Who are the Port Workers and How Do We Study Them?

Mithilesh Kumar

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 question of defining the political and economic subject of the port worker is important in the contemporary era when the restructuring of industries and the labour market is the norm and when labour is dispersed over time and space. With the ambitious Sagar Mala Project – a project overseen by the ministry of shipping that aims to link ports across India – it is necessary to clarify the definition of a port and a port worker. A stated objective of the Sagar Mala Project is to ‘evolve a model of port led development’:

The ports were being developed as individual projects along with their respective linkages to the hinterland, focussing primarily on the facilities at the port and last mile connectivity. By linking the Major and Minor ports, various industrial and rural clusters and evacuation infrastructure into a single system at a larger regional level, a CER will enable seamless and efficient movement of cargo through the gateways, thereby allowing ports to enhance competitiveness and offer multiple freight options to end-users.

These changes will be made through a range of policy initiatives such as the building of Coastal Economic Regions (CERs) and the ‘all round development of coastal cities’ for revenue generation. Clearly, ‘port led development’ will involve a restructuring of cities as well as labour. The question of who is a port worker becomes crucial. In existing practices of unionization it is incumbent on the union to organize all types of workers related to the port that, in the new scheme of things, could mean all workers such as those producing goods for exports or those in the industry of processing imports in the CERs. This should be seen as an emerging trend in the politics of labour organization.

It is important to understand the port system to have a grasp of labour organization. Kolkata Port System, comprised of Kolkata Port and Haldia Dock System, is also dependent on the Farakka Barrage. During the 1970s, Farakka Barrage was recognized as being important for the port system because it prevents the riverine port being affected by silting once the navigable depth is increased through initial dredging. Is it then inappropriate, as part of the strategy of labour organization, to consider Farakka Barrage and workers there as part of the Kolkata Port System? Also, Farakka Barrage has led to constant negotiations, not always amicable, with Bangladesh on sharing of Ganges water. A network of geopolitical interests and strategies along with economic interest are therefore present in the case of the Kolkata Port System. A question that confronts union organizers is how to form strategies of labour organization when the port is enmeshed in an intricate web of geopolitical and political economic relationships. Is it possible to forge militant labour organization across these entangled spaces?

Haldia Port, 2016. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

Haldia Port, 2016. Photograph by Ned Rossiter.

The unions have, also, to confront the question of the port worker as a result of different legal and economic regimes that act on the workers. Workers are implicated in myriad forms of identification ranging from flags of convenience, and the distinctions made between registered owners, commercial managers and crew managers. These multiple authorities that are at work on commercial shipping create enough slippages and gaps through which the employers escape their accountability to workers and authorities. The system of outsourcing makes it difficult to determine with which authority the labour force can negotiate. Thus, it is quite easy for the operators of cargo vessels to abandon a ship mid-sea and leave the crew stranded, as reported in the International Transport Workers’ Federation report, Black Sea of Shame, published in 2012.

As far as India is concerned, a legal definition of ‘dock workers’ appears in The Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act, 1948. Dock Workers as defined by this law were:

(1) Employees covered under the schedules of the Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Scheme relating to the major ports of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Cochin and Vishakapatnam.

(2) Employees covered by Unregistered Dock Workers (Regulation of Employment) Scheme at the ports of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

(3) Employees engaged by the dock labour boards and their administrative bodies.

(4) Employees engaged by listed employers.

(5) Employees of employers, other than port authorities, dock labour boards administrative bodies, listed employers and registered employers.

(6) Ore employees at dumps or depots.

(7) Employees engaged in the handling of cargoes in warehouses and transit sheds.

(8) Crew of boats, lighters and barges wholly engaged in the docks and streams whose work is connected with loading and unloading of vessels and other processes of dock and port work.

(9) Employees engaged in loading and unloading all cargoes (including tea chests) in the dock areas from river crafts, vessels boats, trucks, etc.

The Regulation of Employment makes clear that dock workers include a variety of workers involved in different aspects of the production of goods and services. Who a dock worker is might depend on the port in which the worker is employed. Yet work is structured in such a way that cooperation among all kinds of workers need not be the case. The union officer said that workers of stevedore companies have no way of interacting with workers in the container yard. This practice of integrating different workers related to docks and shipping has a historical precedence. As highlighted by G. Balachandran in Globalizing Labour?: Indian Seafarers and World Shipping, 1870–1945, up until almost the first quarter of the twentieth century the ‘maritime labour market was largely indistinguishable from the wider casual labour market at Indian ports’.

Despite the comprehensiveness of the principles of inclusion for ‘dock workers’, some workers were excluded. This was evident in the case of Calcutta Port Shramik Union vs. Calcutta River Transport Association which appeared before the Supreme Court of India in 1988. The case pertained to 15,000 bargemen (majhis and dandees) who were denied reasonable wages and allowances for twelve years. The Supreme Court made the point that the inclusion principle for the ‘dock workers’ was based on the handling of cargo. The judgment delivered by the Supreme Court cleared the way for a wider inclusion of workers in the legal realm of ‘dock workers’. Clearly, then, who or what constitutes port work and workers is not a permanent feature, legally, economically or politically. As part of the restructuring of the Kolkata Port System in 2006 the Calcutta Dock Labour Board (CDLB) ceased to exist and was merged with the Kolkata Port Trust. This signalled the end of the ‘old’ definition of port workers and the emergence of new understandings. In this emerging context the definition of a port worker continues to be problematic. It is questionable whether it is reasonable to consider the port as a singular entity or a series of integrated workplaces. Instead, a port is a fragmented space for workers with restrictions and partitions of borders, law and political logic. Only for policy makers is it an integrated geopolitical space.

A Short Overview of Workers’ Struggle at Kolkata Port

In the second and final interview with the Port Shramik Union’s office bearer he informed me that workers of Kolkata Port have not gone on strike since the 1990s. When asked about this lack of industrial action on the part of workers he said that one of the reasons was better coordination between workers and management and another was the almost complete stoppage of new recruitments. Instead, more workers, especially those handling containers, are under a contract system. This situation has been exacerbated since multinational companies such as the Singapore based PSA International entered the market. Although these workers are eligible to become members of the union there is no evidence of collective action by or on behalf of these workers.

One of the problems of Kolkata Port, identified by several observers in the late 70s, was that productivity was directly correlated with labour militancy. A study illuminated how the workplace of port workers had been under a constant state of restructuring since the beginning of the decade. This was done mainly through the practice of ‘double booking’. The study showed that the workforce of 19,000 was systematically reduced through voluntary retirement and illegal retrenchment. What replaced it was the practice of booking workers for double shifts. Quite clearly this was beneficial for stevedores who paid wages without overtime and who consequently pocketed a levy. The period in which this study was done saw some of the most militant strikes in the major ports of India. These strikes were to demand wage parity, allowances, and working conditions similar to the workers of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), a public sector undertaking. At that time negotiations between the state and workers took place through the labour board but now the board has been abolished and changes in technology have given rise to a very different composition of labour market.

The challenges of studying labour at the port are two-fold. First, there is the study of labour processes and struggles resulting from those processes. Second, there is the attempt by state and capital to obfuscate the legal, economic and political category of the port worker. Contractualization has made the old form of unions redundant as they are unable to put forward the demands of the new port workers. It is evident that only new forms of militant struggle by these compositionally new port workers can reveal how the port workers are politically constituted, registering the lineaments of this emerging political subject. It is through this process that the deadlock in legal categories will also be broken. These categories are, currently, in direct confrontation with the new port worker.