The cargo ship “Ever Goods” is one of the largest of its kind with space for 20,000 containers on board, the ship “CMA CGM Louvre” is even larger with space for 23,000 standard containers. With a length of around 400 meters, the “Elly Maersk” or the “Yang Ming Wellspring” are also among the giant ships on the oceans. But all of them are currently standing still: 15 freighters are waiting off Helgoland to be able to drive into the Elbe or Weser and to be unloaded in Hamburg, Bremerhaven or Wilhelmshaven. The reasons for the forced break are overcrowded port locations and delays in operational processes.

But the wait for goods could take much longer: the Verdi union has called for a one-day warning strike in the ports of Hamburg, Emden, Bremerhaven, Bremen, Brake and Wilhelmshaven and further work stoppages could follow.

There hasn’t been a situation like this for 40 years, in which employees in companies such as HHLA, BLG or Eurogate on the one hand and the employers organized in the Central Association of German Seaport Companies (ZDS) on the other hand clash so hard. After four rounds of negotiations, both sides accuse each other of excessive demands or insufficient offers for wage increases. The employers’ association is already proposing an arbitration procedure.

The situation in the German seaports is so explosive because allocations and sums of money in shipping have gotten out of hand as a result of the corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The world’s largest container shipping companies generated a pre-tax profit of more than 50 billion euros in the first quarter of 2022. The reasons for this are shortages in shipping capacity and the consequences of delivery problems, especially from Asian production.

The seaport companies involved in the industrial action are also reporting rising profits. You benefit from the many handlings of the container ships, but also from high storage fees for containers. Due to the delays, the boxes remain in the port area longer and this incurs fees. But this effect is short-term, the money will not be so high in the long run.

Against the background of the record numbers in shipping and port companies, the Verdi union has made its demands. For the approximately 12,000 employees in 58 companies in Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Bremen, she wants to push through an increase in hourly wages of 1.20 euros with a collective bargaining term of twelve months. For the so-called full container operations, an annual allowance increased by 1200 euros is required. In addition, an unspecified “actual inflation compensation” is to be added.

Employers, in turn, are offering an increase in hourly wages of EUR 1.20 retrospectively from June, but with a tariff term of 18 months. The exception is car handling, where wages are said to be 90 cents more. The car loading company has been suffering from falling orders since the corona pandemic. The ZDS representatives agree with the higher annual allowance of 1200 euros for full container operations demanded by Verdi. To compensate for inflation, one-off payments of between 1000 euros and 500 euros are on offer. According to the calculation, this corresponds to a wage increase of eleven percent and a long-term wage increase of seven percent.

“If there is no agreement, a moderator or arbitrator should start a mediation process as quickly as possible,” said ZDS negotiator Ulrike Riedel in the WELT talk. In time, a peace obligation would apply. Strikes would then not be possible. “The pressure is increasing due to the warning strikes. We fear that shipping company customers will migrate and look for alternatives,” said Riedel. In her main job, she is responsible for human resources on the board of the Bremer Logistics Group (BLG).

The German seaports have the reputation among international customers of being expensive but reliable. “We are putting the reputation of reliability at risk,” said the manager. Verdi’s chief negotiator counters this: “The present offer, which has mostly been worsened, is unacceptable to us. We will increase the pressure,” said Verdi official Maya Schwiegershausen-Güth.

In fact, compared to other European countries, such as Rotterdam or Antwerp, the German locations are not among those with low handling fees. This is partly due to comparatively high personnel costs. For example, the average annual salary at Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) in a medium wage group is around EUR 57,500. Added to this are shift allowances and overtime. It is not only in isolated cases that port workers on the container gantries have to work several hundred hours of additional work a year. According to reliable information, this group, known as the “port aristocracy”, achieves annual salaries in excess of 100,000 euros. The two main industry companies are partly state-owned: HHLA is 70 percent owned by the city state of Hamburg and BLG is 50 percent owned by the state of Bremen.

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