The hard-fought reform of French ports takes effect next week amid optimism the nation’s container hubs can win back traffic lost to foreign rivals during years of industrial unrest.
The major ports will start implementing the reform package on May 3, more than three years after they were first proposed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy as a way to narrow a widening productivity gap with European competitors led by Rotterdam and Antwerp.
The government, unions and port authorities reached a nationwide agreement earlier in the month on implementation of the reforms and a separate deal on early retirement for 6,000 dockworkers with arduous jobs.
French Ports news from JOC:
French Ports in the Storm
The agreement has raised hopes for an end to three years of strikes, including six weeks of rolling strikes over pensions earlier this year, go-slows and bans on overtime and weekend work during the unions' unsuccessful campaign against reform.
Ports will start implementing a key plank of the reform -- the transfer of around 2,000 container crane operators and maintenance workers from port authority payrolls to private stevedores -- during May.
Marseille, which has suffered most from strikes in the past three years, will switch around 400 workers to private companies, including stevedores Seayard and Eurofos at the Fos container terminal.
The port's Lavera oil terminal, Europe's largest, will be operated by Fluxel, a company majority owned by the port authority, a concession designed to win the support of militant dock workers implacably opposed to privatization.
Le Havre, France's largest container hub, said private stevedores have spent around $43 million on equipment for terminals they will be taking over on top of the $435 million they have invested in the new Port 2000 terminals.
The center-right government has also loosened the state's grip on the seven publicly owned ports -- Le Havre, Marseille, Bordeaux, Dunkirk, Nantes-St. Nazaire, Rouen and La Rochelle -- to give them more commercial freedom to compete in the fiercely competitive European ports sector.
Relations between the government and the dockworkers remain tense, however, as the CGT, the leading port workers union, boycotted the visit of President Sarkozy to Le Havre last week.
But ports are confident unions will honor the reform and pension agreements, and they rule out further nationwide strikes.
The ports are trying to win back shippers who diverted consignments to rival ports including Antwerp and Rotterdam and Barcelona during the wave of strikes in early 2011.
Marseille's container traffic slumped 17 percent in the first quarter from a year ago to 201,149 20-foot equivalent units. Overall throughput rose just 1 percent to 21.8 million tons. Both figures were largely due to strikes.
Le Havre's container traffic shrunk in the first quarter to 486,000 TEUs. The government claims the reforms will boost French ports’ lagging productivity, win back a large slice of French-bound traffic that currently passes through foreign ports, increase annual container traffic to 10 million TEUs in 2015 from 3.6 million TEUs in 2007 and create an additional 30,000 jobs on the waterfront.
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