FRENCH DOCK WORKERS ON UNEQUAL FOOTING

FRENCH DOCK WORKERS ON UNEQUAL FOOTING

Three years after the deregulation of France's dock labor laws, the winds of change have blown across Le Havre and Marseilles, albeit at vastly different speeds.

Shippers and shipowners say the 1992 French ports reforms are finally showing results but still fail to live up to promises.The Port of Le Havre is making a quicker recovery from years of labor unrest than its Mediterranean cousins, the Ports of Marseilles and Fos, which still are a long way from being able to compete on equal footing with the highly-competitive north European ports.

Users of French ports say that while Le Havre lacks a sufficiently flexible work force and still has inflated port and cargo handling rates in some sectors, Marseilles and Fos are worse.

''Containers are regularly being left behind," said Alain Morin, managing director of maritime transport at Atochem, the French chemicals group which has half a dozen factories in the Marseilles and Fos region.

Mr. Morin says that for bulk shipping, the group is a captive client of the French Mediterranean ports. He stressed, however, that of the 40,000 containers exported annually by the group from factories in southern France, just 16,000 transit through Marseilles and Fos. The rest go mainly through ports in northern France or beyond.

''We try to privilege ports in France but there are limits," he said.

A look at the first semester results of the two ports is telling. Le Havre, France's largest containerport, had an overall 13.2 percent increase in general cargo traffic to 6.9 million tons, compared with the January-to-June figures for 1994.

Included in this figure is a 12.2 percent rise in container traffic to 4.5 million tons. According to the port, the results show it has propelled itself to be among the best in Europe.

Marseilles and Fos, on the other hand, have not experienced the same success. Overall, general cargo traffic at the two ports has risen 7.4 percent to 5.6 million tons during the first six months of this year, compared with the same period last year.

This includes just a 2.8 percent overall rise in container traffic to 2.5 million tons. At Marseilles alone, container traffic rose 16 percent, but at Fos, the industrial port west of the city, container traffic actually fell 6 percent during the first semester.

Both ports have essentially waged the same bet in terms of turning their prospects around after the long strikes and sometimes violent confrontations which followed implementation of the industrial reforms that made dockers salaried employees. The number of dockers at the ports was radically reduced and last year, at a five-month interval, stevedoring employers at Le Havre and Marseilles-Fos reached expensive local deals with the dockers' union in an attempt to guarantee a strike-free environment.

In the months leading up to the signing of the deals, shipowners had begin deserting the ports. Stevedoring employers reasoned that it was worth paying more in salaries and benefits and hiring too many dockers if the result would be to lure traffic back to the ports.

The plan has in part backfired for Fos, leading Jean-Pierre Jarre, former head of the association of stevedoring employers at Marseilles-Fos, to plead with shippers to "trust us" and "give the port a chance."

The port also is trying to woo back Swiss shippers who fled a few years ago because of the strike. This has not been successful so far. General cargo traffic from Switzerland totaled 260,000 tons before 1991 and fell to 65,000 tons last year.

To be fair, shippers say that part of the problem in Marseilles-Fos stems from the fact that neighboring Italy and Spain are in the midst of an export boom, thanks to a series of currency devaluations.

They say the ships of regular lines calling at ports in all three countries often are full by the time they arrive at Marseilles and Fos. In some cases, operators are using smaller feeder ships.

Eric Guerrouani, managing director of Canada Maritime Agencies France, says for this reason the company has just started a new rotation to Italy.

Nevertheless, shipowners complain that while Marseilles-Fos has been strike-free since last December's controversial labor agreement was signed, work slowdowns are not uncommon. They say dockers at both Marseilles-Fos and Le Havre still strongly resist flexible working hours and teams, creating unnecessary delays in loading and unloading vessels.