Indian port workers seek equitable wage system, end to privatization

A convention held towards the end of January to mark the anniversary of a historic strike in 2018 highlighted a number of issues, including the difference between the salary scales of private and government employees, and attempts by the BJP government to sell off ports

February 14, 2019 by Surangya
The port workers are planning more protests to demand pay parity.

Late last month, port workers in Mangaluru, one of India’s largest ports, organized a convention to mark the one-year anniversary of their historic strike in 2018. The nine-day strike, held from January 29 to February 6, 2018, was the first of its kind, organized by shipping company workers in the town in the southern State of Karnataka.

The strike, led by All India Port Workers Federation (AIPWF), took place to demand solutions to various issues which are linked to the implementation of neoliberal policies in the sector.

The AIPFW was formed in 2016 with the stated objective of organizing workers in shipping companies employed across the twelve major Indian ports.

Workers in Indian ports are either directly employed by publicly-owned port trusts or by private shipping companies. However, there are huge differences between the salaries and benefits received by employees of private companies and those hired directly by the government for the same work. Private shipping companies regularly deny workers fair wages, overtime wages, annual bonus and other allowances. Workers are also denied paid leave, and are constantly discouraged from organizing in unions to formulate and demand their rights.

The number of workers directly hired by the government has been constantly decreasing since the Indian government initiated the process of liberalization in the 1990s. The striking workers demanded that shipping companies follow labour laws and give them wages and benefits, including paid leaves, matching what is given by the government.

The strike was successful in getting the port authorities and management on the negotiating table. The authorities agreed to grant all workers Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) and pension funds. But several other demands, including that of paying the workers the same as their government counterparts, remain unfulfilled even today.

The Mangaluru workers’ campaign has been followed by other national struggles and strikes on similar issues, but the far-right government, led by Narendra Modi, has continued on the path of privatization of valuable state assets.

Instead of intervening to improve the working conditions of those employed by shipping companies, this government has introduced legislation that would pave the way for the privatization of the existing port trusts. The Major Port Authorities Bill, 2016, has faced widespread opposition by port workers and trade unions for this reason.

This bill, if passed, would replace the previous legislation, Major Ports Trust Act of 1963, and take away the autonomy of the different port trusts that are currently responsible for administering operations of various state-owned ports.

Under the guise of structural reforms, the provisions of the bill grant a disproportionate amount of control to the central government. As Padmanabha Raju, general secretary of United Port and Dock Employees’ Union, told Newsclick previously, “The central government can give directions to the authority board, whether on a policy matter or otherwise, and the direction will be binding upon the board, even though the board is autonomous in name. This means that whenever the government decides to give away the major ports to any corporate company, they will simply issue an instruction and the ports can’t do anything.”

The bill would also allow for the sale of land owned by port trusts, one of their main assets. Under the current rules, the land under port authorities’ control can only be leased for a maximum of 30 years.

An even more dangerous provision of the new bill asks port authorities to invest the reserve funds of the port in bonds and equities. These reserve funds are constituted of the workers’ pension, provident and gratuity funds, along with other surplus reserves, and are public money.

T. Narendra Rao, general secretary of Water Transport Workers’ Federation of India, wrote in a letter to shipping secretary Gopal Krishna last year that, “Investing in equity and equity related instruments would be highly risky and unpredictable in the present economic scenario. Many major ports felt the pinch earlier in investing in UTI [now Axis Bank] bonds and some ports are still struggling to come of out this crisis. Besides, these funds are hard earned money of the workers and it is public money.”

According to the existing legislation, the port authorities can only invest these reserve funds in the country’s public sector banks.

The bill also allows any chartered accountant to audit the operations of ports, instead of the designated authority, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG), leaving plenty of room for corruption and mismanagement of funds.

After strong opposition from workers and trade unions, the bill was referred to a parliamentary committee. This committee took into account the views of the unions and recommended changes in agreement with many of the suggestions made by them. However, the central government made only minor changes, with all of the problematic aspects intact.

The bill is yet to be introduced in the parliament again.

The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government has, however, resorted to a different route to achieve its privatization and disinvestment goals.

In November 2017, the Modi government approved the selling of majority stakes in the state-owned Dredging Corporation of India (DCI). This move was perceived to be a step to get closer to the government’s disinvestment goal of Rs 80,000 crores (over USD 11 billion). DCI performs vital dredging operations, essential in keeping movement at the ports functional.

This decision was met with vehement opposition by DCI workers and opposition political parties. When the government failed to sell off its stake in this manner, it forced the country’s biggest port trusts to buy stakes in the DCI.

Four of India’s biggest port trusts, having surplus cash reserves, were made to buy stakes in the DCI in November 2018, despite opposition. While this saved the DCI, one of the biggest dredging companies in the world, from going into private hands for now, this consolidation would only make privatization easier in the future.

Various trade unions are constantly working to resist these policy changes, and continue the fight for their rights. After the convention in Mangaluru, the AIPWF will hold a convention in Thoothukudi in the State of Tamil Nadu in March to discuss these issues further. The union is also working tirelessly to expand its base to all other major ports and lead a united resistance.