Airport “paralysis” threatened for August

Days after the government scrambled to “fix” the arbitrary suspension of money-making golden visas, SEF border control agency has lobbed another politically scalding hot-potato into the fray. Unless a decision goes their way in the next week, SEF is threatening to bring the country’s airports to a standstill, causing chaos, frustrations and endless bad publicity in the busiest tourist month of the year.

At issue are the long-debated “statutes” governing pay and conditions for the country’s law enforcement agencies. SEF claims it is being unfairly discriminated against, coming out well below PSP and GNR counterparts.

The latter are equally locked in their own wrangles. But for now, neither is threatening the kind of strike action that will reverberate on a government desperate to look good in the polls and win a looming election.

“We aren’t asking any more than our equals,” president of SEF’s workers syndicate Acácio Pereira told reporters.

“The time has come for promises to be acted upon,” he added.

Reporting on the deadlock this week, national tabloid Correio da Manhã claims SEF will be “going ahead with a strike that should paralyse all Portugal’s airports and ports.

“At issue is the entry and exit of foreigners – fundamental, for example, in detecting suspects of terrorism.”

Talking to reporters in Porto recently, Acácio Pereira said that if SEF had not received “clear response” over the government’s intentions by the end of July, it would “obviously schedule partial and total strikes”. But it is only now that the implications of his threat have been put into sharp focus.

A paralysis of ports and airports would leave Portugal in chaos just as millions of people are due to flood in for their holidays throughout the country.

With the government declaring through economy minister Pires de Lima that it wants to get people “hooked” on Portugal as a holiday destination – and with British prime minister David Cameron due in August for his third family holiday in as many years – any kind of industrial action complicating visitors’ arrivals and departures could only cause damage to the country’s reputation abroad, particularly if it implied a potential dropping-of-the-ball with regard to incoming terrorists.

In other words, SEF could well have the government by the proverbial short and curlies.

It remains to be seen what happens as this latest heightened threat filters through to those with the power to negotiate.

According to syndicate president Pereira, the situation for the time being is that SEF is being treated in an “inadmissible, undignified, politically unsustainable and juridically abhorrent” fashion as a result of a law (the general public sector labour law) that is “not properly regulated and allows for different interpretations at the whim of the government”.

CM reports that meetings are being convened this week between SEF’s syndicate, Secretary of State for Internal Administration João Almeida and Secretary of State for Public Administration José Leite Martins.

SEF’s complaints
Among complaints, SEF is arguing that its 40-hour week should be brought in line with that of the PSP to 36 hours. This is a similar complaint being levelled by the GNR, also expected to work a 40-hour week.

Another issue centres on perks when working on “foreign missions” – both the PSP and GNR receive 100% of any expenses incurred when SEF is only entitled to claim for 60%.

“It is equal work for unequal pay,” explained Pereira, adding that this kind of disconsideration puts national security and “all the Schengen space” at risk.

“We want dialogue to pass to practice,” he explained, adding that “if there is political will, there is the possibility of reaching a good port.”

Whether this was an intentional allusion to the threat now on the table was not entirely clear.

Even without a strike, August unlikely to be ‘easy’
But even if strike action is averted, August is unlikely to see ‘plain sailing’ at the country’s airports – particularly Lisbon and Faro.

SEF’s national director – also confusingly with the surname Pereira – has explained that the service has been hampered by 12 years in which it was not allowed to recruit new inspectors. It is now running at the equivalent of breaking point.

Even though Faro and Lisbon airports have been “reinforced” for the summer’s peak period “the number of inspectors fielded is not what we’d desire”, António Beça Pereira told reporters. “A significant effort” is being demanded of SEF inspectors who can still find it “impossible to respond” to the flood of arrivals.

Pereira pointed to occasions when airline companies have a number of planes arriving at more or less the same time.

In Lisbon, for example, 3,000 passengers arrived at 6am one morning from a variety of destinations outside Europe.

“There is simply no way 3,000 passengers arriving from countries outside the Schengen space can be processed quickly”, he explained, saying there had to be more cooperation from airlines and ANA airports authority to ensure passengers were not penalised.

This latest upset between the country’s border control agency and the government comes hot on the heels of another potential embarrassment – SEF’s suspension of the much-praised golden visa programme – which, happily, appears to have been nipped in the bud.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]