The standoff between workers and the NMPT management over the manning scales issue is costing the port and port users about Rs 2 crore every day.

A. J. Vinayak

It looks like the users of New Mangalore Port Trust (NMPT) have become trapped in the middle of a ‘tug of war’ on the implementation of the National Industrial Tribunal (NIT) award on the rationalisation of manning scales and deployment of labour in the port. The NMPT implemented the award on August 1, leading to an indefinite strike by the port’s registered cargo handling workers from that day.

NMPT has more than 650 registered cargo-handling workers. The manning scales in various cargoes at NMPT were fixed 25 years ago, when cargoes were handled manually by the port labour. The port continued with the old, manual gang-based system, even subsequent to the introduction of mechanised handling of bulk and break-bulk cargoes.

Mr Shekhar Pujari, President of the Association of New Mangalore Port Stevedores, told Business Line that the present gang strength has no relevance to the actual output levels achieved through mechanical means. The output level is 10-15 times higher than that fixed 25 years ago for manually handled cargoes.

In an order dated April 27, 2009, the NMPT fixed the new manning scales for cargo-handling workers on-board and on-shores as per the NIT award. In that order for all cargoes using grab, the manning scale was fixed at two labourers, against the earlier strength of 17 in a gang. In this, the cargo is grabbed from the hatch and dumped into the truck.

In the case of all bulk cargoes — including iron ore fines and coal — the strength has been fixed at eight, against the earlier 17. For all cargoes in bags, the new manning scale strength is 13, against the earlier 24.

Allaying the fears of workers by stating that there will be no reduction in wages and no retrenchment consequent on implementation of the NIT award, the NMPT has made it clear that implementation of the tribunal’s award is to optimise the deployment of labour.

As there is a shortage of workers because of the prevailing higher manning scales fixed way back when the cargo was manually handled, the rationalisation of manning scales in the present context of technological upgradation in handling operations will help the port make available a higher number of gangs. It said that the total gang demand in July was 1,091. However, the port was able to meet the requirement by deploying 218 gangs overtime.

Mr Praveen Kumar Bangera, President of the Mangalore Steamer Agents’ Association, said that that the implementation of the NIT award would help the unions and the management. Apart from this, NMPT would become more competitive in the market, as some of the neighbouring ports have already implemented the award.

UNIONS’ STAND

In many of the meetings — both with the management and with the Assistant Labour Commissioner (ALC) — the unions had said that they oppose the implementation of the award.

Mr Sadashiva Shetty, General-Secretary of the Kanara Stevedoring Workers’ Union (affiliated to INTUC), had said that no agreement can be arrived at the local level, as the issue is a country-wide one.

During those meetings, Mr Dinesh Achar, General-Secretary of Karnataka Dock and General Workers’ Union (affiliated to HMS), wanted the award to be kept in abeyance as the federation of unions may discuss this issue with the Government in the next few days.

However, the port unions relaxed their stand on the issue on August 8 and submitted their proposals to the port management.

The management had stated earlier that it is ready for minor changes, locally, in the implementation of NIT award.

However, port sources told Business Line that there is a vast variation between the NIT award and what was proposed by the unions on August 8. Another round of meetings will be held on August 10. This will be followed by a meeting with the ALC.

USERS AFFECTED

Shippers and users of such cargoes as fertilisers, coal, iron ore fines, limestone and containers bore the brunt of the strike as these cargoes were either stranded at the port or were diverted to other ports.

Considering the demand for fertilisers and the urgency to supply it to farmers in Karnataka, a quick solution was arrived at, at a conciliatory meeting held by the ALC on August 3, as the port labour unions agreed to unload 33,000 tonnes of fertiliser cargo from a vessel.

But other cargoes, such as containers, iron ore fines and coal were not so lucky. Mr Bangera said that NMPT had the golden opportunity to handle additional iron ore cargo, as the neighbouring ports such as Goa, Karwar and Belekeri were closed for iron ore traffic during the monsoon season. The above three ports handle a substantial quantity of iron ore cargoes.

Container cargo, which has been witnessing rapid growth the past few years, is the other area affected by the strike. On an average, the port handles 3,000 containers a month. Added to this, the port had, in the recent past, handled some mainline container vessels.

Mr K. Prakash Rao, former President of Karnataka Cashew Manufacturers’ Association, told Business Line that cashew is a major contributor to the growth of container traffic in the port. A container vessel is waiting at anchorage for several days. Stating that the cashew sector provides large-scale employment to women in the region, he said a continued strike will create scarcity of raw materials in the cashew processing units, as the cashew sector imports a substantial quantity of raw cashewnuts. It will create unemployment in the rural areas, he added.

Mr Pujari said that the port and port users are losing about Rs 2 crore every day. This is big setback for the country during these days of recession. While the stakeholders in the shipping sector are hoping for a solution this week, it remains to be seen how the situation unfolds.

Related Stories:
Strike at Mangalore port ‘settled partially’
NMPT strike: Conciliatory talks remain inconclusive

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 10, 2009)
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