Ports reel as protests intensify

Employees stop work ahead of National Labor Court hearing to solve the dispute; shipping companies divert cargos to Turkey, Cyprus and Jordan.

port demo 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
port demo 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The crisis at Israel's ports escalated Tuesday afternoon when employees stopped all work ahead of a hearing at the National Labor Court to solve the dispute. "The situation at the Haifa and Ashdod ports intensified on Tuesday. For the past week, the ports have been operating at 20 to 30 percent capacity, bringing activity at the ports to a near standstill," Reuven Zuk, president of the Israel Shipping Chamber, told The Jerusalem Post. "Tuesday afternoon, the situation escalated as the ports' workers stopped working to go to Jerusalem and protest in front of the National Labor Court during late-night hearings." On Monday, the Manufacturers Association of Israel and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce (FICC) submitted a request to the National Labor Court against the Histadrut Labor Federation and the government to enforce an injunction and order the port workers to return to work at full capacity. The National Labor Court summoned all sides to a hearing on Tuesday night. "The labor sanctions launched by the port workers are not legal, and therefore the court needs to give an order for the workers to return to regular work," FICC president Uriel Lynn said. Last Monday, Ashdod and Haifa port workers launched labor sanctions including reduced workdays and slowdowns to protest a clause in the 2009 Economic Arrangements Bill passed by the cabinet last month. That clause would allow the Israel Ports Company to manage operations at the ports, rather than simply acting as Israel's port-property landlord, overseeing the government's assets. "We are suggesting to the court to postpone the port dispute by three months," Lynn said. "This is not an emergency matter, and thus there is no reason to paralyze Israel's ports on the eve of the High Holy Days." The Manufacturers Association said the week of labor sanctions at the ports had already cost the business sector NIS 1.9 billion. "At the moment, 50 ships are stranded at the ports waiting to unload and upload," Zuk said. "Many ships are leaving without taking export goods, while shipping companies such as Zim Shipping Services are already diverting cargos to alternative ports in Turkey, Cyprus and Jordan." "What this means," he said, "is that factories and businesses are not getting the necessary raw materials and are forced to close production lines. At the same time, exporters are not getting goods out of the country, which is causing damages of millions of shekels to individual businesses." Last Tuesday, the Histadrut declared a labor dispute at all of the ports in reaction to the Treasury's plan to bring in private contractors for the operation of parts of the ports. The Histadrut believes allowing independent contractors to run the ports will damage the status of unionized labor there. Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini has accused the Finance Ministry of acting against collective agreements by unilaterally legislating the change. In declaring a work dispute at the ports of Haifa, Eilat and Ashdod, the Histadrut and the workers are legally entitled to launch a general strike at the ports starting next week. Although the port workers were not working overtime, they have not launched unionized labor sanctions, the Histadrut said in a statement Tuesday. "If workers wake up one morning reading on the Finance Ministry's Web site that their collective agreements have been infringed, they can't be expected to have the motivation to invest additional hours at work," the statement said.