Trade Unions, Informalization and Contract Labour in West Bengal’s Docks

Immanuel Ness

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.

The institution of economic liberalization in 1991 has given rise to a vast expansion of the Indian working class corresponding with the declining effectiveness of trade union representation irrevocably joined to political parties. The Indian working class now in formation is drawn from the agrarian rural countryside in far off rural regions to India’s burgeoning urban agglomerations. To South Asian sociologist Jan Breman, the scale of the human population transfer from rural to urban areas is reminiscent of the social upheaval of late eighteenth century England, portrayed in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, where the vast majority of newcomers to urban centres are crowded into massive urban slums in conditions facing imminent death and sure injury at work and squalor and depravation in nearby neighbourhoods.

India’s existing trade unions formed in the radical decolonization struggles in the mid-twentieth century have no relevance to the new urban workforce now employed in the strategic export promotion economy. This is because India’s industrial trade unions only organize a minority of permanent workers employed year round in large plants. Since virtually all of India’s major private and state firms use contractors, 93 per cent of India’s workforce is employed for firms in the informal sector. At first blush the haphazard system of deregulated contract labour reveals a retrograde and backward economy deficient in planning and strategic vision. But the unplanned system gives India a decisive economic advantage against regional and global competitors. India’s system of labour contracting produces an enduring and expansive reserve army of labour, which can be continuously called upon to work at 20 per cent of the wage of most permanent workers typically performing the very same jobs. The vaunted ‘Make in India’ initiative is built on the backs of over 400 million interchangeable contract workers.

Informalization and India’s Trade Unions

What do Indian unions do? Trade unions everywhere are not a progressive force in society. They defend workers by preserving the conditions of the past and are never prepared for the ‘creative destruction’ which capital must unleash to remain competitive and profitable. But unions live in a fictional socialism where accords endure perpetually into the future. After 25 years of the application of neoliberal reform the vast majority of trade union members have now long retired, and most unionized workplaces have long since shuttered. A thin layer of unionized jobs remains, but since unions almost always represent workers in specified labour markets, not workers, wherever they are employed, the new generation of workers has a nebulous connection to them. For the relatively small share of India’s working class with permanent union jobs, wages are declining and working conditions are eroding.

Union headquarters, Kolkata Port, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

Union headquarters, Kolkata Port, 2016. Photograph by Carolin Philipp.

India’s government is particularly antagonistic to the trade unions in strategic export promotion industries, which form part of India’s global supply chain – manufacturing and transport sectors that tend to cultivate labour militancy, syndicalism, strikes and persistent industrial conflict. While manufacturing can always be relocated and new technology can replace workers en masse, it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to move logistical hubs like deep-water ports. Subjectively, dockworkers permanently occupy a strategic spatial point in the global supply chain with the power to interrupt the commercial traffic and the flow of goods and commodities to advance collective economic demands and political objectives.

Finding the Fix: A Contract Labour Society

How to fix this problem? Under the command of a neoliberal economy, informality in West Bengal has expanded to dominate the leading heights of the economy. Concomitantly, as the West Bengal working class is pushed further into poverty and the margins of subsistence, due to the incapacity of the economy to generate sufficient full-time employment, Indian capital and the state have invested heavily in labour-saving technology, which further reduces the number of living-wage jobs. In a constant struggle for power over the workplace, new technology saves on labour costs, but does not diminish the time and energy the remaining workers must expend to fulfil their tasks. Moreover, new technology allows managers to save costs through converting permanent jobs into part-time positions. Thus, capital and the state intensify control over labour through strengthening the control over the workplace.

While sophisticated logistics technology is appropriated in the transportation of goods, informalization is the capital fix for West Bengal port authorities. Given the propensity of dockworkers to unionize, the only option for capital is to encourage the formation of compliant unions. India has its very own disciplining mechanism: the labour contracting system, which allows employers to hire workers on a temporary and part-time basis. Since dockworkers can be hired on a temporary basis to load and unload ships, they may be considered contract labourers and are paid a fraction of full-time worker wages. This allows port authorities in West Bengal to employ migrant labourers living in the countryside on a contingent basis. The ‘footloose’ South Asian working class is pervasive upon examining the West Bengal logistics industry.

Contract Labour in West Bengal’s Logistics Industry

West Bengal state and port operators discipline labour in the major ports of Kolkata and Haldia through fiercely resisting unions and suppressing rank-and-file self-activity. The dockworkers’ unions represent an alternative model of worker representation to the newly forming independent unions in the industrial corridors and export processing zones (EPZs), where worker militancy has contributed to higher wages and fewer informal workers.

The vast majority of unionized dockworkers organized by Trinamool National Congress (TNC) affiliate INTTUC (Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress) are informal labourers employed by contractors to load and unload ships in Kolkata. The Port of Kolkata is operated by PSA, a multinational-based port operator based in Singapore, which gained a license to run the docks in 2015. PSA, one of the largest global port companies in the world, operates nearly 30 ports in 15 countries.

Why are workers in a strategic sector like ports employed by contractors? Union officials negotiate with about 500 contractors operating in the Kolkata ports. Workers are employed on average for less than three weeks per month, which exempts the contractors from having to hire them as full timers. The workers are bussed in from nearby rural areas to unload ships and fill and sew sacks of grains that are unloaded from the ships. Workers are paid on the basis of piecework, and wages fluctuate on the basis of the bags filled. The vast majority of goods handled for export are agricultural goods and raw materials while finished goods like electronics are typically imported. Since they arrive in containers, fees are lower. Workers also unload goods off trucks entering the port and into containers, where wages are paid on the basis of weight handled by each worker.

Since the late 1980s, the demographic profile of port workers in Kolkata has shifted. Once dominated by migrant workers from the northern state of Bihar, historically the major labour supplier in the shipping industry, today only 200 Bihari workers remain and the majority of workers migrate from Mushibab – in northern West Bengal. The demographic shift was accompanied by speedup and intensification of the work process. INTTUC union leaders proudly told us that unloading a ship has been reduced from 4 to 5 days in the 1990s to 2 to 2.5 today. The productivity gain is not due to appreciable technological advances in the docks, but the intensification of work by the port operator and contractors.

INTTUC union officials maintain that their major charge and obligation is to protect the jobs of contract workers through defending their contractors in the docks. Even when there is worker discontent over speedup, workers are not permitted to strike or engage in slowdowns. There has been no strike in the docks since 1984. Asked about the possibility of a job action, a union officer responded: ‘This is sheer speculation as we have not had them. We are not interested in international solidarity actions. The strong line of our union is “No Strike”. Our objective is to negotiate with contractors and avoid strikes at all costs while negotiating with management (sic)’.

Haldia Docks: Privatization of the Public Sphere

Haldia is a port on the Hooghly River, about 120 kilometres southeast of Kolkata, which accommodates large ocean vessels handling imports and exports of minerals and large and heavier bulk shipments of goods and raw materials through 13 berths. Opened in 1977, as the CPI(M) gained state power in West Bengal, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) also became the dominant union in Haldia for the majority of workers who were full-time permanent employees. Though it espoused a Marxist ideology, in practice, the party adopted social democratic Keynesian policies, and in the 2000s began supporting neoliberal development projects

The CPI(M)’s stunning loss to the TNC in 2011, which expanded its electoral base in the spring 2016 elections, eroded the power of permanent workers who are members of CITU in Haldia’s docks. From 1977 permanent dockworkers have declined from 5,400 to 2,370, due to mechanisation and the rise in private contractors. According to a CITU leader, ‘Most of the operations in the dock, which were manual, have become mechanized. … Each month, 30-35 workers are retiring and there is no replacement or replenishment of the workers … however, the intensity … has not decreased, but increased at a time when the labour force is increasing in age’.

Haldia Port, 2016. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

Haldia Port, 2016. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

Permanent worker monthly salaries are on average more than 10 times higher than contract workers, which accounts for the far higher average age of 55 years. A CITU official notes that the job tasks of permanent and contract labourers are often precisely the same: ‘The crane operators of the cranes – in the private sector earn INR 16,000 a month. Public sector workers earn INR 55,000’. Over the past decade private contract labour wages have declined from INR 16,000 to less than 7,000 a month.

In addition, permanent workers receive pensions and have far higher access to medical care, transportation, canteen privileges and numerous other amenities, which contract workers do not receive. While CITU negotiates contracts on regular intervals of three-four years, contract worker wages are revised every 10 years. This disparity demonstrates the inherent powerlessness of CITU, as it impels port authorities to replace permanent workers with contract workers who have far lower wages and benefits. While CITU’s permanent dockworkers can keep their jobs, upon retirement the positions can be replaced with contract labourers. According to one CITU official: ‘Nearly 360 workers have been forcibly retired and kept away from duty as their gate passes have been taken away as the other union has gained power’.

The majority of contract workers are members of the All Indian Union of Port and Dock Workers Federation, an independent union that is affiliated with the governing TNC party. In Haldia, all new hires are contract labourers who have no job security. Consequently the union discourages contract labourers in the port from engaging in job actions and strikes and slavishly supports the governing TMC to increase the union’s relative power and job security.

The political economy of logistics in West Bengal’s two major ports exhibits that the application of new technologies are indeed accelerating the speed of information flows, leading to the vast expansion of profitability. But it also shows that new technologies are used concurrently with the expansion of a highly exploited and contingent labour force disciplined by state-dominated unions. The organizational power of unions correlates with support of the governing party, which will almost always favour its affiliated union. However, the loss of working class power is rooted in the political and economic defeat of the working class, whose conditions continue to deteriorate under the dominant regime of a state and capitalist class that profits from a dominant system of informal contract labour.