Mumbai: With two leading seafarers’ unions having recently tasted success in getting a role in wage negotiations with Indian shipping companies, several small unions are now coming alive by also demanding they have a role and pointing to potential disruptions of shipping operations.

Under threat: The Mumbai port. A one-day strike or stoppage of a ship for a few hours can result in losses of several million dollars for shipping companies because of tight delivery schedules for cargo.

A one-day strike or stoppage of a ship for a few hours results in losses of several million dollars for shipping companies because of tight delivery schedules for cargo.

Following the various non-cooperation threats by two leading seafarers’ union from October, India’s shipowners have recently started wage negotiations amid differences within the unions themselves.

The two leading seafarers’ unions are National Union of Seafarers of India, or Nusi, with a membership base of 50,000, and the Forward Seamen Union of India, or FSUI, with 25,000 members.

Besides these two unions, the maritime sector has witnessed the re-emergence of relatively inactive unions, with political blessings.

These include seamen unions backed by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (floated by Raj Thackeray, an estranged nephew of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray), the Shiv Sena itself, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and a division of the Indian National Congress.

For instance, the Bhartiya Navik Sena Union (BNSU) has threatened that it will disrupt wage negotiations at the National Maritime Board (NMB) if the shipowners didn’t involve it. This union, supported by expelled Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra revenue minister Narayan Rane, is headed by Shrikant Sarmalkar.

The NMB is a bilateral board governing wages and working practices set up by shipowners and seafarers.

Meanwhile, the Indian National Shipowners’ Association, or Insa, a lobbying body, has already approached the Bombay high court to seek a prevention injunction against possible disruptions, either in shipping operations or offices, by the BNSU.

“We have been writing to Insa for involving us in the NMB negotiations, which will give us better power to represent rights of our workers onboard," says Ajith Yeshwanthrao, vice-president of BNSU, which claims a membership of 11,000.

Yeshwanthrao said his union believes in industrial peace and is waiting for communication from Insa.

“There are two main things behind the new-found dynamism of seamen unions. Firstly, the unions will enjoy greater say in fixing wages for seafarers and employment of their respective members," says a Mumbai-based shipping analyst, who did not want to be identified. “Secondly, access to large number of seafarers will help political parties to enhance their base. Absence of a proper regulator is making things worse."

The last wage agreement in the industry was between Insa and Nusi after the Bombay high court ruled in favour of Nusi over its “majority" status. Still, shipowners had also called on the FSUI for finalizing the pact. The two unions have been fighting each other for the last six years.

A senior executive with a private shipping company, who didn’t want to be identified, said while the companies didn’t mind having too many unions, they hoped it wouldn’t end up disrupting shipping operations.

“Multiple unions and inter-union rivalry are making wage negotiations difficult. The delays in these negotiations will result in industrial disorder," says Kailash Gupta, director (personnel and administration) of the state-owned Shipping Corporation of India, India’s largest shipping company. “It is much easier to evolve a consensus if there are only two unions. There are several instances of unions threatening strike due to delay in wage negotiations."

Meanwhile, “the wage negotiations are again struck owing to the differences between these two unions. More unions would result in more infighting, that will result in disruptions of shipping operations," said a person familiar with the development.

For example, this person added, these two unions could not reach a consensus about reducing the number of seafarers onboard and increasing their wages.

The multiplicity of unions and their rivalry have affected foreign ship-manning offices that are recruiting Indian seamen, known for skills and English-speaking abilities.

“We have been told to take a union membership with a leading seafarers’ union, as our private recruitment company is paying fee to that particular faction.

“There are no significant benefits for me as I am working for a foreign shipping company. Unions may come to help if there is a default in wage payment," said a seaman working with a West Asian shipping firm, on the condition of anonymity.