Caught in the crossfire between two unions, Indian shipowners have requested the shipping ministry to set up a tribunal that will decide on wage-related matters, a move that is expected to result in more delay in the finalization of a new wage agreement that has been pending since 1 April 2006.
Two rival unions representing seafarers—the National Union of Seafarers of India (Nusi), and the Forward Seamen Union of India (FSUI), have been fighting a six-year battle for the right to represent seafarers in matters such as wage agreement.
Nusi claims a membership of about 50,000 while the FSUI boasts of a strength of 25,000.
“We would like to continue with the current practice of direct dealings with unions for a possible wage settlement,” says S.S. Kulkarni, secretary general of the Indian National Shipowners’ Association, a lobbying body for shipowners.
“If they do not cooperate with us and threaten to go on strike, we will be left with no other alternative but to request government to constitute a tribunal to settle the dispute,” Kulkarni adds.
A person familiar with the development, who does not want to be named, said the shipowners have already written to the ministry which, in turn, has directed maritime regulator Directorate General of Shipping to take further steps to form a tribunal.
“A meeting was scheduled on 16 October, but later it was postponed,” he said.
Says a shipping industry expert, who is not authorized to speak to the media: “The government will take its own time to find tribunal members. To add to it, members will have to study the industry background from scratch. Mostly, tribunal decisions would be based on past decisions,” he adds.
“The wage negotiations could not make any headway because of the inter-union rivalry,” said Kailash Gupta, director, personnel, at Shipping Corp. of India.
Following two strikes called by the rival unions, the shipowners have approached the Bombay high court. “The court has now instructed to hold a joint meeting with unions on 19 October,” said a shipping company executive who did not want to be named.
Nusi general secretary and treasurer Abdulgani Y. Serang admitted that a tribunal will be detrimental to the interests of seafarers, adding that Nusi was willing for direct wage talks, but the FSUI was conniving with shipowners. FSUI secretary Naresh Birwadkar could not be reached for comment.