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'Major ports can also provide competitive services'

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The Water Transport Workers Federation of India (WTWFI) has a significant presence among port and dock workers as well as seafarers. It is one of the major recognised federations, commanding the support of both the sailing crew on board and the workers on the shore. In a recent interaction with Business Line, the WTWFI General-Secretary, Mr T. Narendra Rao, spoke on a host of issues related to the maritime sector.

Excerpts from the interview:

How has the global meltdown affected seafarers and port and dock workers?
The global financial crisis has led to a reduction of job opportunities for seafarers as well as port and dock workers, all constituting an integral part of the shipping industry.

The slump in the global demand for goods hit the trade sector and, with it, shipping, entailing not only drop in cargo handling in major ports but also a fall in the earnings of those associated with the whole gamut of operations relating to imports, exports, shipping, chartering, freight forwarding and cargo handling in ports. However, the situation, of late, has started showing signs of improvement.

The current manning crisis in the shipping industry is the consequence of the global meltdown. The lack of investment to create modern infrastructures in ports and to acquire new ships is apparently the consequence of the economic meltdown. Factors such as slow commodity trading in the global and domestic markets and a significant drop in freight rates also resulted in drying up of freight forwarding business.

However, some positive signs are now visible, such as the rise in global demand, especially substantial increase in handling of iron ore, thermal coal and petroleum and POL products in the major ports. This has, in turn, given cargo traffic in the major ports a leg up in the first half of the current financial year.

Even as global economies are on the recovery path, the freight market remains subdued. As a result, the earnings of Indian shipping companies are yet to pick up. The indication is that the earnings are likely to be lower this year also.

Does the growth of private container terminals in Indian ports affect the bargaining strength of major federations in the port sector?
The growth of private container terminals has affected the bargaining power of the federations to a certain extent, not very much. Denied of fair wages, the employees of these private terminals face exploitation in various ways. The federations, therefore, plan to organise the affected sections of employees under the banner of trade unions.

Has privatisation in ports impacted the finances of the port trusts? Do the private terminals help the maritime trade?
Yes. There is no doubt that the privatisation of the port sector has impacted the financial profiles of ports badly. It is evident from the decline in the revenues of major ports. It is ridiculous that the government has declared the policy of port development on the basis of “landlord” concept which, we feel, is highly detrimental to the development of ports and their revenues.

Through the National Maritime Development Programme (NMDP), the government is spending huge money for developing infrastructure in the port sector, whereas, investments by private terminal operators remain insignificant compared to the public funding. Experiences suggest that the appointment of suitable management can guarantee efficient, prompt and cost-effective services to users in government-owned ports vis-à-vis those offered by the private terminals. JNPT is a case in point.

It is not right to say that only private terminals can provide competitive services to the port users. Major ports, with their available workforce and existing infrastructure, too can provide efficient services, provided the infrastructure is upgraded in time and properly.

There are instances where private terminals have backtracked on their commitment to pay the agreed royalties to the port authorities and approached courts for evading payments. Healthy competition is good. But monopoly in terminal operations will definitely kill the competitive environment.

How would you compare the pay and perquisites of port and dock workers vis-à-vis those of the Central Government employees?
The port trusts followed Central Government pay-scales till 1963. After that, the port and dock workers were paid better in terms of remuneration and other fringe benefits as compared to Central Government employees. However, the situation changed in past few years, with the result that the Central Government employees now earn more and enjoy better facilities than those in the port sector. We are trying to bring a kind of parity.

The Central Government jobs are basically service-oriented whereas in the port sector, it is output-oriented. The port sector is unique and, therefore, cannot be compared with any other industry or group of industries. The wage structure of port and dock workers has to be structured keeping in view the unique nature and conditions of work in this sector. So wages in ports cannot be considered in a vacuum. No wonder the Wage Revision Committee has proposed parity between the pay-structures of port and dock workers and those of Central Government employees.
Source: Business Line

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