Port unions: Lower volume means less work and pay

By Syed Jaymal Zahiid
Westports has been worst hit by the shipping industry shake-up. — Reuters file pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 13 — The industry shake-up that prompted five major shipping companies to ditch Port Klang for Singapore could result in shorter working hours for some 8,000 workers whose livelihoods rely heavily on overtime pay.

While no job losses have been reported so far, the decrease in transhipment volume at both the port’s main terminals will have a major impact on its low-level workers, said A. Balasubramaniam, secretary-general of the Union of Employees of Port Klang Ancillary Work.

“Many of the workers don’t rely on their basic pay alone,” the union leader told Malay Mail Online.

“They also rely heavily on allowances and overtime pay so if the work is reduced it will definitely affect the livelihood of the workers.

“So it’s not a good news. The workers are worried and complaints have been coming in while some have said they would be forced to leave for better paying jobs,” he added.

Balasubramaniam’s union represents contracted but necessary workers such as machine cleaners and tally clerks.

While they may not make the port’s core workforce of Westport and Northport, the union members still form a significant portion of workers there.

All affected

“It’s not just the (main) Westport workers that are affected… you see when the cargo come in, the major work will be done by them.

“But the ancillary work are given to the contractors... so they all will still be affected,” he explained.

Westports was the worst hit by the shipping industry shake-up between the two Port Klang terminals. Transhipment account for up to 40 per cent of total containers processed there.

Cargo throughput at Port Klang was down by 8.4 per cent in the second quarter of this year to 3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) after nearly four years of increasing loads, according to data compiled from Northport and Westports.

This comes after five shipping companies realigned under new alliances that kickstarted April 1.

France’s CMA CGM along with China Cosco, Evergreen Line and Orient International operated under the new Ocean Alliance while United Arab Emirate’s UASC merged with Hapag-Lloyd, which was already operating from Singapore.

Westports, which controls three-quarters of Klang’s total capacity, saw this year’s cargo volume decline by 7 to 12 per cent, with the slump likely to continue through the years to come, analysts have warned.

The reshuffle have raised some concerns of potential job losses as the country’s top port lost up to a third of its income from decreased transhipment volumes.

Workers trapped

Yet workers at Westport have no avenue to voice out their grievances due to the operator’s alleged anti-union policies.

The Westport management have refused to recognise the Westport Workers Union to this day. Many of its core leadership, like its recent president Md Jani Kamis, have been sacked on disciplinary grounds, but its members believe they were punished for organising the union.

“So there is nothing much they (workers) can do,” Balasubramaniam explained.

“Though the union are very much concerned about their welfare, income and benefits, but there is nothing they could do,” Balasubramniam explained.

But over at Northport, sentiment was slightly upbeat.

Northport Employees Union chief Mohd Zaidi Sanusi told Malay Mail Online work pace has picked up, at least for now.

“We have yet to experience any sort of mass job losses and things are looking quite good actually,” he said on Monday.

“In fact I can say there are more work to be done,” he added.

However, transhipment only account for roughly 20 per cent of Northport’s business, so the decrease in transhipment volume may not affect workers at the terminal as much as it would on Westport employees.

Regardless, the country’s union leaders believe the development at Port Klang should raise urgency for the government to reassess its future port projects to avoid oversupply.

“There are a lot of investments from China and we don’t want them to become white elephants where in the case where it doesn’t work, we (taxpayers) end up having to repay them,” J Solomon, secretary-general of the Malayan Trade Unions Congress told Malay Mail Online.