Inter-union spat may strand cargo ships

Inter-union spat may strand cargo ships

Mumbai: Shipping companies in India are increasingly worried that many cargo-laden ships would be stranded at various ports this week amid the power struggle between two warring seafarers’ unions over who would negotiate with shipping firms on wage- and salary-related matters.

The National Union of Seafarers of India (Nusi) had first called for a non-cooperation movement in sailing of ships on 1 October, but decided to backtrack following promises from shipowners to call a meeting to resolve compensation-related issues.

Now, the rival Forward Seamen’s Union of India (FSUI) has decided to go on an indefinite strike starting 12 October if shipping companies don’t invite them as well to that meeting.

“Though we had started a strike from midnight of Saturday (5 October), we called off the strike after one hour as representatives of Essar Shipping and Great Eastern Shipping Co. assured that they will hold a meeting on 12 October," said Naresh Birwadkar, secretary, FSUI. “Our 25,000 members would be participating in the strike if shipping companies don’t call us for a meeting on 12 October."

However, a wage revision meeting called by the Indian National Shipowners Association (Insa) with the seafarers’ unions on Friday to discuss and finalize a new wage agreement for seafarers that would be effective retrospectively from 1 April 2006 has already been deferred.

No fresh date has been set for the meeting and some shipping industry executives, who didn’t want to be named, said the meeting was called off after Nusi decided not to attend as a mark of protest against an invitation being extended to the smaller FSUI.

“If we declare a date for the meeting, Nusi will start a protest. If we do not declare the date, FSUI will call for strike. The operations are going to be affected due to this rivalry of two unions," said one executive at a major private shipping company. Nusi has “not finalized a date for meeting till now. We will announce the date soon," maintains Abdulgani Y. Serang, general secretary of Nusi, which has some 50,000 members.

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.

Meanwhile, shipowners have asked the Union shipping ministry to intervene and settle the issue, and has also urged the two unions to set aside their differences and come to the negotiating table to finalize the new agreement on compensation.

The two unions are sparring with the industry and among themselves over alleged non-payment of provident fund by Great Eastern Shipping Co. Ltd and Essar Shipping Ltd, and the state-owned Shipping Corp. of India (SCI), among others.

Seafarers working on Indian-registered ships are covered by the Seamen’s Provident Fund Act, 1966.

Under the law, shipowners are required to automatically contribute 12% of wages towards a provident fund and to deposit the funds with the Office of the Seamen’s Provident Fund in Mumbai.

“The Indian shipping companies have defaulted by not making the payment for more than a year and it is a breach of the provisions of the Act. Repeated appeals in writing by Nusi have fallen, unfortunately, on deaf years," says Nusi’s Serang.

Nusi has asked the provident fund commissioner to initiate immediate action against the defaulting shipowners.

“If the shipowners do not deposit the provident fund, the situation will further aggravate, affecting India’s exports and imports for which the shipowners will be solely responsible," says Serang.

An SCI official said the provident fund arrears related to a part of an interim payment to be given to the workers.

“Out of this interim payment, a part qualifies for PF, which had to be identified," said the official, who did not want to be identified.

The company had sought time till 31 October to work out the provident fund arrears to be paid to each individual worker. This was also communicated to the unions in a letter dated 24 September. “But suddenly, they held up some of our ships without prior notice," the official claims.

“Though the shipowners had signed a wage agreement in August 2006 for the wage period till 31 March 2006, most of the promises are yet to be fulfilled," claims Birwadkar of FSUI.

Nusi’s Serang says that shipowners have been delaying finalization of the new wage pact citing one reason or the other. “We want to conclude an agreement at the earliest, but the shipowners are dilly-dallying for reasons best known to them. This is nothing but exploitation of seafarers," he said.

“We are asking the shipping ministry to intervene in this matter, through the Directorate General of Shipping, to sort out this matter," said S.S. Kulkarni, secretary general of Insa.

The Directorate General of Shipping is the country’s maritime regulator.