PORTUGAL: dock workers adversely impacted by state of emergency during pandemic

Update by ECF originally published on Civicus Monitor, 15 June 2020 – accessible here


Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD (Portuguese NonGovernmental Development Organisations (NGDOs) Platform) reported that a state of emergency was announced starting on 20th March 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It remained in place until 3rd May 2020, before shifting into a state of “calamity” until 17th May 2020. A lockdown was put in place, schools were closed and where possible people were working from home. Severe restrictions on individual movements were introduced. The general sentiment is that these measures were needed and thus the majority of the population did not feel that their freedom was restricted without just cause.

Economic measures were put in place even before the state of emergency was announced. These measures included income support for workers and support for all private companies who do not lay off workers. Lay off measures were put in place to ensure that companies retain workers and that three quarters of their salaries would be paid by the National Budget. More measures are being announced to deal with the increasing difficulties that the economy is and will be facing. However, these measures are evidently not enough, as there are reports of abuse by employers, where employees are being illegally dismissed.

The initiatives put in place for vulnerable groups include:

  • citizenship rights were granted to all migrants and asylum seekers who have a residency application pending, as long they have a job and can support themselves
  • support for elderly people by both state institutions and CSOs already working in this field
  • creation of shelters for homeless people in Lisbon and Oporto centres
  • reinforcement of the support lines for domestic violence victims


As an organisation that represents Development Cooperation NGOs, Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD reported that its priority was to bring back all expatriates working in Development Cooperation projects in different countries. At the same time, it started an ongoing discussion about the future of those projects and how to ensure that they can continue this work in the future so that people they support are not left behind. No concrete measures have been decided regarding this issue. However, one of the priorities of the Plataforma is to ensure that Portugal maintains a strong commitment to supporting more vulnerable countries. Plataforma is also participating in an OECD-DAC Peer Review process that is evaluating the Portuguese Development Cooperation efforts over the past four years.


During the declaration of the state of emergency of both March and April 2020 by the President of the Republic, several measures restricting freedom of assembly were put in place. With the first declaration of the state of emergency (20 March 2020), the President suspended the right to strike and right to resistance (article 21) which are essential rights in the Constitution. The measures then implemented have not been as harsh as mentioned by the declaration. However, the government has used these measures to control protests by workers, among others docker protests.

Francisco Venes from Academia Cidadã reports that dockers, in Lisbon especially, have been struggling for some years at the hands of the owners of the facilities. Before the state of emergency, dock workers were striking due to the insolvency of the AETPL (Associação de Empresas de Trabalho Portuário), the Association of Port Labour Companies of Lisbon. Although they announced a “preventive” strike starting on 14th April 2020 and ending on 1st June 2020, in practice dockers resumed the strike at the beginning of May 2020 due to the state of emergency.

As the dockers’ work falls in the category of essential and critical services for the functioning of the country, the government had suspended the right to strike in March 2020 with the declaration of the state of emergency. In a statement, the government declared that it respects the right to strike “unequivocally”, but that it must also “defend the interests of all Portuguese, especially at such an exceptional time” of health crisis, thus justifying the need to guarantee the supply of the autonomous regions, “which have no alternative means of transport”, and also with the “current context of uncertainty about the evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak and the increased need to ensure an adequate level of supply of goods necessary to meet the social needs in some sectors”.

During the state of emergency, the dockers’ union complained that due to the insolvency of the company, half of the dockers by A-ETPL were not able to go back to work and were dismissed instead, resulting in an almost total lack of activity at the port and complaints from the Portuguese government.

António Mariano, the president of the dockers’ union said that:

“Contrary to what the Minister of Infrastructure accused us of today, SEAL has not failed to guarantee compliance with minimum services […]. What happened today is that the dockers at the SEAL […] were denied access to the workplace, in what we consider to have been a lockout provoked by the bosses to press for a civil requisition”.

Meanwhile, in April 2020, the state of emergency was renewed with a new disposition. In article 4C of the updated declaration, workers’ unions were not allowed to take part in the labour negotiation and in the specific negotiations of measures affecting workers’ rights and state support. Only the representatives of the owners of companies were included. The justification that was given claimed “the exercise of such right may represent a delay in the entry into force of urgent legislative measures for the purposes provided for in this Decree”. This updated declaration thus did not include trade unions in the negotiations for measures aimed at refunding and supporting workers and owners of business.