than seafarers.

The Non-Seafarers’ Labor Clause, otherwise known as the “Docker Clause”, came into effect worldwide in 2020 as part of the International Bargaining Forum collective bargaining agreement.

“Neither seafarers nor anyone else on board, whether permanently or temporarily employed by the Company, shall perform cargo handling services in a port, in a terminal or on board a ship, where dockworkers, who are members of an ITF-affiliated union, provide cargo handling services”, the clause states.

“Where there are not enough qualified dockworkers available, the ship’s crew may carry out the work provided there is prior agreement from the ITF Dockers Union or relevant ITF unions; and provided that seafarers volunteer to perform such duties; and these seafarers are qualified and properly remunerated for this work.

For the purposes of this clause, “cargo handling services” may include, but are not limited to: loading, unloading, stowing, unhooking, checking and receiving. »

In short, and according to the maritime union Nautilus International, the clause provides that the stowage must be carried out by qualified dockworkers.

And, if dockworkers are unavailable, seafarers can only whip on a voluntary basis and for additional payment.

But, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the companies Marlow Cyprus, Marlow Netherlands and Expert Shipping entrusted “dangerous” stevedoring work to seafarers in the Netherlands when they were signatories to the collective agreement.

The ITF, Nautilus and the Dutch dockers’ union FNV Havens have filed suit against the companies.

Nautilus International suggested that employers, shipowners and charterers argued that the clause violated competition law and refused to comply.

But the Dutch court is said to have determined that the clause – in a collective agreement concluded through social dialogue – is exempt from competition law and plays an important role in ensuring the safety of seafarers.

As such, shipowners have been ordered to comply with the clause not only in the port of Rotterdam, but in foreign ports.

The ITF said the tribunal had underlined the importance of the proper implementation of agreements reached through social dialogue and the binding nature of such agreements.

ITF President and Dockers Section President Paddy Crumlin said the court ruling reminded employers “what it really means to be a social partner”.

“Seafarers, dockworkers and our unions have stuck to our parts of the deal, which has allowed these companies to achieve stable profits,” Mr Crumlin said.

“This case is a big step forward in our campaign, but we won’t be satisfied until we get all charterers to comply with the clause.

“Now, it is time for these employers, in particular the charterers of short sea shipping, to reconnect with a real social dialogue and to restore good faith with the unions, which must go through collaboration with the shipowners to put in place implements the non-seafarer labor clause.

“Our industry has important issues to tackle together, and we will continue to be part of the IBF process that has improved seafarer wages and working conditions for nearly 20 years.”

ITF Dockers’ Section vice-chairman Niek Stam, who is also the leader of FNV Havens, said the decision was both a victory for seafarers’ safety and for dockers’ jobs .

“Those who don’t fight will never win,” he said. “It’s the only logical outcome of the lawsuit. Otherwise, a signature would be worth nothing. A deal is a deal.

“Stowage can be extremely dangerous for seafarers, who are often not trained in port operations, such as the dangers of moving cranes. Automated terminals and supply chain pressures have further increased these dangers for ship’s crew.

Nautilus Managing Director Sascha Meijersaid raised the issue of seafarer fatigue in relation to stowage safety issues.

“It’s a win for everyone in the maritime industry that these deals can’t be bargained away,” she said.

It is understood that if the defendants do not comply with the collective agreement, they expose themselves to significant fines.