Spain's government faces setback in reforming labor in ports

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MADRID (AP) — Spain's government has suffered a setback in its effort to liberalize its port operations, as required by the European Union, after losing a key parliamentary vote on Thursday.

Negotiations with port operators and dockworkers' unions will now be the only chance for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's cabinet to avoid hefty EU fines for not reining in restrictive labor practices in the industry.

The decree would have allowed companies to freely hire workers to load and unload cargo, ending a decades-old practice of employing members of an association called Sagep.

The association is tasked with training more than 6,100 of its member workers. It also requires companies, both domestic and foreign, to contribute funding.

Spain has accumulated 23 million euros ($24.7 million) in fines since a 2014 European Court of Justice condemnatory ruling. A second ruling in the coming days could add a daily payment of 134,000 euro (US$143,000) if the port's labor market is not liberalized.

The country's Minister of Public Works, Inigo de la Serna, blamed the Socialist and Ciudadanos (Citizens) parties on Thursday for not supporting the government's reform.

"The pockets of our citizens will end up paying for their effort to lash out at the government," De la Serna told reporters, referring to both opposition parties.

The country's dockworkers union said it was calling off a four-day strike planned to begin Friday to allow a fresh round of talks with the government.

As the gateway for the country's 86 percent of imports and 60 percent of exports, Spain's cargo docks are a key infrastructure for the country, which is trying to recover what it lost in years of economic recession.

Thursday's parliamentary result was also the first time since 1979 that opposition lawmakers in Spain were able to knock down a government decree, which only needs a simple majority to pass.

The defeat highlights the difficulties that Rajoy's conservative minority government faces to drum up support in Parliament for passing a new budget. His cabinet is likely to approve a budgetary draft at the end of March.

In a second round of elections last year, the ruling Popular Party won 137 of the 350 seats in the lower house of Parliament. Only the opposition's abstention allowed Rajoy to form government in October, putting an end to 10 months of frustrated inter-party negotiations.

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