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.
The rise of the Uber sharing economy is generating a major debate about the future of work. Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams view the rise of information technology as a revolutionary force paving the way for a post-capitalist society through freeing human labour. This new post-capitalist society is freeing working class from the drudgery of full-time work and the democratization of production and distribution. Conversely, political economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy view the modern managerial global economy as the foundation for reducing the size of privileged full-timers who dictate the conditions for the majority of freelancers and contractors for numerous employers.
India, where the vast majority of labourers work for independent contractors, provides a model for the future. But any comparisons of India as a prototype for western workers stop there. In contrast, typical Indian contract workers do not have access to digital technology and toil under the most oppressive, dangerous and super-exploitative conditions. As Carlos Delclos asserts, the danger for workers is that: ‘By labelling informal work as “informal”, we are depicting most of the work being done in the world as an anomaly, peripheral to the global “formal” economy’. In fact, informality, the standard in South Asia and much of the Global South, is becoming the norm for most new workers.
Located on the left bank of the river Hooghly, the Kolkata Dock System is one of the oldest dock systems in India. It is commonly described as the ‘gateway to Eastern India for the rest of the world’. Its vast hinterland includes West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Assam, the North Eastern States and the two landlocked neighbouring countries, namely Nepal and Bhutan. Currently it has two approaches from the Bay of Bengal: (1) the Eastern Channel and (2) the Western Channel. Navigation to and from the port, at this moment, is only done through the Eastern Channel, which is one of the longest navigational channels in the world. The pilotage distance to the Port from the mouth of the Eastern Channel is 223 km, of which 148 km is river pilotage and 75 km is sea pilotage, pilotage being the act of assisting the master of a ship to navigate the entrance into or exit from a port within confined waters. There are several navigation aids provided by the Kolkata Port Trust (KPT) – the port management authority in Kolkata – for the safe passage of vessels: two lighthouses on Sagar Island and Dariapur on the right bank of Hooghly, five unmanned light vessels on the sea, automatic tide gauges maintained at Garden Reach, Diamond Harbour and Haldia for round-the-clock recording of tidal data, manual tide gauges maintained at Akra, Moynapur, Hooghly Point, Balari, Gangra and Sagar, 500 river marks, 90 lighted buoys, and 42 unit buoys, a wireless VHF network for communication between approaching vessels and in-shore and off-shore KPT establishments and vessels, an electronic position fixing system named ‘Syledis’, and a satellite-based Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS).