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The life of a dockworker

Occupational conditions affect the health of port workers in Santos and Lisbon

Work environment at the Port of Santos: laborers accept per diem jobs

Maria de Fátima Queiroz Work environment at the Port of Santos: laborers accept per diem jobsMaria de Fátima Queiroz

Low back pain, knee pain and chronic fatigue – these are some of the problems that affect the health of dock workers at the ports of Santos and Lisbon. However, although the symptoms may be the same, their causes and frequency are different. And today, the situation is worse among the Portuguese. These are the conclusions of “The work and health of dockworkers in Lisbon: a comparative study with the Port of Santos, Brazil,” conducted by Maria de Fátima Ferreira Queiroz, physical therapist and professor at the Department of Public Policies and Public Health of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).

Health problems affecting dockworkers have already been identified in a number of academic studies. The work done by Queiroz innovates by comparing the situation between different ports and identifying the factors associated with the health problems at each location studied.

She accompanied the dockworkers at the Port of Santos between 2008 and 2011, in a study supported by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). During 2015 she observed and interviewed professionals connected with the Union of Dockworkers, Traffic Workers and Maritime Clerks of Center-South Portugal (SECT) at three ports: Lisbon, Figueira da Foz and Sines. This part of the research was conducted under the supervision of historian Raquel Varela, coordinator of the Study Group on Labor and Social Conflicts of the Contemporary History Institute of Nova University of Lisbon.

Portos_Terminal de conteineresMaria de Fátima Queiroz In Santos, the study gathered information on 453 dockworkers, from among the 3,000 who work there today. Most of them are “day laborers,” and in the study, only they were followed. Every day this type of worker goes to a place called the “wall,” where selections are made for that shift and for the following day’s early morning shift. Those selected receive a ticket that allows them to enter the port to provide services to a certain operator. Shifts last six hours and payment for each shift is deposited into their bank accounts two days later. In contrast, dockworkers receive the same benefits as those who are hired under the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT) regime, such as a Christmas bonus salary, vacation pay, and transportation and meal vouchers. Since this regime uses fixed term contracts, a percentage of the benefits are included in each payment. In Portugal, Queiroz gathered information about 140 dockworkers. Unlike the men in Santos, these dockworkers have labor contracts that contain no termination dates, establish eight-hour shifts and provide for a career path.

In both groups, the study objectives were the same: to learn about the historical evolution of dockworkers as an occupational category, and to determine what sort of implications the organization of their work has on their lives and contribute to establishing an occupational and health policy for this occupational category.  The methodology included a study of historical data, knowledge of working conditions and application of a questionnaire with 191 questions related to both the organization of work as well as the occurrence of accidents, fatigue, musculoskeletal disorders and back pain. The research included ergonomic observation of the work done at the ports and a qualitative approach, with semi-structured interviews of 60 men in Santos and 21 men in Portugal.

According to Queiroz, in Portugal and in several other countries including Italy and Spain, the closed shop model had been used, in which access to positions was conditioned upon such aspects as membership in a union that defined the selection of work, the composition of the teams and the period of time for tasks to be performed. Beginning in the 1980s, this model began to change over to a model controlled by the companies, when it became more common to use containers, which required the adoption of new equipment within the port environment. Used in World War II (1939-1945) to transport war materials, containers sparked renewed interest as globalization of commercial transactions increased, supported by seaborne transport of cargo. In 1993, with the privatization of the ports, the work became managed by the Port Labor Companies Association (AETPL). Since then, practically all dockworkers have an employment relationship, either with port operators or the AETPL.

Presentation of labor contract booklets in Lisbon, where there are more regulations than in Brazil

Maria de Fátima Queiroz Presentation of labor contract booklets in Lisbon, where there are more regulations than in BrazilMaria de Fátima Queiroz

Number of accidents
In Brazil, the hallmark of this new phase of the port system was Law no. 8,630 of 1993, which became known as the Port Modernization Act.  Queiroz questions this name. “This act did not modernize ports: it came to establish the rules that governed what had already become modern,” she affirms. Based on this new legislation, management of workers was transferred from the Unions to the Labor Management Agency (OGMO), composed of the companies that operate each port. This measure faced strong resistance from union leaders, who wanted to maintain their power to assign the day laborers, as reported in the book Trabalho portuário – A modernização dos portos e as relações de trabalho no Brasil [Port work – Modernization of ports and labor relations in Brazil] (published by Elsevier/Método, 2008), written by Cristiano Paixão and Ronaldo Fleury.

Queiroz expected to find better circumstances among the Portuguese than among the workers in Santos, thanks to their occupational stability and the likelihood that they would use more modern equipment. However, an analysis of the data showed the opposite: they are more likely to suffer accidents and fall ill. Of the workers evaluated in Santos, 62% felt pain in their lower backs, 40.2% in their knees and 43% in their necks and upper backs. Among the Portuguese workers, these rates were 72.9%, 50% and 66.4%. The difference is even greater when we speak of generalized fatigue. This problem affects 18.4% of the workers at the Port of Santos, and of these, 18.8% suffer from chronic fatigue (for more than six months). In Portugal, 39.3% suffer from generalized fatigue; in 19.3% of them, the situation is chronic.

Through the questionnaires, Queiroz also identified aspects of the way work is organized that could be related to illness among dockworkers. Almost everyone said they worked double shifts (97.9% in Lisbon and 86.5% in Santos). The majority spoke of frequent tense situations in their work environments (68.8% in Lisbon and 74.6% in Santos), team conflict (59.3% in Lisbon and 61.4% in Santos) and strict demands from coordinators or superintendents (82.1% in Lisbon and 61.4% in Santos). In general, they feel vulnerable to health risks (85% in Lisbon and 75.2% in Santos). Almost half do not have sufficient autonomy to take a break when they need to (47.1% in Lisbon and 41.3% in Santos).

Portos_Lisconti-Lisboa 2Maria de Fátima Queiroz By combining the data, Queiroz found statistically significant relations between the health problems and other factors. In Santos, lower back pain was associated with working double shifts and conflicts of command in the team; in other words, conflicts among the dockworkers allocated to a job, which can cause stress. In turn, generalized fatigue was related to time constraints and not enough workers on the team to perform the assigned tasks. In Portugal, lower back pain was associated with the lack of autonomy to take a break when necessary, to the reduced number of workers, to the occurrence of accidents and to frequent tense situations. Generalized fatigue was also due to these factors, and to a lack of sufficient time in which to perform their tasks.

With regard to accidents, the situation is also worse among the Portuguese. In Santos, 47% of the participants said they had already had an occupational accident – the problem is associated with not having enough time to perform their tasks and the impossibility of changing teams when they want to. In Portugal, 85.7% have already had accidents. Among the dockworkers in Lisbon, more than a fourth (26.7%) of the accidents reported occurred while equipment was being operated.

Insufficient maintenance
According to Queiroz, part of the explanation for the health problems in Lisbon may be related to the age and lack of maintenance of the machinery used, and to problems with port maintenance, such as potholes. “The Port of Lisbon is going through a phase in which no investments are being made and labor conditions are worsening,” affirms the researcher. In the meantime, the Portuguese government has granted the Port Singapore Authority (PSA) a concession to manage the Port of Sines, which is located 90 kilometers away and is undergoing renovation. In Santos, the machinery is better maintained and the shift is only six-hours. In addition, while 78.6% of the study participants in Lisbon feel that the number of workers per team is not sufficient to perform the tasks, in Santos this number is 45.3%.

Workers at the Port of Santos, where 47% of those interviewed stated they had already had occupational accidents

Maria de Fátima Queiroz Workers at the Port of Santos, where 47% of those interviewed stated they had already had occupational accidentsMaria de Fátima Queiroz

Queiroz also highlights another aspect. According to her, the workers in Santos have more autonomy than their colleagues in Lisbon. “In Lisbon, dockworkers work eight-hour shifts from Monday to Friday, and are potentially exposed to factors associated with illness for a longer period of time. In Santos, since they are day laborers, they enjoy more flexibility. Workdays are alternated with days off, which helps them to recover from their work.”

Her perception aligns with that of sociologist Carla Diéguez, a professor at the Foundation School of Sociology and Politics in São Paulo. Diéguez studied dockworkers at the Port of Santos in her doctoral work, with a focus on specific incidents characterized by resistance on the part of workers in this occupation. One of these incidents refers to the protests organized in 2013 against direct hiring of workers under the CLT system by Empresa Brasileira de Terminais Portuários (Embraport). “On average, dockworkers earned R$4,000 a month, and Embraport paid salaries of R$1,800,” notes Diéguez.  “In other words, by continuing as day laborers, workers earned more on average.” According to the sociologist, “in addition, for them it is important to be workers without bosses.” The principal reason for this is so they can be free to set up their own work schedules.

Nonetheless, Diéguez also notes an increasing insecurity with regard to the work in Santos.  “The dockworkers cite a drop in compensation and increased health problems and accidents as signs of this,” the researcher reports. “In their opinion, the union played an important role during the privatization process, and without it, the impact of this process on the workers would have been even greater.” Queiroz hopes this comparison between work and the health of the Portuguese and Santos dockworkers will help to identify the aspects that make this type of worker vulnerable, information that could be relevant for other ports. “Nowadays, strong economic groups, consisting of shipbuilders and operators are seeking to dominate this type of economic activity. This causes ports around the world to have more and more in common with each other.”

Work and health of Dockers workers in Lisbon: a comparative study with the Port of Santos, Brazil (nº 2014/22654-5); Grant Mechanism Scholarships abroad – Regular; Principal Investigator Maria de Fátima Pereira Queiroz (Unifesp); Investment R$ 128,625.76.