Chapter 7.1 – Ports, Policies, and Politics

Authors: Dr. Athanasios Pallis, Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom

The setting up, planning, development, and daily functions of ports are subject to public policies and can be part of a geopolitical agenda.

1. Multi-level Port Policy Making

Governments are usually responsible for establishing, developing, and operating ports to facilitate trade, transforming the seaside into facilities where goods are loaded and unloaded. This role is not only limited to port ownership, such as owning and controlling wharves and jetties, but includes acting as regulators. Seaports are critical infrastructure allowing trade and the movement of goods and persons, with governance and regulation being a matter of public interest. Ports are multifaceted economic arenas that create economic, social, and environmental value at microeconomic (individual firms), meso (sectoral), and macro (economies) levels and are contributors to economic prosperity. Typically, the government or a specialized agent oversees a port and manages its politics to safeguard the public interest.

In the last three decades, port governance reforms have resulted in an increasing disassociation of public actors from the management and operation of ports in many countries. However, the public interest in organizing, planning, and regulating port activities remains. This takes shape either through public policies (de)regulating ports or through broader initiatives, such as transportation, competition, environmental, and economic policies that shape the port sector and related activities.

Intergovernmental organizations devoted to maritime issues, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), and supranational institutions, such as the European Union (EU), develop initiatives shaping how ports are organized, developed, and managed. This is because of the international character of ports and their importance in serving global maritime trade and the related supply chains. Along with the spatial and functional expansion of port services and the linked supply chains, trade expansion and globalization have reformed the scale of problems and their solutions, generating further interest in adopting related policies implemented at a broader scale.

With ports evolving into clusters of economic activities, port authorities, service providers, entrepreneurs, and stakeholders have established associations representing their interests and seek to shape the content of these port and port-related public policies. Port policies and related decision-making are advancing through public and private actor interactions. These interactions happen at multiple levels.

2. National Policies for Ports

A. National port policies themes

National-level authorities are involved in developing national port policies aiming to advance the establishment, planning, development, and organization of ports to ensure that the development of the industry serves the public interest. Such responsibilities lie with regional authorities (e.g., municipal or state level) or city authorities. This depends on the traditions of each country as regards both the organization of ports and the formation of the polity. Federal states tend to delegate such control to the state or municipal level, while more centralized governments create national regulatory agencies having direct oversight.

Governmental agencies develop initiatives to reach different targets:

  • The contribution of ports to the local, regional, and national economy, as well as to social cohesion.
  • The minimization of any externalities produced by ports, and environmental protection in line with the applicable legislation.
  • The uninterrupted availability and provision of reliable and quality services to ships, passengers, cargoes, the users of the port, and the general public without discrimination.
  • The presence of any exemptions foreseen within the applicable legislation.

The themes of the policy initiatives developed by the competent national authorities include:

  • Definition of the port system detailing the ports and the related maritime and hinterland infrastructure and connections.
  • Policy formulation including the definition of the role of the public and private sectors in port governance and operations and the setting of priority targets.
  • Legislation including design of laws, regulations, and decrees, including competition and monitoring implementation.
  • International relations with representation in international forums, negotiations, and agreements.
  • Investment and financial affairs with assessment and, potentially, financial support for investment projects of national importance.

An additional theme is port planning, with the competent authorities commonly responsible for:

  • Designating port zones and establishing priorities regarding the establishment of ports in the areas under their jurisdiction.
  • Defining property rights for port land and areas of water where the port(s) develop.
  • Authorizing planning and, in some cases, executing part of the planned infrastructure.

Many port-related government decisions are contingent on the physical and human geography of the local area. The ownership and property rights of the port land and waterside areas are illustrative examples. To develop a port, construction works include breakwaters, quays, piers, anchorage grounds, quarantine areas, large storage areas, and warehouses. Waterfront real estate and water areas commonly cannot be privately owned. Some port facilities extend into the water, often substantially, such as for land reclamations. In most countries, jurisdiction over the waterfront and the water cannot be private. There is no legal recognition of exclusive ownership rights by any third (public and private) entity. Thus, the government controls ownership and the designation of areas for port development. Public authorities establish property rights, concession the land, and authorize port constructions.

Depending on the role of the state in the economy, public control may extend to the construction of infrastructure. Elsewhere, the role of public authorities also includes the daily management of the port and even operations. The latter is most common in the case of smaller, secondary or local, ports. Alternatively, in countries such as the UK, even the land on which the port develops and operates is the property of operating companies. These companies develop the port solely on the priorities they set.

Once the jurisdiction and title have been obtained, where ports are placed and how they are to be built are decided. Thus, approach channels, breakwaters, maneuvering areas for ships and harbor water areas, transport links between the port and the hinterland transport network are among the works that are frequently monitored by a public authority. The planning and execution of these works are inherently industrial and commercial activities, and in many ports are detailed in the port level master plans. Nonetheless, the authorization to undertake the works in particular sites are actions of a governmental nature, having regard, in particular, to their consequences for the port use and its natural and human environment.

While departments of transportation, or their equivalent, have the primary role in orchestrating these decisions, they rarely do so alone. The decisions require the involvement of additional departments, including those responsible for finance, the environment, spatial planning, civil works, tourism (for passenger/cruise ports), and naval authorities. Port planning requires that the port authority and competent national authorities coordinate all the details and the overall context of investment(s), any authorizations needed for investment plans for industrial and commercial port operations, and the potential inclusion of individual projects in financing plans at the national level. The authorities responsible for finance draw on their financial capacities to support the decisions. The environmental dimension is increasingly present in all major transport projects, with the authorization for any port project set up before its commencement.

Public authorities are also responsible for the formulation of the port system, as they define the structures of port governance. In particular, public authorities:

  • Set the conditions for private providers via decisions expanding (limiting) existing entry barriers into operations.
  • Regulate corporate and financial relations between the public institutions and port administrations.
  • Establish port authorities and define whether they will be public, private, or hybrid (at the intersection between public and private) entities.
  • Create the foundations of port functions and responsibilities, by defining the principles of port governance.

Public authorities monitor the compliance of port activities, which does not mean that they necessarily play any part in performing them. The scope of monitoring is to ensure that activities are carried out in compliance with laws and regulations and contribute effectively to national port policy priorities. In many ports, the public sector maintains a role in providing some nautical services, either because this practice corresponds to the dominant philosophy regarding the role of the state in the economy or because such involvement is considered essential for safety or strategic reasons. A typical example is the provision of pilotage services and their pricing. Dredging and navigational aids, including harbor master responsibilities, are examples of port operations frequently undertaken by public authorities.

B. Competition policies

Part of the public authorities’ monitoring process includes the issue of competition. Government agencies are responsible for monitoring that port operations are in line with current competition rules. In some countries (e.g., South Africa, Greece), these responsibilities have been assigned to independent regulatory authorities for ports. In many more, for both inter-port competition intra-port competition, the designated national competition authorities address related questions, e.g., the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Competition Bureau Canada, and the French ‘Autorité de la concurrence’. Given the international character of many competition-related issues, such as public financing, the issue of whether this financing should be considered as state aid, and concessioning processes, are increasingly part of the agendas of international authorities, such as the European Commission.

For an extended period, an active presence of national administrations, or their agents, in daily port activities has been based on the perception of ports and port services as public goods. With shifts in global maritime trade, this dimension has gradually declined. Following port governance reforms, the presence of the state in port operations has been eliminated, and the rights to provide port services were transferred to the private sector. However, there are still parts of the world, mainly developing countries, where full-service ports remain under public control, with government agents being active in the provision of daily operations.

Despite the decision of governments to devolve the responsibilities of port operations to third parties, ports remain a sector where politics continue to have a significant impact. The conditions for market access stand as a salient example, with national administrations being active in setting entry rules. Government policies aiming to introduce private terminal operations in the container market have led to a concentration of ownership among a few major port holdings. While mergers and acquisitions are usually completed, there are cases where they have triggered a regulatory response. Besides, creating opportunities for more competition through market entry by lowering the legislative and economic barriers is on the agenda of many national and supranational (i.e., European Union) authorities.

C. Port related policies

State-level authorities exercise control over some broader issues that affect port operations and developments, such as:

  • National transport policy concerning the construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure.
  • Location of major industries, as part of industrial policies.
  • Customs and immigration processes.
  • Safety requirements and minimum conditions for workers.
  • Environmental and aesthetic factors.
  • Security and prevention of unlawful acts.

In addition, free trade zones (freeport) with distribution and warehousing activities subject to separate taxation regimes are subject to distinct policies and their development within port zones or adjacent locations. Public authorities also develop policy and financial initiatives related to aspects of port investment and development plans.

D. The Harbor Master

Harbor Masters regulate how vessels conduct their navigation in a port, with the prime consideration being the safety of navigation for any vessel. Most regulatory requirements are set out in the form of port by-laws, general directions, and pilotage directions, as these clearly define the terms of safe navigation.

A range and diversity of responsibilities are imposed on those who perform the harbor mastering role. Differing national traditions and structures explain the variations in the job description, which can even exist within one country. Factors such as the size of the port, its specific function, and how the port is owned and administered, also make a difference. There are two primary ways in which Harbor Masters may be appointed. They may be a port employee, or an external appointment, or, as in the USA, an officer of the US Coast Guard.

The Harbor Master is the principal person who typically exercises jurisdiction over the water area of a port or port approach. To exercise this jurisdiction, authority is conferred by national law, regulation, or rules, and these duties encompass a legal and operational responsibility for shipping movements to be carried out safely.

From initial information provided by the ship on draft, length overall, and displacement, the Harbor Master will allocate a suitable berth and apply any restrictions necessary for the safe passage of that particular vessel. Ships arriving at a port will typically contact the port control or vessel traffic management systems station to receive instructions on the plan for their arrival and stay in the port. This exchange usually involves confirmation of the time the pilot will board and the berth to which the vessel is proceeding. Harbor Masters use local knowledge to inform their decision-making regarding the manner and circumstances in which commercial vessels are permitted to enter and leave their ports.

Geographical configurations of the port, prevailing weather conditions, port water depths, and the height and strength of the local tides are some of the factors that a Harbor Master considers while formulating an admission policy for commercial vessels wishing to enter and leave the port. Harbor Masters specify their entry requirements in great detail, including the safest approaches to a port, pilot boarding ground, and details of advance notifications to be given to the port before arrival. The arrival of a commercial vessel into a port is always a planned event, with notifications of arrival beginning before arrival.

3. International Port Policies

Policies decided by policy actors go well beyond the boundaries of a single country. Ports serve international maritime transportation and are embedded in global supply chains. Thus, ports share several similar concerns and challenges, and addressing them locally can be ineffective or distort competition. An indicative list of these concerns and challenges would include safety, security, labor issues, customs and operational standardization, and competition between the actors involved. International intergovernmental organizations (including United Nations (UN) agents) intervene, taking actions falling within their competence in these areas. Their regulatory decision and other initiatives are, or at least entail the potential to be, more effective than action taken at the national, regional, or local level.

A. International organizations

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an intergovernmental organization that, since 1948, has developed and adopted regulations, guidelines, codes of practice, and other initiatives that:

  • Set standards for safety and security of vessels and ship/port interface.
  • Protect the environment from shipping activities.
  • Establish global provision for search and rescue.
  • Ensure that all seafarers are adequately trained and competent.
  • Define liability and ensure compensation is available when accidents happen.

Applying IMO conventions is subject to ratification and implementation by as many countries as possible. This ratification depends on national technical capabilities and willingness to apply the conventions. The key conventions that have been ratified by countries representing over 95% of the world tonnage already shape the framework within which ports, shipping, and maritime supply chains operate. They include:

  • The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974, as amended.
  • The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), 1973, was modified by the Protocol of 1978, and by the Protocol of 1997.
  • The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) as amended, including the 1995 and 2010 Amendments.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has advanced international port labor standards. ILO is the only tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers, and workers of 187 member states to set labor standards, develop policies and devise programs promoting appropriate working conditions. Its port-related activities focus on safety and health, security, training, working conditions, gender issues, and the role of ports in the supply chain. Similar to IMO, the implementation of ILO decisions is subject to their ratification by the participating countries.

Two other international organizations are developing initiatives of relevance. The World Customs Organization (WCO) established in 1952 as the Customs Co-operation Council (CCC), is an independent body whose mission is to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of customs procedures. Since 2004, WCO has developed in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) a global Container Control Programme (CCP) to prevent the illicit flow of goods by pooling customs and other law enforcement bodies in coordinating and managing law enforcement responses at seaports in more than 20 countries worldwide.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental international organization with a membership of 166 national standards bodies. It develops voluntary, consensus-based, market relevant international standards that support making a product, managing a process, delivering a service, or supplying materials. These standards relate to

  • Quality management standards to work more efficiently and reduce product failures.
  • Environmental management standards to reduce environmental impacts, reduce waste, and be more sustainable.
  • Health and safety standards to reduce accidents in the workplace.
  • Energy management standards to cut energy consumption.
  • IT security standards to keep sensitive information secure.

Ports have certified with ISO 9001:2008 the management of container, bulk terminal, passenger, and cruise terminals. The same certification applies for specific services, such as cargo loading and unloading services, mooring, and fewer public procurement and port work cases. A growing number port authorities and terminal operations have been certified for their environmental management to terminal operations with ISO 14001. However, the major contribution of standardization, with far-reaching implications for ports and beyond, has been the standardization of the containers that are transported. Standardization enabled the expansion of the containerized seagoing transportation of goods. The usage of standardized containers resulted in a vast reduction in shipping costs. It allowed many countries that were previously isolated from global trade to put their products on the world market and consume imported goods.

B. Supranational port policies: European Union

Economic and political integration in Europe, notably the setting up of a single European market in the 1990s, increased the interdependence of European ports that had historically developed in their own diverse ways, even when located in the same country. The interdependence of European ports intensified due to other factors as well. These factors include economic globalization and containerization; the expansion of transshipment, logistics, and value-added facilities; technological advancements; and the integration of maritime trade in supply chains. The scale and scope of these developments gradually pushed the national boundaries of port policy-making. Since the early 1990s, the search for a long-term European Port Policy (EPP) has produced a mix of non-legislative and legislative measures. These measures apply to all European Union (EU) ports that together host 37% of the total intra-EU exchange of goods and 75% of the EU trade to the rest of the world by ports directly connected the EU to over 850 ports in the Far East and a total of more than 2,000 ports in the world. Both successes and failures mark this search, as does the associability of port community stakeholders seeking to influence the complex EU policy-making process.

The cornerstone of these initiatives is a regulation on market access to port services and the financial transparency of ports (Regulation 2017/352). Adopted in 2017, it established the entry rules in various port services (bunkering, cargo handling, dredging, mooring, passenger services. port reception facilities, pilotage, and towage) in 319 ports. The regulation lowers legislative entry barriers, provides existing and potential port services providers with a level playing field, reduces the administrative burden, and advances transparency of financial interactions. It established the freedom to provide services subject to minimum requirements, conditions for limiting the number of providers, public service obligations, and the presence of an internal operator (i.e., by the Port Authority itself). Financial transparency and autonomy in the use of public funds are enhanced by requirements such as the presence of separate port accounts, transparent and non-discriminatory port service charges, the autonomy of port managing bodies to set port infrastructure charges, and the obligation to inform users about tariffs for port infrastructure charges. Reduction of legal uncertainties is also advanced via the applications of broader rules (i.e., a concession directive) and ongoing discussions on the modernization of applicable state aid rules. The regulation is the outcome of a discussion that lasted 16 years, highlighting both the international dimension of port competition and the difficulties in advancing (de)regulatory measures applying to ports in multiple (in this case, 27) countries as ports vying for traffic shares differ in many ways (markets, governance, geography, rules of entry for third parties).

Beyond this rule that targets the enhancement of EU port competitiveness, the EU policies target improving hinterland connections. The strategic planning of the transport system in the continent involves developing public co-financing of an integrated Trans-European Transport Network that includes a comprehensive list of 319 ports, with a sub-list of core ports. The development of both comprehensive and core EU ports is considered vital for the competitiveness of the European economy, including improving port hinterland connections. European policies aiming to enhance maritime safety, improve the relationship of ports and the environment, and guarantee maritime security are also in place. The list of emerging themes includes initiatives advancing digitalization. In all cases, whenever international rules are in place (i.e., safety, security), the emphasis is on their proper implementation rather than new regional initiatives.

C. Federal Port Policies: North America

In the United States, the federal government is given exclusive jurisdiction over all navigable waterways. However, due to the nature of the federal system, there is no national port authority but a combination of state and municipal port authorities, making policy coordination complex. Early forms of port development and operation were mainly assumed by private companies, particularly railroads. This led to complaints about monopolistic behavior and unfair competitive practices. The public policy response was the setting up of public port authorities in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly when railways led to a gradual deterioration of port facilities due to the lack of investment. A salient example was the creation of the Port Authority of New York in 1921, which placed the role of port infrastructure development and operations firmly in public hands.

Established in 1950, Maritime Administration (MARAD) is an agency of the US Department of Transportation responsible for the waterborne transportation system. MARAD supports the technical aspects of maritime transportation infrastructure, including ships and shipping, port and vessel operations, national security, environment, and safety. It also maintains a fleet of cargo ships in reserve to provide a surge sea-lift during national emergencies.

In Canada, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over all forms of navigation, forming a national port authority as early as 1868. Although the federal authority can be granted to private or local interests, the majority of large commercial ports remained under close federal jurisdiction. Port policy shifted in 1998 with the Canada Marine Act, that devolved governance responsibilities of a large number of small ports that have been managed by the Ministry of Transport. Under Canada Port Authority, the largest seaports are given a partial level of autonomy for their development and management. From a policy perspective, American port authorities have more latitude than their Canadian counterparts.

D. National perspectives: China

The past 45 years have brought significant changes to China’s economic and political landscape and society. The changes in economic policy brought by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 were followed by a long transition period towards a market-based economy. Chinese national reforms and the transfer of power from the central government to local governments impacted the governance of seaports. The period 1979–1984 was characterized by a centrally planned economic system with strongly centralized decision-making. The combination of insufficient funds for port development and lagging efficiency improvements caused severe port capacity problems in the early 1980s. From 1984 to 2004, the government initiated a decentralization process, with ports ending up being controlled either by central and local governments or by the local government. The new governance system resulted in a gradual entry of foreign private investors into Chinese ports, particularly in the container business.

The Port Law of 2004 forms the cornerstone for today’s port system in China, characterized by the corporatization of port authorities and the introduction of modern corporate governance principles in the seaport system. The past decade has brought large-scale port cooperation and integration processes at the provincial level, resulting in large ‘port groups’ controlling more than one port. Policy formulation and strategic port planning are still under the responsibility of the central government and respective provincial governments, so any plans of regional port groups need to be approved by these higher authorities.

Other policies are influencing Chinese ports:

  • The actions of the Chinese government in the area of corporate governance directly impact the functioning of the Chinese seaport system. For example, the fight against corruption has affected administrative processes, reporting practices, and the mobility of government officials, including in ports.
  • The Central Government initiated the Go West policy in 2000 to energize local economies and improve people’s living standards in the western parts of China. This policy brought higher throughput perspectives for coastal ports and intensified competition among Chinese ports to serve the growing inland regions.
  • The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013 to foster economic cooperation from the Western Pacific to the Baltic Sea and break the connectivity bottleneck in Asia through infrastructure investments. Chinese seaports actively develop strategies to link up to both the maritime and rail-based opportunities brought by the initiative. Furthermore, some provincial port groups are investing in key BRI ports abroad.
  • The Chinese government initiated a policy in 2013 to develop pilot free trade zones (FTZ) in some coastal port cities. The first FTZ was launched in Shanghai in September 2013. Since 2015, the Chinese State Council has extended the initiative to many other cities. Many FTZs are located in seaport areas and have become proving ground for the Chinese government to test new economic policies and governance reforms. The experiences gathered through the FTZ policy can serve as input to formulate further nationwide social, economic, and governance reforms.

4. Policy Issues

A. Emissions Control

The need to control emissions has led to an IMO regulatory framework restricting several fueling options. The IMO is spearheading sulfur emission restrictions within particular Emission Controlled Areas (ECAs). For example, since 2010, in the sulfur emission control area (SECA) of the North and Baltic Sea, the mass fraction of sulfur in a vessel’s bunker has to be less than 1%. This standard took effect in North America in 2012, with this limit decreasing to 0.5% after 2020. These rules triggered interest in alternative forms of powered vessels. There is considerable interest in ports worldwide using on-shore power supplies (cold ironing) and other similar technologies and practices (use of diesel oil instead of heavy fuel oil or renewable energy sources) to reduce emissions. At the center of these trends is the provision of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to ships. The capacity of ports in providing shore power supply or LNG bunkering is also an emerging environmental performance indicator.

B. Port security

As in maritime safety, some of the essential regulations regarding security in trade and transport have been undertaken by the IMO. In 2002 a security-related amendment to the Convention on Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) was adopted, supplementing it with the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. The initiative changed the way ship and port security is considered. The ISPS Code has two parts. Part A is mandatory for all the contracting countries, while Part B contains recommended actions that have been adopted by a few countries.

The ISPS Code established three security levels denoting the need for normal (Level 1), heightened (Level 2), and exceptional (Level 3), security measures. The implementation of the code’s requirements and the respective certification of vessels and shipping companies is the responsibility of the flag state. At the same time, national authorities are responsible for inspecting and certifying proper implementation. These provisions cover all types of ships larger than 500 grt, mobile offshore drilling units, and port facilities serving ships, which are engaged in international voyages. Concerning ports, the ISPS Code focuses on the locations of the ship/port interface. Ports have to develop a Port Facility Security Plan (PFSP) detailing the essential actions to prevent, or respond to, a security incident. They also have to designate a port facility security officer responsible for carrying out regular drills, exercises, and seminars concerning port facility security. In addition, Part A makes an explicit reference to identifying and estimating assets and infrastructures that it is important to protect.

The amended IAMO SOLAS Convention (Chapter XI-2) introduced a new technological security measure for ships. This is the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which enables ships to transmit a unique identification signal for the shore operational centers to monitor the ship route. Ships are required to have onboard a security alert system transmitting to a designated competent authority when activated in emergencies and a Continuous Synopsis Record (CSR) that contains details of the ship, including name, flag, port of registry, IMO number, and owner information.

The Code of Practice on security in ports (latest edition: 2004) is another security-related initiative adopted by IMO jointly with ILO. It provides a guidance framework for developing an appropriate strategy for identifying security threats in ports. The main provisions are:

  • The development and implementation of a port security policy statement.
  • The identification and evaluation of the critical assets and infrastructures that it is important to protect.
  • The development of a Port Security Plan, compatible with the ISPS Code for a Port Facility Security Plan.
  • Training personnel in security awareness.

The WCO Council has adopted the SAFE Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade, an additional international instrument regularly updated to effectively address developments in the international supply chain. The latest (2018) version of the framework focuses on strengthening cooperation between customs administrations through exchanging information, mutual recognition of controls, mutual recognition of Authorized Economic Operators (AEO)s, and mutual administrative assistance. In addition, it calls for enhanced cooperation between government agencies entrusted with regulatory authority over certain goods, such as weapons, hazardous materials, and passengers, as well as entities responsible for postal issues. The framework also details certain minimum tangible benefits to AEOs.

International standardization also plays a role in port security enhancement. ISO 28004-2:2014 identifies supply chain risk and threat scenarios, procedures for conducting risks/threat assessments, and evaluation criteria for measuring conformity and the effectiveness of security plans following standardized (ISO 28000 and ISO 28004) implementation guidelines. An output of this effort is a confidence rating system based on the quality of the security management plans and procedures implemented by the port to safeguard its security and continuity of cargo operations. The rating system is used to identify a measurable level of confidence (on a scale of 1 to 5) that the port security operations conform with standards for protecting the integrity of the supply chain.

C. International policies for dock labor

ILO has been involved in the definition and organization of dock labor through two international conventions on the role of the designated labor pools and the working practices that safeguard the safety and health of port workers. However, the agreed and forwarded ratification by UN member countries “ILO Convention C137 on the social repercussions of new methods of cargo handling in docks” and “ILO Convention C152on occupational safety and health in dock work” have had limited adoption success. The two Conventions were adopted in 1973 and 1981, respectively. The products of international agreements involving both port employees and employers were designed to set the minimum standards for organizing the core elements of port labor. Each conventional has only 25 signatory countries that have ratified it.

However, rules included in these conventions have been incorporated into several international standards endorsed since then. In recent times, ILO produced relevant codes of practice on safety and health in ports that cover work aspects where goods or passengers are loaded onto or unloaded from ships. ILO has also shifted interest to dockworker training, with its objective being to mobilize governments, port authorities, port operators, and training institutes to establish effective and systematic port worker training schemes designed to improve cargo-handling performance, working conditions, and practices, safety, and the status and welfare of port workers.

Labor issues have also been part of the European agenda. In recent years, there has been a sectoral social dialog involving representatives of all different stakeholders, respecting national, regional, and company agreements and systems, on:

  • Training and Qualifications. Possible creation of European guidelines for the establishment of training requirements while ensuring greater flexibility and performance standards.
  • Health and Safety. Establish national health and safety requirements by proper enforcement where high standards exist or raise good practices where standards do not exist.
  • Gender Issues. Ensure that there are no discriminatory recruitment practices in European ports.
  • Innovation. Set up a constructive dialog between employers and employees to meet the challenges resulting from technological innovation.

5. Ports and Geopolitics

Ports have been linked with geopolitical considerations as they are platforms that project commercial activities and military power. Many ports are bases supporting national navies and, as such strategic interests. From the 16th century, ports acted as trade platforms in the setting of global trade networks, initially supporting colonial empires. Harbor sites were selected based on the protection they could offer and the access they could grant to the resources of a commercial hinterland. Many early port sites were fortified, underlining their contestability.

From the second half of the 20th century, commercial considerations prevailed in geopolitics. With port authorities adopting the landlord model, this opened the door for private terminal operators to set up a portfolio of privately operated terminals. The nature of the investments in terminal operations, such as the scale of foreign direct investments, the critical infrastructure nature of ports, and sovereign funds in the list of companies that operate port terminals, provide a geopolitical dimension in port development that did not exist before reforms. While in the majority of cases, private terminal operators are aligned with the national geopolitics of the ports they are involved with. There are occasions when this alignment of foreign direct investments in ports can be subject to contention.

Political events, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, can quickly impact port activity.  It is also through ports that political sanctions and trade restrictions can be implemented. Sanctions imposed on imports from Russia had an impact on ports and the related value chains. In Europe containers linked to Russia under new sanction regulations (i.e., tighter restrictions were put on luxury goods by the European Union) had to isolate, be set aside, and then physically inspected before they could be released. That exercise constrained value chains in terms of physical space, manpower, and time. 

Related Topics


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  • Pallis, A.A. (2006). Institutional dynamism in the EU Policy-making: The evolution of the EU Maritime Safety Policy. Journal of European Integration, 28(2), 137-157. 
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