IN this age of globalisation, multinational corporations hold a vital place in the world’s port industry as 80 per cent of the global trade is handled by maritime transportation. Ports the world over are now increasingly being developed and operated by the MNCs for container terminal services in an environment of deregulation. With the privatisation of ports and globalisation of trade, a race to the bottom has come about in labour standards for workers.
So the union busting by the South Asia Port Terminal, Karachi, a subsidiary of the Hutchison Ports, is business as usual. Through the internet, the SAPT Democratic Workers’ Union does have supporters in the world hence the news of sacking of the union members four weeks ago was circulated and a signature campaign ‘Reinstate the Karachi 8’ was launched by the LabourStart, a global network of over 700 volunteers who devote their time and effort to support labour.
Just recently, four more workers were dismissed, this writer was told by the union leader who was allegedly arrested on fake charges and jailed for two weeks. The management registered a pocket union at the National Industrial Relations Commission by declaring the company trans-provincial though sea ports exist only in Sindh. The union is fighting the case against unfair labour practices but, sadly, has no hope for justice.
Containerised cargo handling activities are ranked as one of the most hazardous occupations.The workers at SAPT are hired on contract, at low wages, without employment letter and denied social protection coverage. Health and safety conditions are poor. In March this year, a worker died in an accident because the container handling equipment was not equipped with sensors and the camera for reverse viewing did not work. Faulty equipment and poor machinery are in addition to the risks of falls from a height and being struck by a vehicle or moving object.
Port workers are increasingly facing issues of health and safety.
Raising a collective voice is the only option available to workers to negotiate better terms and conditions. But the problem is that employers in general abhor union activities.
According to analysts, abhorrence or avoidance of unions is linked to the idea that only the employer should cater to employee welfare, hence there is hostility towards the involvement of ‘third parties’, such as trade unions. Though this analysis was done in the context of America’s maltreatment of unions, it fits well in the Pakistan context where local employers tend to adopt a paternalistic attitude and ‘look after’ their employees through a welfare lens rather than acceding to entitlements and rights of workers. MNC employers have their own lens of so-called ‘corporate social responsibility’ to paint their image as ‘concerned and conscientious’.
It is not just workers in Pakistan; port workers worldwide are increasingly facing issues of health and safety, union busting, loss of jobs due to automation, and the erosion of hard-won labour rights. However, workers have not given up. Unions in the global port industry are alive and kicking despite their weakened position. In January this year, the port workers’ union in Cochin, India, gave a strike notice, demanding a raise in the minimum wage and pensions and universal social security.
Port workers in Cyprus gave a strike call in January over a dispute on collective agreement. In April, port workers in Spain threatened to strike as their severance rights and compensation had been affected and the productivity bonuses frozen since 2010 leading to a wage cut of about 30 per cent. In the same month, workers at an Algerian port went on strike to demand higher wages, contractual changes and the reinstatement of dismissed workers. In May, the port workers in Genova, Italy, went on strike against the authorities’ decision to grant access to a weapon-carrying Saudi Arabia cargo ship to dock at the port.
Globalisation has given the MNCs enhanced power to shape labour relations according to their own interests. Yet workers do retain some power in the asymmetrical relationship between employers and workers.
Workers’ power comes from two sources, theorists concede. The first source is located in the position of the worker in the economic system which gives structural power to the worker. The second source is collective organisation of workers which bestows associational power.
A study of MNCs and trade unions indicates that in services and extracting sectors, workers tend to have less structural power hence the subsidiaries shun trade unions. Strong engagement occurs where workers have structural power in terms of both value-added activities of the subsidiary and the workers’ distinctive skills.
In Pakistan, workers are unable to mobilise associational power due to many reasons and their structural power is weak as, by and large, our workforce has little education, skills and technological know-how.
The writer is a researcher in the development sector.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2019