Shramik Bhavan, at Ranichak, Haldia, has been considered to be at the centre of all labour mobilization and unrest in the region for many years now. Until 2011, when the state government was formed by Trinamul Congress (TMC), for the first time after a 34 year rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] and its allies, Shramik Bhavan not only housed the local supremo and Member of Parliament, Lakshman Seth, it was also the headquarters for both the party and the labour union (Centre for Indian Trade Unions – CITU). There were rooms for meetings, spaces for visitors to stay, as well as an elaborate courtyard, murals on the wall and a photocopy shop. Across the road was a statue of Lenin – since 2015 it had started to crumble, and by early 2016, the metal had been removed and sold for scrap, the pedestal used to stack hay instead. After CPM’s loss at the general elections, however, the building was ransacked, window panes smashed, electricity and water cut off, making the building look far older that it actually is. A couple of red flags fluttering on the first floor balcony nevertheless attested to the CPM’s continuing association with the building, and I decided to start my research on Haldia port from this iconic, yet much abused, site.
‘Arriving in a port is always like coming home’. This was my thought upon seeing the cranes and containers as I arrived in Haldia Docks south of Kolkata. While I grew up in a German town that made a living from shipbuilding in the North Sea, I now reside near the port of Piraeus in Greece. The aesthetics of tankers, cranes and containers, or simply the sound of ships’ horns or the sea gulls that seem to exist in every harbour of the world, always invoke a comforting familiarity. On the other hand, all the harbour cities that I have called home share also the same disadvantage, a common precariousness in terms of the conditions of the working population. In Haldia it was not only the similarities but also the contrasts that struck me.
Crossing a bridge by foot towards the port of Kolkata, I, along with a group of other researchers, got a quick and probably rarely seen glimpse of workers carrying heavy bags from a jetty to a shed. They seemed to be running back and forth. As our group continued walking towards the container terminal, it occurred to me that manual labour seems to be an omnipresent tool used at the port. The pavement running towards the port was barely useable given that it was occupied by scrap metal mongers who transformed every square metre into mini businesses. According to Mithilesh Kumar, phenomena like the scrap metal mongers can be labelled as ‘labouring for logistics’, in contrast to ‘logistical labour’ that is directly related to the port. This distinction, however, is difficult to determine when it is unclear where a port starts and ends. And this in turn raises the question of whether all labour undertaken in proximity of the port, but which does not directly contribute to its functioning, can be classified as labour for logistics. The scrap metal mongers work in the surroundings of the port but in strict terms their work does not directly contribute to the functioning of the port. It is possible, therefore, to observe parallel logistics in the areas surrounding the port.
In an interview with the author, an office bearer of Calcutta Port Shramik Union said that, according to the definition of the union, all workers who have any connection with the port are port workers. Thus a worker loading tea at Strand Road (a wholesale market in Kolkata) and transporting it to the warehouse at the port is a port worker. This and further interviews with this official were conducted at the office of the union at Kidderpore not far from the port. A former seaman arrived at the office while this interview was in progress. There was a dispute between the workers and the shipping company over wages. The workers, through the union, went to court for the payment of outstanding wages. After examining the seaman’s papers the office bearer assured him that the company had deposited the money with the court and it could be collected through the lawyer of the union. When I asked the office bearer if seamen are also port workers he replied in the affirmative. Thus, in the conception and practice of the union, workers at the docks, at warehouses and on sea are organically linked and subsumed under the label ‘port worker’. Struggles and negotiations are built around this understanding. The problem is that this creates a hierarchy between the seamen and dock workers with the former in a much better position to negotiate with the union as well as the employer. However, this is only one of the many definitions of port workers.