“You have forged this weapon – but wield it wisely”
It would be of paramount importance to understand that even during the 1930s, conditions under which Indian Officers chose to continue to be employed was more out of lack of options rather than out of choice. Then prevailing conditions were those of open discrimination and exploitation.
Before independence, the Indian merchant fleet was composed of both, Indian and British owned ships that operated by India. Ships of both owners flew the red ensign of the British Merchant Navy. It was the exclusive prerogative of the British ships to carry out trade with foreign countries from Indian shores. Even the coastal trade was not free of interference from the British and they were the dominant force in this sector too. It was only well after independence that the Coastal Reservations Bill was passed and Indian ship owners could then breathe easier. Of course Indian ships were only a handful, and over and above that, the British ships normally recruited only clerks, doctors and under pressure, a few junior Deck Officers. Employment provided to Indians in a vast majority of such cases, was only at less than half the wage provided to the British counterparts. Other service benefits were simply nonexistent for Indian officers.
Those who were employed as clerks and doctors on British owned ships were forced to be content that they were at least getting employment, rather than raise any voice and risk losing their jobs, which were not difficult to replace. A training ship, Dufferin was established and four years later a scheme for training engineer cadets in addition to Deck Cadets was started. Now, as the number of Indian Officers began to rise, this has the effect of creating resentment against the blatant discrimination when employed. The work was same as the British Officers on the same ships and in similar trade. Yet, the wages offered to Indian seafarers was much below than those offered to the British who carried out the same duties as Indians.
It is to be noted that the British had of course a U.K. based Union their own, and hence the certified amongst them were members of the same. This Union was the Navigators and Engineer Officers Union (NEOU). Many Indian Officers, after becoming qualified as Navigators and Engineer Officers, joined this Union partly to get insurance coverage. Those Indian Officers who were technically qualified were in no position to offer resistance of any kind with regard to their pitiable service conditions that were by now taken for granted by the British.
The NEOU was pressurized to open a branch office in India. General Secretary of the Union, Captain William E. Coombs came to India in early 1938 to explore this possibility. Yet, there was no willingness shown to even improve upon the disparity of wages between Indian and British Officers. This compelled the Indian Officers to declare that they would open their own independent union in India. They kept their word and went about by collecting a subscription of Rs.3 per head from the Officers to meet initial expenses.
A meeting of the officers was held in Bombay on 3 December 1939. However, since many Officers were reluctant to associate with a trade union and this is the reason that The Indian Merchant Navy Officers’ Association was founded and named so on the same day itself. It started off by having a Post Box number allotted by the General Post Office in Bombay.
Mr. N.M. Joshi who was considered the father of the Trade Union was the first President and Mr. V.B. Karnik a lawyer by professional as well as companion of Mr. Joshi was the Secretary. It was registered on 30 March 1941 under the Indian Trade Unions Act. Very soon, a room was hired in a lane in Girgaum at a rate of Rs.30 per month with a telephone installed. In 1942 office space was acquired in Fort area. Part of this premises was given on rent, since the Union could not afford to pay the full rent. Mr. D. Mungat, who had sea-going experience was appointed as Secretary by the Working Committee at its meeting held in February 1943.
By 1943 British owners of the Indian merchant fleet had recognized the Union. Firstly, it was time the Association was called a Union, secondly, the word Indian suggested nationality, whereas the Union was open to all nationals irrespective of color, creed or community, and lastly, a number of senior officers had by now begun to take up shore employment and they did not belong to the Indian merchant navy any longer but were certainly associated with the maritime services and needed the strength of a Union behind them for redress of their grievances.
The initial apprehension of Officers and handicaps faced had been overcome to a very great extent, and it was felt that a more suitable and effective name was needed to be coined.
It was decided that a new name indicating “Union” would serve the purpose and by a resolution passed at the Annual General Body meeting on 23rd December 1943 the new name of The Maritime Union of India was adopted.The Union was registered under the new name,THE MARITIME UNION OF INDIA in March 1944.
World War II progressed, and MUI was cut off from seafarers trade union/organizations in other parts of the world. Nevertheless the Union applied for affiliation to the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF) which was based in London. Ground work for the affiliation was done by the then Vice-President Miss Maniben Kara a renowned Trade Union activist who had personally contacted Mr. J.H. Oldenbrock, the General Secretary of ITF in April 1944. The response from ITF London was immediate and on 1 October 1944 MUI became an affiliate of the ITF.
In 1944, negotiations were commenced once again with the Scindia Company demanding parity in wages and other conditions for officers on the Indian coast. Eventually, after lengthy negotiations, MUI had to accept 90% of the wages of the British officers in Mogul Line. This compromise had to be reached because it was simply not possible to take any industrial action during the war, and this fact was very clear to the ship-owners. But there was now hope that when the war ended, the Union will again take a stand. In fact this was the time when MUI would have to prove that it was worth its name or otherwise. Hence, a small sub-committee drafted out the first agreement, the contents of which had to be entirely thought out by the committee members, as there was no printed literature available about prevailing work conditions elsewhere. In the year 1944 also saw sea-going officers taking charge of the Union, when Captain R.R. Memery a British citizen and the Commodore Captain of the Scindia fleet was elected President, and Captain W.L. Atkinson (British Citizen) was elected Vice President. Mr. K.D. Pradhan who had to quit sailing due to poor eyesight was elected as Organising Secretary.
Mr. B. Mani, Safdarali Azad, W. Cook and D. Mungat took it upon them to initiate the first organizational work of the Union by sending out a leaflet entitled “To You”. Stalwarts of the trade union movement like Sarvashri Mr. N.M. Joshi, Unionist, Mr. V.B, Karnik, Smt. Maniben Kara, were convinced about the urgent and imperative need of the hour to have a voice for Indian officers and the greatest impact would be felt if Officers were organized and united to give out one voice.
In 1945, preparations started for the ILO’s Preparatory Technical Conference to be held in Copenhagen at the end of that year. The basis of this conference was the International Seafarers’ Charter prepared by the ITF and the IMMOA. MUI was to represent Officers of India at the conference. However, due to opposition from Captain Coombs of the UK based NEOU, the Union could not represent itself. The ITF, however, took a very serious view of this development and took it up at Copenhagen and NEOU was made to realize that this attitude would not be tolerated.
Since the year 1942, promotive work for a magazine was started by Mr. Lokesh Ghatak, William Cook, E. Sagar. But due to the ongoing war the Government had banned the publication of any new journal. In 1944 MUI received sanction from the Central Government to publish a Trade Union Journal. The name given to this publication was Oceanite. The word is a coinage from the original Greek “Oceanid”, which means a sea nymph. Hence was born the first nautical magazine in India. The first issue, edited by Mr. Lokesh Ghatak was out in August 1945. The first full page advertisement of Bombay Talkies was given by Mrs. Devika Rani Roy (Later Mrs. Roerich).
After 1944 preparations started for negotiations for a Collective Agreement with the ship-owners for the next two years. Since the Union did not have any reference literature available the work was slow. Negotiations were again started with the Scindia Company ending in an agreement effective from 1 April, 1947 which practically covered every item stipulated in the Union proposals was agreed to by the company. The agreement comprised of 18 items, which included its recognition and procedure for revision or termination of the same. For the first time, lives of the officers at sea as well as ashore on leave were adequately covered. This was landmark Collective Agreement in India not only for seafarers but it also served as an example for other organization in India. The ILO office published a summary of the agreement in their quarterly review. This agreement indirectly laid the foundation for conditions of service for those employed in allied services, such as Mercantile Marine Department (MMD) and the Port services. The pay in MMD was raised as recommended by the First Pay Commission, based on the terms and conditions of the first Collective Agreement by MUI. Other services also had to follow suit. Within a few days after this agreement was signed, the British India Steam Navigation Company announced its new scale of wages. This scale was almost identical to the one negotiated by the Union with the Scindia company. The British ship-owners did not want to give credit to MUI for improving the conditions of their officers. The British Officers were accustomed to the practice of them getting higher wages than their Indian counterparts on the same ships. Hence, the British came up with an Allowance called as Marriage Allowance for all British Officers. This created repercussions within Mogul Line and Asiatic Steam Navigation Company, where the majority of the certified officers were now Indian. So, these companies too agreed to pay this allowance. It was much later that this allowance was withdrawn.
An agreement for Home Trade Officers was now being drafted. Pilots and Harbour Masters’ plight was also very much present. Their memoranda and petitions were not even considered. In order to prevent Officers of these branches from coming under the influence of the Union, increases in wages were given directly rather than as a result of agreements with the Union. Captain T.E.M. Rozario and Late Captain M.J. Sayeed, both of whom had by now obtained their Foreign-going Master’s Certificates started working for the Union on a full time basis, getting paid about one-third of what they could have at sea, but they cheerfully accepted this sacrifice and carried on their work. Mr. E. Sagar also rejoined the Union.
MUI opened the first coaching school for candidates appearing for the MOT Certificates and pioneered facilities for post-sea training in India, using its own resources. Classes commenced on the top floor of Scindia House for Deck Officers in October 1949 by Captain M.J. Sayeed and assisted by Captain M.G. Datar. It was named, Maritime Union Nautical School (MUNS). Soon after this, the Dufferin Old Cadets Association (DOCA) also sponsored a school under the name of Premier School of Navigation, were not able to obtain an Instructor. But they were operating from a Government allotted Merchant Navy Officers’ Club Building at Azad Maidan. MUNS operated after office hours and it was not possible to expand its activities. After negotiations MUNS, and the Premier School of Navigation were amalgamated. Soon after this, the Government woke up to the need for a post-sea training establishment and started a scheme and established the Nautical and Engineering College. Since the reason for which the MUNS was started was fulfilled, the Union decided to close down its school and handed over its assets to the Government establishment.
The need for a technical library became evident. A beginning had already been made by collection of technical books from sea-going officers so that other officers appearing for their certificates could have the books for reference and consultation. A library was started and expanded and the Union also started subscribing to a number of trade and technical magazines of the shipping industry worldwide. As worldwide shipping expanded, with the resultant navigation hazards and technical advancements, a need was felt that the professional interests of Officers should be protected in case of any accidents at sea. With the help of the U.K. Officers’ Union (NEO), MUI negotiated with the Navigators and General Insurance Company in U.K. for insuring certificates of the members of the Union in September 1947 and a large number of Officers took advantage of it.
MUI was aware of the fact that as membership increased, welfare of Officers in Calcutta port needed more attention. Captain T.E.M. Rozario (currently residing in Pune), who, by now, was a senior Captain in the Scindia Company and Vice-President of the Union) took up this task. In October 1947 he opened a Branch Office in Calcutta. With great personal and physical sacrifice, he established the office by letting as many officer know about its existence and returned to sea after a year in 1948. In his place, Mr. K. Banerji and later on in his place, Mr. Anil Banerji was appointed Branch Secretary.
Leaders of the Seamen’s Organsations in Calcutta left for Pakistan on the plea that with the changed conditions they were unable to carry on their activities without interference. With funds and leaders disappearing overnight, some of the solid unions became defunct.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), became concerned with these developments and cabled MUI to try and help its affiliate, the Indian Seamen’s Union of Calcutta to continue to function. This was an added responsibility and the General Secretary as well as the Organizing Secretary Mr. Sayeed and the Branch Secretary Captain Rozario spent many months at great personal risk in trying to keep the Indian Seamen’s Union working. However, because of overwhelming interference from political parties, who were interested in fishing in troubled waters took this as an opportune moment to gain control of the Seamen’s Union.
The ITF realized the great work that MUI had done, and realized that a more direct link with Transport Workers’ organizations in India was necessary. It invited the General Secretary, Mr. D. Mangat to London in December 1948 to consult on the establishment of a Regional Information Office of the ITF in India. As a result of the discussions, the General Secretary took charge of the ITF Information and Advisory Centre with its office in the premises of the Union in Bombay. The work carried out by this office was greatly appreciated both by the Transport Workers’ Organistions in India and Pakistan as well as by the ITF, so much so that in 1954, the ITF decided to open a separate office with Mr J.F. Soares, who had been a Radio Officer for 20 years, and was the previous General Secretary of the MUI, in charge, on a full-time basis.
A draft was prepared for Home Trade Officers in early 1947. The General Secretary and other officials of the Union made a round voyage on one of these ships as passengers and accordingly, some changes were made in the draft. This Agreement, based on the Foreign-going one, was sent to the Bombay Steam Navigation Company. After lengthy negotiations, this Agreement was successfully concluded. It became effective from 1st July 1947. For the first time, the Home Trade Officers got a regular scale of wages with yearly increments, regular leave, and allowance for food and medical facilities.
In December 1948, the Indian Federation of Labor, the Hind Mazdoor Panchayat and other Trade Unions which had seceded from the Communist controlled All-India Trade Union Congress, decided to join hands and form the Hind Mazdoor Sabha. MUI became one of the affiliates of this central organization of labor since its inception in April 1949.
The years 1949-50 saw new shipping companies being set up. It was very difficult to organize them because, some of them were not ship-owners with a broad outlook. Not being really concerned with shipping as an industry, they hired staff who would not have found employment elsewhere. Fear of losing jobs made it difficult to persuade people to join the Union. In 1949 as part of its campaign against ‘free-riders’ the Union brought out a beautifully illustrated four-page brochure – ‘A ten-year record of progress”.
MUI Secretary visited various ports and held meetings of officers belonging to port services. Several representations to authorities in various ports as well as the Government of India were made and many visits were made to Delhi. All this efforts had its favorable effect. Due to all this work done by the Union, even Officers in port services got substantial increase in wages for the first time after decades. The authorities, however, did not want that these much-needed improvements should be given through the Union. They, therefore announced increases directly in the hope that this would pacify officers and at the same time make them lose interest in the Union. Unfortunately their plan was successful and officers of shore establishments did not renew their membership. The Union therefore henceforth decided to concentrate on its officers membership, and amended its constitution in 1949 restricting its membership to sea-going personnel only.
In 1950, the General Secretary, Mr. Mungat obtained leave from the Union. In May 1951, he officially handed over charge of the Union to Mr. J.F. Soares, who assumed the position of Acting General Secretary, and in his place, as Organising Secretary, Mr. C.S. Raje was appointed.
The tenacious quality of early individuals who took up the challenge of taking up cudgels on behalf of Indian Officers can neither be underestimated nor forgotten.
MUI’s active role in enacting a new Act of Legislation, or introduction of major changes in recruitment, training, welfare of Officers either by the Government or ship-owners has always been mandatory.
By the end of 1958, the Union was the first organization to be accorded a seat in the following bodies from its inception:
National Welfare Board for Seafarers, Indian Sailors’ Home Society, Bombay, The Navik Griha, Calcutta, The Technical Non-official Advisory Board of the Union Public Service Commission, Joint Maritime Commission of the ILO, The ILO JMC Tripartite Sub-Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare, The ITF Executive Council, Governing Body of the T.S. Dufferin (now Rajendra), ITF Executive Committee, Merchant Navy Training Board, the newly formed National Shipping Board (one of the first members), DMET, Active member in MS Act 1958 amendments committee,
Referring to the last paragraph written by Late Mr. J.D. Randheri, ex General Secretary of MUI, I take this opportunity to record it for information of members and all concerned persons/offices:
Indeed, MUI is today in that position which a trade union anywhere in the world would like to be… in complete harmonious industrial relationship with the employers. Further, it has achieved a position of dignity and responsibility so that the important aspects of development in maritime matters in this country and outside are aided by the active participation of the Union. This has been achieved because members have stood by the Union, individual efforts shall always be there, but collective strength of the rank and file is the only power and sanction that secure gains and maintains progress.
We will be publishing revised History of the Maritime Union of India covering the period ending 2015.
LET NOT HAVE ARGUMENTS BUT AGREEMENTS AS IT IS DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND THE MOVES OF SHIP OWNERS WHO ARE RUNNING THE BUSINESS TO DETERMINE THEIR SINCERITY AND INSINCERITY