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‘Keeping Palestinian Flame Alive’: Inside Workers' Boycott of Israel-Bound Cargo

“We are against war, be it what Russia is doing in Ukraine or Israel’s attack on Gaza,” a worker told The Quint.

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“The weapons that we load from India are used by Israel to brutally murder Palestinians, especially women and children, and we have decided to take a stand against it,” T Narendra Rao, general secretary of the Water Transport Workers Federation of India (WTWFI), told The Quint a few days after the union decided to refuse to load or unload weaponised cargoes to Israel or any allied country which may be used in the war against Palestine.

In a press release dated 14 February, the WTWFI – the union which represents 3,500 workers at 11 major ports in India and is affiliated with the labour wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – said that “loading and unloading these weapons helps provide organisations with the ability to kill innocent people.”

“The recent attack of Israel on Gaza, plunging thousands of Palestinians into immense suffering and loss… We, therefore, also call for an immediate ceasefire. As the responsible trade unions, we declare our solidarity with those who campaign for peace.”

The Quint spoke to port workers and leaders to understand their reasons behind the boycott – and spoke to industry and government sources to see whether such a move is viable or not.

‘Keeping Palestinian Flame Alive’: Inside Workers' Boycott of Israel-Bound Cargo

  1. 1. 'Port Workers Keeping Palestinian Flame Alive'

    Speaking to The Quint, Nagendra Rao said, “We are against war, be it what Russia is doing in Ukraine or Israel’s destruction of Palestine, because we are a peace-loving people and believe that the world should be united at this time.”

    Affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a global body, the WTWFI was inspired to take this measure at a recent meeting in Athens, where hundreds of union representatives expressed solidarity with Palestine.

    Just a day before the WTWFI put out its release, the WFTU issued a statement calling for solidarity with the people of Palestine and said that their demand is that “the United Nations and the international community will take urgent decisions to prevent this new Nakba in the Palestinian land.”

    CD Nandakumar, president of the WTWFI, said that they are responding to “a call by the WFTU to all affiliated unions globally to come out with such a stance on not handling ammunition to Israel.”

    Rao said that since the press release was issued, they had not encountered any “weapon-loaded” ship bound for Israel but were issuing the statement “to express solidarity with Palestine” and make clear that they would not be a part of any enterprise “to support Israel’s war on the Palestinian people.”

    However, Rao also pointed out how support for Palestine, originating in India, “needs to be heard and felt around the world".

    Major exports from India to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles, plants and vegetable products, and mineral products. However, private players in India also conduct business with Tel Aviv. Just a few days before the said union’s press release, several outlets reported that the Israeli army received 20 Indian-made Hermes 900 drones, manufactured in Hyderabad, which were used on the besieged Gaza strip.

    However, the sale of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs to Israel, a model similar to those used in the Israeli Defence Forces’ military campaign in Gaza, has not been publicly acknowledged by either Tel Aviv or New Delhi as of yet.

    Requesting anonymity, a worker at Tamil Nadu’s Chennai Port spoke to The Quint and expressed a “growing animosity within port workers after they were informed that weapons transported by them to Israel are the cause behind thousands of deaths in Gaza.”

    “Many big groups across India, including our government, think that by simply making some speeches about peace and ceasefire, they can continue to do business with Israel and help in the war against Palestinians. We will not stand and watch them and be expected to help Israel’s cause.”

    Speaking to The Quint, Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director at the Society for Policy Studies, said, “It is interesting to see how one particular demographic, i.e. organised workers, are speaking up the same way that South Africa decided to act on Israel’s action. If there is someone keeping the flickering flames of the Palestinian cause in this very moment, it is these port workers.”

    Expand
  2. 2. How Viable is the Boycott? Industry Sources, Experts Answer

    At this point, the action serves primarily as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate support for the Palestinians. Nagendra Rao clarified that the union's employees have not participated in any arms deliveries to Israel since the Gaza conflict started.

    Commodore Uday Bhaskar told The Quint that since “India's own exports to Israel are not that significant,” the decision to boycott is “purely symbolic.”

    “Israel is not dependent on India for food, oil or any essential commodities. The impact, if at all, will be symbolic because we are not the only commodity or defense supplier for Israel. However, port workers expressing solidarity with the Palestinians is significant because they have taken a stand which reflects their empathy for the Palestinian cause.”
    Commodore C Uday Bhaskar

    However, the logistics of such a boycott are not easy to manage.

    Nagendra Rao told The Quint that since their unions only work with organised workers in 11 ports across India, it fails to bind into workers who are unorganised or those who work with the private sector.

    “Some unorganised workers may be present in minor ports and major private ports like the Mundra Port, Gangavaram Port, and the Nagapattinam Port who will be more than willing to undertake this work. If the government wishes, they will always have an option to go through there.”
    T Nagendra Rao

    According to government sources, there may be "no impact of the move on Indian ports."

    Government officials familiar with the matter told The Quint that the union workers' call is unlikely to affect port operations significantly. They noted that since most supplies are transported in containers, and the majority of containerised cargo is handled by ports operating under public-private partnerships (PPP), the impact would be minimal.

    Moreover, a former high-level shipping and port workers union executive told The Quint that the logistics of the ban are “simply impossible.”

    They said that due to the presence of private enterprises and workers, contract employees and stevedores, “the union’s bargaining power reduced severely.”

    “Back in the 1970s, the number of organised port workers clocked in at close to 150,000 to 200,000. They had power, clout and support from everyone – from port office staff to dock workers carrying containers, customs officials to local politicians. Now, they barely have 30,000 oragnised port workers who are already unable to compete with privatisation.”
    High-level shipping and port workers union executive
    Expand
  3. 3. A Lesson from History 

    With Japan's surrender following Victory over Japan Day, signifying the conclusion of World War II, control over the Dutch East Indies was lost, leading to Indonesia's declaration of independence. Despite this, the Netherlands refused to recognise Indonesia's independence and sought to regain control over its territories.

    Indian troops were deployed to Java to suppress the uprising and support the Netherlands in reclaiming the Dutch East Indies, which predominantly corresponds to modern-day Indonesia.

    When Indonesian seamen, many of whom were based in Australia, discovered Dutch ships carrying munitions, they refused to work and urged dock workers' unions to join them in solidarity with Indonesia's struggle for freedom. The majority of these seamen were of Indian descent.

    Indian activists, along with their Australian counterparts, rallied on the docks in cities like Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and Fremantle, urging Indian crews to join the strike.

    With the support of the Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA), the Waterside Workers Federation, and the Communist Party of Australia, the strike commenced in Brisbane and Melbourne, later spreading to Sydney and Fremantle.

    Lasting for nine months initially and intermittently for four years, the boycott caused delays for 559 vessels, including 36 Dutch merchant ships, three Royal Australian Navy ships, and several British troopships.

    However, that is unlikely to be the case for the boycott in question.

    A diplomatic source familiar with matters at the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry expressed a similar sentiment and told The Quint, “Trade will always go on. There are no two questions about it.”

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

'Port Workers Keeping Palestinian Flame Alive'

Speaking to The Quint, Nagendra Rao said, “We are against war, be it what Russia is doing in Ukraine or Israel’s destruction of Palestine, because we are a peace-loving people and believe that the world should be united at this time.”

Affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a global body, the WTWFI was inspired to take this measure at a recent meeting in Athens, where hundreds of union representatives expressed solidarity with Palestine.

Just a day before the WTWFI put out its release, the WFTU issued a statement calling for solidarity with the people of Palestine and said that their demand is that “the United Nations and the international community will take urgent decisions to prevent this new Nakba in the Palestinian land.”

CD Nandakumar, president of the WTWFI, said that they are responding to “a call by the WFTU to all affiliated unions globally to come out with such a stance on not handling ammunition to Israel.”

Rao said that since the press release was issued, they had not encountered any “weapon-loaded” ship bound for Israel but were issuing the statement “to express solidarity with Palestine” and make clear that they would not be a part of any enterprise “to support Israel’s war on the Palestinian people.”

However, Rao also pointed out how support for Palestine, originating in India, “needs to be heard and felt around the world".

Major exports from India to Israel include precious stones and metals, chemical products, textiles and textile articles, plants and vegetable products, and mineral products. However, private players in India also conduct business with Tel Aviv. Just a few days before the said union’s press release, several outlets reported that the Israeli army received 20 Indian-made Hermes 900 drones, manufactured in Hyderabad, which were used on the besieged Gaza strip.

However, the sale of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs to Israel, a model similar to those used in the Israeli Defence Forces’ military campaign in Gaza, has not been publicly acknowledged by either Tel Aviv or New Delhi as of yet.

Requesting anonymity, a worker at Tamil Nadu’s Chennai Port spoke to The Quint and expressed a “growing animosity within port workers after they were informed that weapons transported by them to Israel are the cause behind thousands of deaths in Gaza.”

“Many big groups across India, including our government, think that by simply making some speeches about peace and ceasefire, they can continue to do business with Israel and help in the war against Palestinians. We will not stand and watch them and be expected to help Israel’s cause.”

Speaking to The Quint, Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director at the Society for Policy Studies, said, “It is interesting to see how one particular demographic, i.e. organised workers, are speaking up the same way that South Africa decided to act on Israel’s action. If there is someone keeping the flickering flames of the Palestinian cause in this very moment, it is these port workers.”

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How Viable is the Boycott? Industry Sources, Experts Answer

At this point, the action serves primarily as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate support for the Palestinians. Nagendra Rao clarified that the union's employees have not participated in any arms deliveries to Israel since the Gaza conflict started.

Commodore Uday Bhaskar told The Quint that since “India's own exports to Israel are not that significant,” the decision to boycott is “purely symbolic.”

“Israel is not dependent on India for food, oil or any essential commodities. The impact, if at all, will be symbolic because we are not the only commodity or defense supplier for Israel. However, port workers expressing solidarity with the Palestinians is significant because they have taken a stand which reflects their empathy for the Palestinian cause.”
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar

However, the logistics of such a boycott are not easy to manage.

Nagendra Rao told The Quint that since their unions only work with organised workers in 11 ports across India, it fails to bind into workers who are unorganised or those who work with the private sector.

“Some unorganised workers may be present in minor ports and major private ports like the Mundra Port, Gangavaram Port, and the Nagapattinam Port who will be more than willing to undertake this work. If the government wishes, they will always have an option to go through there.”
T Nagendra Rao

According to government sources, there may be "no impact of the move on Indian ports."

Government officials familiar with the matter told The Quint that the union workers' call is unlikely to affect port operations significantly. They noted that since most supplies are transported in containers, and the majority of containerised cargo is handled by ports operating under public-private partnerships (PPP), the impact would be minimal.

Moreover, a former high-level shipping and port workers union executive told The Quint that the logistics of the ban are “simply impossible.”

They said that due to the presence of private enterprises and workers, contract employees and stevedores, “the union’s bargaining power reduced severely.”

“Back in the 1970s, the number of organised port workers clocked in at close to 150,000 to 200,000. They had power, clout and support from everyone – from port office staff to dock workers carrying containers, customs officials to local politicians. Now, they barely have 30,000 oragnised port workers who are already unable to compete with privatisation.”
High-level shipping and port workers union executive
0

A Lesson from History 

With Japan's surrender following Victory over Japan Day, signifying the conclusion of World War II, control over the Dutch East Indies was lost, leading to Indonesia's declaration of independence. Despite this, the Netherlands refused to recognise Indonesia's independence and sought to regain control over its territories.

Indian troops were deployed to Java to suppress the uprising and support the Netherlands in reclaiming the Dutch East Indies, which predominantly corresponds to modern-day Indonesia.

When Indonesian seamen, many of whom were based in Australia, discovered Dutch ships carrying munitions, they refused to work and urged dock workers' unions to join them in solidarity with Indonesia's struggle for freedom. The majority of these seamen were of Indian descent.

Indian activists, along with their Australian counterparts, rallied on the docks in cities like Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and Fremantle, urging Indian crews to join the strike.

With the support of the Seamen's Union of Australia (SUA), the Waterside Workers Federation, and the Communist Party of Australia, the strike commenced in Brisbane and Melbourne, later spreading to Sydney and Fremantle.

Lasting for nine months initially and intermittently for four years, the boycott caused delays for 559 vessels, including 36 Dutch merchant ships, three Royal Australian Navy ships, and several British troopships.

However, that is unlikely to be the case for the boycott in question.

A diplomatic source familiar with matters at the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry expressed a similar sentiment and told The Quint, “Trade will always go on. There are no two questions about it.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Israel-Palestine 

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