-V Shankar-

Mangalore Port (New Mangalore Port Trust – NMPT) is one of the important pillars of the growth and development of Mangaluru. Around 75 percent of export of Coffee, Timber and Cashew nuts are handled by Mangaluru Port. The NMPT proudly claims that Container traffic increased by 25 % last year – but claims it is not responsible for drivers, mechanics and operators who do the hard labour of carrying those containers, driving, repairing and maintaining the traffic vehicles and handling equipment.

Insecure And Unequal

In the wake of liberalization, the operations and activities of the port which were, till then, done by employees directly employed by Major Ports are replaced by and are now done by workers engaged in Ports but employed by the shipping and stevedoring companies and Carrying and Forwarding (C&F) Agents. Reduction in the number of directly employed workforce does not abolish jobs or operations that are necessary for the running of Ports but it creates, instead, a new section of workers stripped of job security, wage security, and social security. The few hundreds of directly-employed workers are protected by a framework of labour laws exclusively meant for them, in addition to wage increases through periodic negotiations and tripartite agreements involving the government, Port Trusts and the workers unions. But thousands of workers doing the same work enjoy no protection and are paid less than minimum wages! They work 12/24 hours but get no Over Time (OT) wages. By accident, if a container falls on workers’ heads, leaving them dead or permanently disabled, there is no mandatory ESI cover and their families are left helpless – neither the companies nor NMPT take any responsibility. There is no PF, so no pension. On Republic Day – the Port gates are shut and because of lost wages on that day, these workers’ kitchen stoves are also extinguished.

One worker and union leader Comrade Mohan KE – who had worked for Delta Infralofistics (Worldwide) Ltd for 20 years – was dismissed because he helped form the union and was the unit president. The central labour authorities watch as the companies violate the law with impunity and employ lawyers to escape any action – while workers are punished for unionising.

The strike mainly targeted the Government institutions – the labour department and the role of the Shipping Ministry and its Mangalore arm, NMPT. The Port Trusts, which are primarily controlled by central government, are abdicating their responsibility of acting as a watch dog and as a Model Employer. The Shipping Ministry must issue a direction to the Port Trusts, including NMPT, holding them responsible for implementation of various labour laws, including wage security, job security and social security of this section of workers.

Mirage of Remedy

Despite repeated representations from 26.01.2016, in various ways and in various forums, the demands of workers employed by various Shipping companies and C and F Agents and engaged in Mangalore Port related stevedoring – onshore and offshore – activities were not fulfilled.

We submitted our representations dated 26.12.2016 to the then Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kanada district but just forwarded our memorandum to the State Labour Commissioner’s office in Mangalore, who in turn forwarded the same to the office of the Labour Commissioner (Central) citing reasons of want of jurisdiction. When the Regional Labour Commissioner (Central) and Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner (Central) invited the managements for talks, the managements came up with the false and diversionary issue of jurisdiction and the genuine issues and demands were not resolved.

We submitted our representations to almost all major companies engaged in stevedoring operations but in vain. Companies like Delta Infralogistics (Worldwide) Ltd stepped up their unfair labour practices prohibited by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, illegally dismissed the unit president of the union, Mohan KE and failed to provide any real annual increase in wages to workers. In fact, they indulged in unfair labour practice of unofficial cash payments only to selected workers (on some pretext or other) to discourage workers from joining union activities. Several workers had false cases foisted on them, or were retrenched on flimsy grounds. The companies questioned the scope of jurisdiction of labour authorities only to evade accountability.

We submitted our representations to the Chairman of New Mangalore Port Trust on several occasions and he too orally agreed to make suitable interventions to do justice to these sections of workers but got retired in Sep. 2017. The present Incharge who is the Deputy Chairman was not even willing to accept the memorandum of protesting workers, leave alone finding a solution to it. The Secretary of NMPT was so arrogant and ignorant of law and so irresponsible to refuse to take memorandum despite intervention by police officials. Such an arrogant and irresponsibly approach of Port authorities makes one wonder whether Port trust is an independent authority or an agent of the shipping companies.

We have run from pillar to post since the day, 26.01.2016, when the union was formed among this section of workers in Mangalore Port – only to realise that there is no mechanism to remedy the situation of these deprived workers. It was then that the workers decided on direct action – striking work.

The Strike

The strike began on 29 January 2018 and ended on 06 February 2018.

The strike was not just about wages but was squarely aimed at the kind of industrial democracy, rather industrial anarchy, that prevails in NMPT and the role of central and state governments in workers’ welfare and implementation of labour laws.

This was the first-ever strike by this section of workers in the last 40 years in NMPT or any port across the country.

Earlier, we had a successful 5-day strike at Tuticorin – but that was against Port Trust, and the employers had played a neutral role as it was beneficial for them also. This time, in Mangaluru, it was a direct fight between capital and labour.

Workers organised a collective strike kitchen at the spot of the struggle, cooking kanji and pickles. Workers of each company took responsibility for funding a day’s food and workers of Readymix Concrete Company Bangalore also donated a day’s food. More than 5000 workers signed the petition with the strike demands.

Students in Mangalore displayed solidarity with the striking workers.

Uniting In Defiance Of Communal Politics

Mangalore is the epicentre of vicious communal politics of the Sangh Parivar – and every effort was made to use this politics to divide the shipping workers.

On May Day last year, several workers threw away our May Day pamphlets (that criticized communal politics and the Prime Minister Modi) and walked out of the meeting hall when our speeches came down heavily on the Modi-led BJP government. We persevered. We prepared a questionnaire on the port workers’ issues and met 300 workers individually to collect their responses. In the process, our union activists spoke with the 300 workers in detail, and were able to penetrate the communal smokescreen. IN General Body meetings of workers of all companies, also, the speeches of our union leaders exposing communal politics made an impact on the workers, many of whom had voted for the BJP.

We pointed out that Hindu and Muslim employers were united against the workers – and asked why, then, should Hindu and Muslim workers not likewise forge a class unity against the employers instead of allowing themselves to be divided on communal lines? This point made a great impact on workers – who could see that all employers irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, were united in depriving workers of their rights.

The NMPT Secretary issued statements quoting the unions of NMPT employees against our Union. Shipping company managements openly asked workers to leave our union and join the tame, pro-management unions. Some prominent BJP leaders and BJP-affiliated owners asked workers who were members of BJP to stop rallying under the ‘hammer and sickle’ union. Even after the strike, some employers called up some employees and told them they should not have joined the Left-led union against the ‘family tradition’ of Sangh Parivar politics. A Muslim employer tried to project the struggle as pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim but was exposed and rejected by the workers, including Muslim workers who saw this as a clear ploy to break the workers’ unity.

Recently, the Sangh had been whipping up a communal frenzy claiming that a BJP man who had been killed, had been killed by a Muslim organisation. Some of the workers who had, till before the strike, been vocally supporting this campaign, were very active in the strike and changed their Whatsapp icon to the ‘hammer and sickle’ at the end of the strike. Some 20-30 workers who had vacillated on the strike initially, were also persuaded in time to support the strike.

This class unity is remarkable and significant in Mangalore which is sharply polarised on communal lines, and where the working class is used as fodder for communal violence. How could we achieve this class unity? Only by sticking to the basic work style and organising principles of communists: our activists won the confidence of workers with their hard work and consistency, by showing full confidence in the workers who were involved in every decision made by the Union, and by patiently tackling communal ideas head-on and exposing the ways in which communal politics served the class interests of the shipping companies. The workers, who had experienced other trade unions affiliated to communal parties, various ruling class parties, as well as social democratic parties, felt a sense of belonging and confidence in our union and its activists.

It is all the more remarkable that workers of 19 separate shipping companies operating in the Port were united – this was far more challenging that forming unions in single companies. We confronted the worst lumpen employers who are backed by or who themselves are underworld dons, criminals and politically powerful employers like ex-BJP ministers.

Some police officials tended to behave like security officers of the managements but were forced to restrain themselves on the one hand because of sensitive nature of the location and on the other hand because of the visible determination and militancy of workers.

The Victory

Ultimately everyone had to come around, on the one hand because of the impact of the strike that resulted in losses to the tune of crores. There was a chain effect of the strike, with port-dependent industries declaring holidays to workers. The Coffee Board issued a formal notice to the Port. Some TV channels reported that the strike affected the availability of essential commodities like food provisions in places like Lakshadweep and the Gulf countries.

Alongside the strike, we also continued to tap every available legal avenue – labour departments, the shipping ministry, the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office in Delhi, and elected representatives. Ultimately, the employers had to accept all the demands and sought time of 60 days in front of the Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner (Central) to implement the agreement. This agreement formed part of the minutes of the meeting – and on this basis, the strike was withdrawn for the time being.

Irrespective of the party in power, the issues of shipping company workers need effective intervention by the Shipping Ministry. The Ministry and the government should assume the responsibility of solving issues of all workers, irrespective of classification, category and status of employment, who are engaged in operations connected with and related to Ports. The unions of shipping company workers must also be recognised by the Port Trusts as like any other union of direct employees. The shipping company workers unions must also be included in negotiation process that is underway for all India agreement for direct employees. It is obvious that no government will concede such demands unless it is backed by powerful protests of workers. q

Whose Responsibility?

The following laws and interpretations by Courts leave no room for doubt about whose job it is to ensure that the workers’ rights are upheld.

Clause 8 (a) of New Mangalore Port Trust (Licensing of Stevedores) Regulation 2009 makes it very clear that the Port is responsible for the implementation of all applicable labour laws related to workers engaged in activities related to Port. Hence, disallowing public meetings, Dharna or any form of protest is a violation of democratic rights of workers engaged in the activities of the port.

The ‘Appropriate Government’ for any activity related to Major Ports, either within the premises or outside, either by Port trust or by other private companies, is the Government of India as per Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. So, the central government should suitably instruct the central labour department to play a pro-active role in implementation of labour laws to all workers engaged in any capacity in Port-related work.

The NMPTE (Classification, Control and Appeal) Regulations 1980 (amended up to 20.11.2007) defines, “Employee” to mean “any person … whose services are temporarily placed at the disposal of NMPT.” Hence, it is obvious that the definition includes ‘any employee’ including employees of shipping companies, stevedoring companies and C&F Agents. NMPT is responsible not only for employees directly employed by the NMPT, licenced workers and contract workers but also all workers, employed by whomsoever, engaged in activities related to the Port.

Another judgement says, “We expect public sector corporations to be model employers and model litigants. We do not expect them to attempt to avoid adjudication or to indulge in luxurious litigation and drag workmen from court to court merely to vindicate, not justice, but some rigid technical stand taken up by them. We hope that public sector corporations will henceforth refrain from raising needless objections, fighting needless litigations and adopting needless postures.” (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/596285/)

In the case of Municipal Corporation Of Delhi vs Rasal Singh And Ors. on 3 March, 1976 (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/575012/), the court says, “We are handling an extraordinary case-load of a hundred appeals by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (the common appellant) against an award of the Industrial Tribunal, Delhi, granting 4 or 5 days wages to a hundred workers who had been employed on road-making and like jobs for several years, some going even back to 1958. The appellant is obviously a public sector corporation which is supposedly a model employer, the appellate are petty workers who have not been confirmed in the registers but are on the pay-roll as casual, though continuous workers…the financial burden cast by the award is around Rs. 5,000/-. And yet, the model employer has lavished on these hundred appeals to the Supreme Court of India on principle. …These observations are an expression of this Court’s allergy to the frequency with which, in the name of ‘principle’, the State and public sector institutions spiral up the litigation ladder and spend considerable sums of public money in cases which should have been adjusted by imaginative, conciliatory and wise attitudes, while professing profound concern for the welfare of Labour. An aware employer should be the last litigant, costs in Court being unproductive and even counter-productive.”

The laws as interpreted by Courts make it very clear that the Shipping Ministry, in this case, the NMPT has the bounden duty of monitoring the implementation of laws, welfare and well-being of all workers involved in operations and activities connected with and related to Port, irrespective of who the employer is and irrespective of the status of employment of the concerned workers.