EU Countries Can Require Licensing for Dockworkers

In the interest of safety and security, EU law allows for special rules limiting who can load and unload ships in member-state ports.  

Shipping containers are seen at Belgium’s Port of Antwerp. (Photo by Hessel Visser from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The EU’s top court found Thursday that European law allows countries to require specialist training for dockworkers, but such national rules cannot violate the freedom of movement for workers from other member states.

In a case involving several port companies in Belgium, the European Court of Justice ruled that nations in the European Union can set qualification requirements on dockworkers in the interest of safety and security. However, the court found a Belgian requirement that trade unions bestow official status on them violates the bloc’s principle of free movement of goods and services. 

The ruling combined three cases, referred to the Luxembourg-based court by Belgian courts to determine if a 2016 royal decree setting restrictions on who could do dock work is compatible with EU law. 

Katoen Natie Bulk Terminals and General Services Antwerp, which both operate port facilities in Belgium, filed a complaint in Belgian court arguing that the law prevented them from hiring dockworkers from abroad. A case involving a third company, Middlegate Europe, was also combined into Thursday’s ruling. Middlegate Europe was fined by the Belgian authorities for allowing a non-recognized dockworker to load and unload ships.

“Such national legislation is liable to have a dissuasive effect on workers and employers from other member states and therefore constitutes a restriction on freedom of movement for workers,” the five-judge panel wrote.

However, the court also found that “restrictions can be justified by overriding reasons in the public interest and that the objective of ensuring safety in port areas and preventing workplace accidents…is capable of constituting such a reason.”

Since the 1970s, Belgium has placed restrictions on who is eligible to work in its ports. In 2014, the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, filed a complaint with Belgium, arguing that the restrictions made it too difficult for foreign companies to operate there.

In response, Belgium loosened some of the restrictions but maintained a number of requirements, including that dockworkers be designated by a worker’s association, meet certain physical requirements and obtain a safety certificate. 

The companies contested seven provisions of the 2016 regulation. The Court of Justice found that four of the requirements – meeting physical and psychological standards, attending a safety course, and passing an exam – met the threshold of being in the public interest. But the judges ruled the other three provisions, all of which gave regulatory power to trade unions, are incompatible with EU law. 

“Although the members of the body competent to recognize dockers are designated by operators already present on the market, inter alia by an organization representing already-recognized dockers who might compete for available workstations with workers who are applying for recognition, it is permissible to question the impartiality of those members and whether they will be able, therefore, to rule on the applications for recognition in an objective, transparent and non-discriminatory manner,” the ruling states.

Belgian trade unions have long relied on this authority and the decision is seen as a major blow to them. 

The country’s ports are a major economic driver. The Port of Antwerp is the second largest in Europe, and Belgium’s port industry as a whole accounts for 4.5% of gross domestic product and employs 2.8% of the Belgian workforce. 

The case now returns to the Belgian courts for a final ruling on the regulation. 

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