A Logistical Earthquake: Between Kolkata and Valparaíso

Elisabeth Simbürger

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.

Given this picture, how is it possible to interpret the interplay of debris, smells, broken roads, collapsing construction sites and still functioning ports? Once this situation is accepted as not being a disruption but a part of logistics, once it is seen as planned chaos, it is possible to make empirical sense of the ports and logistical system in India. The question is, though, is this chaos part of the algorithm?

It is difficult to uncover the variables that structure empirical reality when perception is clouded by the non-familiar. When it is clouded by debris, by precarious one-person ironmongers in the street, there is the risk of orientalizing and othering a place. There is a danger of drawing conclusions that are premature and driven by the moment. Then it is necessary to face the truth of the ethnographic explorer, which can be difficult when the ethnographic explorer is a novice in the environment. Quite often the aim is to reveal an underlying truth, the empirical, and to ascribe to it some mechanisms in relation to ports and logistics. Despite all previous acknowledgements of social constructivism and a desire to generalize beyond what is seen, the burning question of what is seen and concluded from it remains an important and legitimate one.

I am not trying to argue that ethnography as a method is not sustainable or that it is not possible to abstract from the empirical to draw conclusions. For someone like me, whose knowledge of India is limited, even after carefully researching several aspects of India’s Kolkata port environs, jumping to quick conclusions is not an appropriate step. Feel free to call me the anxious ethnographer, but it is from such anxiety I feel it is possible to suggest an alternative.

Rather than trying to find tidy solutions in the empirical, a methodological means out of the messiness may consist in finding connections between different spaces. For example, it is possible to think of events in India that trigger a seismic reaction in other parts of the planet. Sometimes parallels between certain phenomena in logistics and port work in India can be made with ports in other parts of the world. Writing from Chile, one of the most seismically active countries on earth, talking about earthquakes can go beyond a metaphoric dimension. Thinking of the possibility of global seismic effects resulting from industrial action I would like to explore an example. In spring 2013 500 subcontracted dockworkers at Hong Kong International Terminal (HIT), who had no legal access to collective bargaining, were on a 40-day long strike, demanding better working conditions, better pay and the right to strike. They protested against the Chinese oligarch, Li Kai-Shing, whose company holds the largest share of Hutchison Whampoa, the parent company of HIT. The workers who earn less today than they did in 1995 asked for a pay rise of 23 per cent. The dockworkers’ wages had fallen since outsourcing was introduced. Seismic effects of the strike could not only be observed in Hong Kong itself, where the dockworkers managed to mobilize the general public to support their interests, but their actions prompted international solidarity with people across the world criticizing multinational corporations’ degradation of global labour rights. This solidarity was fuelled by the understanding that this system is generating inequality everywhere.

Returning to the bridge at Kolkata port, where the group I was in observed temporary dockworkers carrying heavy, white bags, we also had the chance to meet with representatives of the contractor workers’ union. As I took notes I was mindful of the resemblances between this union and the Chilean system of the so-called nombrada at the port of Valparaíso, an online interface where temporary employment agencies register dockworkers for the day and send the list of nominations to the central port authority. The nominated dockworkers only have a one day contract and their nomination can be cancelled up to five minutes before the beginning of a shift.

The contractor workers’ union we met up with in Kolkata is the only union of contractor workers in Kolkata and was founded in 2006. When bulk shipments come in their main job consists in sewing the produce in sacks. The jobs of sewing and sweeping are mostly done by women. The women earn INR 200 a day. A third of the contractual workers are women, however there are no women in the leading committee of the union. When a ship anchors, the contract workers work for almost 18-20 hours to earn as much as possible, considering the unpredictability of getting work again. The physically and most demanding job consists in carrying the bags from the jetty to the shed over a distance of fifteen metres. The workers are paid by the weight of the bags. The men get INR 22 for each bag and together they move some 1500 bags per day. The workers often carry the bags and run. Men are between 25 and 30 years old. The job is very tough for older men. After the 1990s the workers had four to five days for a ship turnover. Now they only have between two to three days. Their contract lasts until the ship has left.

Kolkata Port, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

Kolkata Port, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

From the distance, crossing the bridge to the port, my group could observe the process of dock workers carrying the bags and running back and forth. The conditions were clearly harsh. I later learnt that workers sleep at the docks and yet these workers had not had a major strike since 1984. Surprisingly, the general understanding of the union is not to go on strike. The union makes sure that there are no new contract companies joining the port that already has 500 contractors so as to limit competition and thus the dumping of salaries amongst contractors.

The example of the physical labour of the Kolkata port brings to mind parallels with the nombrada system in the port of Valparaíso. By means of an online software interface temporary employment agencies at the port of Valparaíso can register themselves on the interface and nominate a list of workers to work a shift on a particular day and time and to carry out particular tasks. The list is approved or rejected by the general port authority, DIRECTEMAR. This tool allows for a lot of ‘flexibility’ for the employment agencies who can delete workers from the list up to five minutes prior to the beginning of a shift. Workers, who may have travelled a long way for a shift, may have done so unnecessarily as they are told at the last minute that they can’t work. The software interface even gives employers the right to replace workers during the first hour of their shift and to nominate them for the next shift. This situation means workers are shuffled around, have no rights and often don’t receive payment for the hours they work. This system of one-day dockworker contracts was implemented during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1981. Only in February 2016 a strike of the contractual dockworkers in Valparaíso resulted in the contractor dockworkers’ union being granted the capacity to nominate new workers for the nombrada when the port anticipates more work. Furthermore, contractual dockworkers can now take part in courses related to their work and will receive money for Christmas and in September, which is the Chilean national holiday.

In both Kolkata and Valparaíso, the unions try to make sure that workers are on nominated lists, chosen to work for the time it takes to unload a ship or are informed of whether they are contracted for the length of time it takes to unload a ship or just for one day. Despite these improvements it is still puzzling why workers at the Kolkata port are reluctant to strike and have not done so since 1984. Currently, this can partly be explained by demands from the Trinamool state government, with which they are affiliated, that stipulate there will be no strikes. Yet, this is not to say that labour militancy has stopped after 1984 in Kolkata Port. A wave of strikes happened after the beginning of privatization. However, this could never become a mass strike precisely because contractualization had started happening in the 1970s and by the 1990s permanent work and workers were in advanced stages of a terminal decline. Finally, there are new forms of strike emerging led by the contract workers at the port. They range from cargo handlers, to crane operators and sailors, to name a few examples. One of the manifestations of this struggle is increased violence and insubordination by the workers.

Another continuing question is whether a worker who has been outsourced has any means by which to access benefits. While in Chile, Christmas is only once a year, healthcare and social provisions are needed all year round. The earthquake continues. Next stop: Chile.