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Minister asks CCTL to reinstate suspended workers

Our Bureau

Chennai , June 1

THE Minister for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, Mr T.R. Baalu, on Tuesday asked the management of Chennai Container Terminal Ltd to take back the four workers suspended by it and thus pave the way for normal operations to resume at the terminal.

He told a press conference here that the management had precipitated matters by suspending the four workers even when conciliation proceedings were on before the Regional Labour Commissioner. He alleged that the CCTL management had obtained signatures on blank papers from workers.

Repeatedly stressing that there was limited scope for him to intervene in the matter, Mr Baalu hoped that the management would respond to his appeal, reinstate the four workers and restore normal operations.

The Minister said officials from the Chennai Port, including its Chairman, had held discussions with the CCTL management as well as the labourers to break the deadlock. He wanted the management to be magnanimous and take a sympathetic view towards the workers. Workers interests had to be protected.

It may be recalled that non-management workers at the Chennai Container Terminal, run by P&O Ports on a concession agreement, have been on a go-slow from May 23 night, resulting in delays in clearing import and export containers.

However, when contacted, Mr Jimmy Sarbh, Regional Director, P&O Ports (South Asia and the Middle East) and Chairman, Chennai Container Terminal Ltd, denied that the management had obtained signatures on blank papers from the workers. "We did not and we will not ask anybody to sign on a blank paper," he told Business Line over telephone from Mumbai.

Mr Sarbh also denied that there was a strike at the container terminal and said only some workers had resorted to this go-slow. Clearance of import and export containers was going on, albeit a bit slowly. He said four quay cranes and 12 rubber tyred gantry cranes were being used at the terminal and ships were also being turned around after completing loading and unloading of containers. En bloc movement of containers - moving boxes from the terminal in bulk to a container freight station nearby - would commence.

"We have managed to carry on with work at the terminal. We have flown in staff from other terminals. We have hired staff and are training them on yard management," Mr Sarbh said. Also, the company had advertised for workers and hoped that normal operations would resume shortly.

Asked to respond to the Minister's request to take back the four suspended workers, Mr Sarbh said the company had even earlier mentioned that it was prepared to reinstate three of them and pay full salary to the fourth pending an enquiry. CCTL had asked the Regional Labour Commissioner to complete the enquiry within 45 days. And, if the enquiry establishes that the employee concerned is not guilty, the company would immediately reinstate him and if he were found guilty, action would have to be taken against him, Mr Sarbh said.

Categorically stating that the fourth employee in question would not be reinstated before the enquiry was completed, Mr Sarbh said if he were to be taken back now, it would affect discipline in the terminal and, in turn, productivity.

He said that wage hike was the basis of the agitation by the workers. The workers had asked for a phenomenal hike. For instance, the demand was to increase the salary by Rs 43,000 for a basic checker who was now earning Rs 6,000. The CCTL management had explained the proposed wages and working conditions to the workers. A number of them had accepted these and were prepared to return to work, Mr Sarbh said.

He said CCTL would file a case of contempt of court against the workers as they had gone on an agitation when the court had restrained them from doing so.

But, as the deadlock continued, trade said the loss due to the agitation at the terminal was huge. Some companies had diverted their export consignments to Tuticorin Port despite the large transportation cost involved. From today, shipping lines would levy a congestion surcharge of $25 on empty containers and $50 on laden containers.

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