Bangalore: Port workers’ unions are resisting a shipping ministry decision to reduce staffing, or the so-called manning scales, for handling cargo at its 12 ports, a move they say will make many workers redundant.
Policy blues: Jawaharlal Nehru Port near Mumbai. Port workers’ unions claim that the rationalization of manning scales would lower productivity as fewer workers would be available for handling cargo. Ashesh Shah / Mint
Manning scale refers to the number of workers deployed at ports for unloading and loading cargo from ships and is currently based on a fixed gang composition, or a team of workers.
The scale for handling different commodities varies from port to port, and is often disproportionate to requirements, a ministry official said. He did not want to be named.
The shipping ministry recently issued a directive asking its ports to implement a national tribunal award that would make the manning scales uniform at all its ports.
“The implementation of the tribunal award will make the manning scale uniform at all the ports,” said K. Raghuramaiah, chairman of the state-owned Paradip port in Orissa.
“Nobody will be removed,” Raghuramaiah asserted, adding that surplus cargo handling workers would be trained in other skills and deployed in different departments in keeping with the tribunal’s recommendations.
The government-owned ports have been downsizing workforce in the past few years through a voluntary retirement scheme. Private cargo terminal operators at these ports are allowed to hire their own workers.
The 12 major ports currently employ about 68,000 persons. Of this, almost 21,200 are cargo-handling workers, according to shipping ministry estimates.
The 12 ports handled 530 million tonne (mt) of cargo in the year to 31 March, accounting for some 75% of the cargo handled at India’s ports.
The manning scale system was referred to a national tribunal in Kolkata in 2001 following disagreements between the government and the unions.
The tribunal in April 2006 recommended scrapping the system and to employ workers based on need.
But the Andhra Pradesh high court stayed the implementation of the award after one of the labour unions at Visakhapatnam port in Andhra Pradesh filed a petition. The high court lifted the stay recently.
The revised manning scales would render many workers jobless, said Mohammed Haneef, general secretary, All India Port and Dock Workers Federation, which has nearly 35,000 members. For instance, Cochin port in Kerala has reduced its cargo handling staff to four from 16, on implementing the tribunal’s award, he said.
Cochin port workers have been on strike since last week against the decision.
At Mumbai port, too, the manning scale for stuffing and de-stuffing containers has been reduced to four from 25.
“If the award is implemented, 60-70% of the cargo-handling workers at Kandla port will become idle,” said M.L. Bellani, a union representative on the board of Kandla port, Gujarat, India’s biggest state-owned port by cargo handled.
The unions also claim the rationalization of manning scales would lower productivity as fewer workers would be available for handling cargo.
Currently, a ship needs five-seven days for cargo to be unloaded and loaded at Indian ports before it can sail off. That compares with six-eight hours in Singapore, the world’s biggest container port.
India’s chief labour commissioner has called a meeting of the workers’ unions, port management and the shipping ministry on 11 May to discuss the issue.
Top leaders of five port workers’ unions met in Chennai on Monday to discuss the issue. “We will extend the strike to all the 12 ports if the 11 May meeting convened by the chief labour commissioner fails to solve the issue,” Haneef said.