The shipping ministry’s recent decision to implement reduced staffing for cargo loading and unloading at ports could redefine how workers are deployed at its dozen ports.
Staffing or manning scales refer to the number of stevedores deployed at ports to handle cargo.
For years, the ministry has been trying to trim the huge workforce at these ports but with little success, mainly because of powerful labour unions backed by political parties. Any action perceived to be detrimental to port workers is always met with strikes. Faced with rising wage bills and struggling to attract cargo amid a global slowdown, the management of the 12 ports are keen to implement a June 2006 order of the National Industrial Tribunal headed by justice Hrishikesh Banerjee, which was set up to adjudicate on manpower deployment issues. The ports see this as a way to cut costs and survive the financial crisis.
The tribunal, among other things, recommended scrapping the so-called gang system for loading and unloading cargo and to employ workers based on need.
The ministry’s order could not be implemented so far due to an interim stay granted by the Andhra Pradesh high court on a petition filed by some workers’ unions at Visakhapatnam port in Andhra Pradesh. The high court recently lifted the stay and directed the port to implement the order. Seizing the opportunity, the ministry directed all its 12 ports to implement the revised manning scales for cargo handling.
A section of the workers at the Cochin port in Kerala, one of the 12 ports where the order has been implemented in phases, has gone on strike protesting the revised rules, claiming it would make many workers redundant. In resorting to a strike, the workers have gone back on their assurance to the government at the time of referring the issue for adjudication that the tribunal award would be binding on both the parties. The 12 ports currently employ about 68,000 people. Of this, almost one-third, or 21,200, are stevedores. These ports handled 530 million tonnes of cargo in the year ended 31 March, accounting for some 70% of the cargo handled at India’s ports. Currently, the manning scale for handling different commodities is based on fixed gang—as a team of workers is called—composition that varies from port to port. Further, the manning scale of the gangs is considered disproportionate to the requirements.
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The existing manning scales have been followed since these ports started operations a few decades ago, when cargo used to be loaded and unloaded manually from ships. Over the years, the number of workers required to manually handle cargo has become lower due to increasing mechanization. However, the old practice of deploying large number of workers on the basis of gangs has continued for cargo handling activities that are fully or partially mechanized.
A meeting called by the country’s chief labour commissioner on 11 May to discuss and find a solution remained inconclusive. The Cochin port management says there would be no retrenchment as the surplus would be redeployed in other departments. The workers aren’t convinced.
India’s port efficiency and productivity measured in terms of the key ship turnaround time is nothing to cheer about. It currently takes five-seven days for a ship to unload and load cargo at India’s state-owned ports. That compares with six-eight hours in Singapore, the world’s biggest container port.
Port authorities find it difficult to enforce discipline among the highly unionized workers, many of whom are known for their tendency to report late for duty and break early, besides resorting to unethical work practices.
The new manning scales will reduce the bargaining power of unions. More importantly, it will remove a major stumbling block in privatizing cargo-handling berths at these ports. Workers have always opposed privatization because private terminal operators are free to hire their own labour.
The port managements feel the time was ripe to rein in the workforce as negotiations with the unions are currently under way for the next wage revision that would be effective restrospectively from 1 January 2007. The ministry reckons that in the future, fewer stevedores would be required, and the ports could plan hiring accordingly. It will also reduce staff salaries, a main component of operating expenses.
Will India’s new shipping minister show the political will to carry through with the decision, ignoring threats from unions to extend the strike to other ports?
P. Manoj is Mint’s resident shipping expert and writes on issues related to shipping and logistics every other Friday. Respond to this column at email@example.com