Hapless victims



Printable version | Oct 30, 2014 8:19:48 AM | http://www.frontline.in/cover-story/hapless-victims/article6540777.eceCOVER STORY
Published: October 29, 2014 12:30 IST | Updated: October 28, 2014 12:00 IST

CASE STUDIES

Hapless victims


Whether it is traditional workplaces like tea gardens and jute mills or modern industries like automobiles and electronics, the first section to be hit by the vagaries of the market or the drive to increase profits is labour. And now it is threatened with “reforms” to the laws. Here, some representative cases.

Closure & uncertainty

Ilangovan Rajasekaran
THE “Make in India” call by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is touted to be the country’s future growth driver, suffered a serious jolt with the multinational Finnish mobile handset manufacturer Nokia announcing the suspension of its Indian operations.
On October 7, the Nokia management announced that its plant at Sriperumbudur on the outskirts of Chennai would “suspend its operations” with effect from November 1. It has transferred most of its production work to its facility in Vietnam. As many as 5,700 of its 8,400 employees in the plant, 3,800 of them women, had been forced to take the voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) offered by the company.
Many of the workers, the majority of them women, had no other alternative but to accept it. About 10,000 others, who are indirectly employed, have also been laid off. Today the facility has 1,100 workers, including a few apprentice operators, on its rolls. These are people who refused the VRS offer. They face an uncertain future.
Nokia issued a statement in New Delhi to the effect that Microsoft, which was supposed to take over its “manufacturing services”, had terminated its mobile purchase agreement with respect to the Chennai factory, the largest of the Finnish firm in the world. “Microsoft has informed Nokia that it will be terminating the manufacturing services defined in the agreement with effect from November 1, 2014. Hence, in the absence of further orders from Microsoft, Nokia will suspend handset production at the Sriperumbudur facility [near Chennai] from November 1,” the statement said.
In September 2013, Nokia announced that it would be selling its facility with all devices and services (D and S), including assets in India, to Microsoft for about $7.2 billion. Though the acquisition was clinched in March-April 2014, the software giant was reluctant to take over the Chennai facility, which, according to workers in Nokia, is caught in a web of multiple legal issues relating to taxes with Indian government.
These finance-related meddling and the asset freeze had discouraged Microsoft from taking over the Chennai facility, though the workers had been told that they would be absorbed into Microsoft’s rolls. To provide some relief and to make Nokia clear its enormous financial mess, Microsoft and Nokia entered into a “transitional services agreement” so that the Chennai plant would be able to sustain its operations until November 1 to clear the orders on hand.
But the situation has deteriorated and fears of retrenchment escalated when Nokia announced its “suspension of operations” from November 1. The management has, however, asked the remaining 1,100 employees to continue in the factory. “As such we are completing our orders on hand. The management has asked us to remain in jobs even after November 1, but we do not know how long we will be kept with the facility remaining idle,” said an employee who has worked for the last eight years as operator.
The firm had on its rolls trainee operators, operators, supervisors, shift managers and management employees. Many operators, trainee operators and supervisors are not even graduates but have worked in the factory for six to eight years. “We will not be able to find employment anywhere else,” one of them said. The management, the employees said, had never been overtly anti-employee.
“We were happy till six months ago. The management even rewarded us whenever the plant recorded achievements and targets. They gave us free mobiles for the success of the Asha mobile handset series and for crossing the 500 million unit mark in production,” said Lakshmanan (name changed), an operator. “Despite the deep financial crisis, we have been paid a bonus of Rs.8,400 this year,” said another worker.
The Nokia India Thozhilalargal Sangam (NITS), which has been seeking a legal remedy for their problems, calls the “suspension of operations” of the Chennai plant illegal. The general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Perambur CPI(M) MLA A. Soundararajan, who backs the workers in the struggle, said nearly 900 employees, mainly operators and trainee operators, stood to lose their jobs following the suspension of operations, though the management claimed it was still “evaluating options to minimise the impact [of suspension of operations] on existing workers”.
Union activists, however, claimed that the Chennai facility had produced about 950 million handsets, all basic but popular models, since it began its operations in March 2006. “We have been fighting for our legitimate rights for long without any support. The CPI(M) and the CITU have provided us moral and logistical support,” a union office-bearer claimed. “What the remaining workers need is a quick solution to the vexatious uncertainty. They want the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments to intervene. The factory has never stopped production. For no fault of ours, we suffer,” he said.
On October 20, at the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Labour, Irunkattukottai SIPCOT, near Chennai, where the issue came up for arbitration, Soundararajan told Frontline that he had taken up the issue with Nirmala Sitharaman, the Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry and Minister of State for Finance and Corporate Affairs.
He said he had explained the financial problems into which the multinational had landed and how it affected the labour force. “We have given all concessions. The factory should not be permitted to close down. The government could think of a viable alternative utilisation of the existing facility. We have asked the Minister to find an entrepreneur,” he said. The Minister, he added, had promised him to take up the issue with the Finance Minister.
A similar situation is unveiling in Oragadam, at the other end of Chennai. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in a memorandum to Tamil Nadu Labour Minister P. Mohan in September this year, has said that 163 ITI trainees in the factory of the Renault-Nissan Automobile India Private Limited (RNAIPL) have been terminated after three years of service.
The party says that the factory, to avoid paying higher salaries and benefits, is resorting to an anti-worker policy. It has been appointing young people as trainees—trainee-intermediate, trainee-advanced—before making them “technicians”. “Before becoming a technician, the employees will be called trainees even if they have worked for three years at the factory,” said a dismissed worker.
Many political parties, including the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the CITU have condemned the decision to close down the Nokia plant. “The takeover agreement between two MNCs on a foreign soil, to which the Indian workforce is not even remotely connected to, has doomed us. We are facing knotty labour issues. We do not know who our adversaries are—Nokia India or Microsoft or the Indian government. But unfortunately we, workers, are the victims,” said a union activist.

Contract crisis in NLC

T.S. Subramanian
OF late, the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) has been in the news often. There was a strike by its employees in July 2013 against the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to offload 5 per cent of the Centre’s equity stake in the public sector undertaking. A Central Industrial Security Force jawan shot dead a contract workman at point-blank range near the second mine on March 17, 2014. The latest was a strike by its contract workers, which was eventually resolved on October 24.
A “Navaratna” company situated in Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, the NLC mines lignite, a dark tan coloured fossil fuel, for power generation. Its three open-cast mines have a production capacity of 28.5 million tonnes and the company generates 2,490 MW from three thermal power stations there. The NLC has an 18,000-strong permanent workforce, 4,500 of whom are executives. The estimate of contract labour employed varies from 10,000 to 13,000.
More than 11,000 contract workers went on a strike from September 3, demanding that the management implement their charter of demands including regularisation of their employment; payment of Rs.25,000 a month as minimum wages until their jobs are made permanent; payment of gratuity on retirement; 20 per cent bonus; residential quarters; access to medical facilities; and service recognition.
A joint action council (JAC) of the NLC Contract Workmen’s Trade Unions, an umbrella body of 10 trade unions, led the strike and took part in the tripartite talks with the management and the Labour Department officials. These unions include contract workers’ unions affiliated to the Labour Progressive Front (LPF) of the DMK and the Anna Workers’ and Staff Union affiliated to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. These are the two recognised unions in the NLC for regular employees.
According to S. Rajavanniyan, general secretary of the NLC unit of the LPF, under the agreement reached, daily wages for workers would be Rs.480 for unskilled, Rs.500 for semi-skilled, Rs.515 for skilled and Rs.525 for highly skilled. The workers would receive gratuity, earned leave and house rent allowance. He acknowledged the efforts taken by Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner K. Kandasamy in resolving the issue. On the key demand of regularisation of contract workers’ jobs, he said the NLC management had agreed to discuss it with recognised unions.
Strike notice


The JAC had given a strike notice on August 18. The Jeeva Contract Labourers’ Union of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI), which enjoys a lot of support among the contract workers, gave a separate strike notice and took part in the talks separately.

The contract workers pointed to the Supreme Court verdict of April 16, 2013, to insist that they should be regularised en masse. The NLC management referred to the same ruling to argue that they would be regularised only on the basis of seniority and when vacancies arose. (The apex court had asked the NLC management to prepare a common seniority list of contract workmen for their absorption while striking down the NLC’s practice of inducting senior contract workmen into the Industrial Cooperative Service Society, or INDCOSERVE, before absorbing them into regular employment.)
Thirteen rounds of talks were held between the JAC and the management and the Labour Department officials. The JAC was steadfast in its demand that 1,000 contract labourers should be made permanent straightway. The management said it was prepared to make 300 workers permanent. It also offered to increase the daily wages of contract workers from Rs.370 to Rs.470, which is close to the Rs.486 a day that Coal India Limited pays its workers. It also offered them one day of earned leave for every 20 working days.
The NLC’s Chairman-cum-Managing Director, B. Surender Mohan, took part in a round of talks held in Chennai. According to an NLC management representative, Surender Mohan offered to pay Rs.470 a day to the contract workers. “But the contract workers insisted that they should be given all the benefits that are available to Coal India employees,” he said. The conditions that obtained in Coal India and the NLC, the management representative argued, could not be compared because Coal India’s turnover was much higher. Contract labourers employed by Coal India worked in underground mines, while in Neyveli they worked in open-cast mines. The tasks of several thousand contract workmen in the NLC’s thermal power stations were far less difficult than what contract workers did in Coal India, the spokesman claimed. NLC contract workers enjoyed medical facilities, too, and senior workers who fell ill were admitted to referral hospitals, he added.
LPF general secretary M. Shanmugam argued that under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, contract workmen should not be employed to do jobs of a permanent nature. “Even if they were engaged in temporary jobs, they should be paid wages and benefits on a par with that of permanent employees,” he said in a statement on September 6. “If one were to raise the question whether the management has done this, then the answer is ‘No’,” Shanmugam said. Labour laws stipulate that no licence should be given to contractors to engage contract labourers for jobs of a permanent nature. But the State government had not taken any action against the Inspectors of Factories for ignoring this regulation, the LPF general secretary alleged.
Since its inception, the NLC has resorted to mechanisation, outsourcing of labour, use of contract workers to do jobs of a permanent nature, and appointment of more and more executives, Shanmugam said. In a statement on September 3, Shanmugam said that 20 years ago, on the basis of a decision to abolish the system of contract labour, all contract workers were made members of the NLC INDCOSERVE, and of them 4,750 were made permanent employees. “However, the management has immobilised this cooperative society. So contract workmen outnumber permanent employees. Besides, some contractors [who bring in the contract labour] enjoy political influence and they are ruining the organisation,” Shanmugam alleged.
The LPF leader alleged that the ruling AIADMK had ignored their struggle. The party’s 37 Lok Sabha members had not bothered to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the strike. What was worrying was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre had taken no steps to end the strike, he said.
Informed sources said members of the JAC lacked the expertise to present the workers’ case effectively during the negotiations. They did not have enough data to back their case.
“They arrive at the talks without doing any homework. So, the management is finding it easy to handle them,” one of the sources said. The JAC’s core demand was that the contract workers should be paid Rs.25,000 a month.
On October 15, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam met the members of the JAC in Chennai. B. Abu, president of the Anna Workers and Staff Union, said Panneerselvam had promised the unions that he would take up the issue with the Coal Secretary and Surender Mohan.
In the meantime, the management wrote to the contractors and asked them to fulfil their obligations within the agreed time-frame. “They are free to bring workers from outside,” said N. Balaji, General Manager (Human Resources), NLC.
This angered the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which has a sizable presence in the Cuddalore region. In a statement on October 16, PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss attacked the NLC management’s stand that contractors were “free to bring workers from outside”. The land on which the NLC stood did not belong to it, the PMK leader pointed out. It was acquired from the residents of Neyveli and surrounding villages at basement rates on the promise that those who parted with their land would be given jobs in the NLC. “This promise was never met fully. Most of the contract workers belong to families which gave the land for the NLC’s founding. So it is unpardonable to threaten them that they will be removed and workers from other States will be brought in,” Ramadoss said. The Tamil Nadu government was duty-bound to resolve any issue that arose in the NLC. “This responsibility has become more acute after the State government bought 5 per cent of the Centre’s equity in the NLC,” the PMK founder argued.

Unrest is the norm

T.K. Rajalakshmi
DESTINED to be the Singapore of northern India, Gurgaon in the National Capital Region has grown as a leading centre for automobiles, garments, and IT and IT-enabled services in a spectacular fashion. But how the other half lived has not been a part of the growth agenda. The widely “televised protest” of the employees of Hero Honda in 2005 over parity of wages was a symptom of a growth and an industrial relations strategy gone horribly wrong. It was as if the entire country had for the first time seen workers agitating on the streets. Again, in 2006, 2009 and 2010, Hero Honda employees raised issues of regularisation. Employees of Honda Motorcycles, a Honda subsidiary, and the Scooters India plant went on the warpath on similar issues in 2009. The same year, the workers of another auto manufacturing company, Rico Auto, struck work. There were violent clashes, leading to the death of one worker. Industrial unrest is becoming a norm in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt.
Despite the growing unpopularity of the then ruling Congress, it was voted back to power, albeit with much reduced numbers, in the 2009 Assembly election. A few years down the line, another auto major, Maruti Suzuki India Limited, got caught in the vortex of an intense worker-employer conflict in July 2012. The issues ranged from the right of trade unions to get themselves registered, the right to form trade unions, and the regularisation of contractual workers. The unnatural death of a human resource person, which remains an unsolved mystery, led to massive police action and arrests. At present, 147 workers, many of them in their mid-twenties, with charges of conspiracy and murder against them, have been languishing in the Bhondsi jail for over two years. The services of nearly 2,500 workers, including 546 permanent employees, were terminated. None of the arrested got bail. “Their families have got ruined. Our appeal for a CBI inquiry was not heeded,” said Satbir Singh, state secretary of the CITU.
There were around eight lakh workers employed in the garment, automobile, IT and ancillary units in Gurgaon. Much of the workforce was migrant labour, some of them from southern States such as Andhra Pradesh. The majority of the units discouraged the formation of unions. “As soon as 11 workers would go to the Labour Commissioner’s office with an application to form a union, the management would get to know and terminate them,” said a trade union leader. The Congress party, he said, never implemented the law; and the present government was trying to do away with it entirely. Under the garb of “company training”, ITI graduates are kept as apprentices for as long as three years. “How can one be called unskilled and kept in that category after getting a training from one of the ITIs?” asked Satbir. He said that even the Contract Labour Act afforded some protection to the workers. If a unit employs up to 20 workers on contract, the employer needs a registration certificate, a licence to operate the industry and is in effect the principal employer. But the threshold limit for units that will be exempted from the Act is being raised to 50 workers.
Though the existing labour laws are far from perfect, they afford some protection and accountability. “The labour laws, including laws like the Trade Union Act, were framed with much of a worker struggle. To do away with labour laws under the guise of labour reforms won’t be acceptable,” he said. The union leader said far more people could be employed if the government clamped down on those factories and units where workers were being made to work in 12-hour shifts. “If they implement the eight-hour shift, lakhs of workers can get employment,” he said. In the spinning and handloom units in Panipat district, once known as the Manchester of north India, workers were forced to work overtime, including on Sundays, he said.
Satbir Singh told Frontline that labour laws were not being implemented at all under the present system of inspection. “Working in 12-hour shifts is the norm. Workers are hardly registered as workers. In the garment industry, there is huge exploitation of women workers. There is no inspection here at all,” he said. As a lot of garment work was being outsourced as home-based, piece-rate work, the liability of the principal employer was negligible, he pointed out. Neither is he or she liable to have a workplace with attendant facilities. Unions are aware that the reserve army of labour effectively negates much of the effort put in by the unions. “The truth is, if 1,000 trained workers are made to leave today, there will be a 1,000 more trained youngsters willing to work even at less. Such is the desperation to find work,” he said.

Contract capital

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta
FOR Ram Avatar (name changed), the memory of indiscriminate firing last year at a construction site in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, is still vivid. Early morning on April 27, 2013, workers as usual lined up to enter the premises of a residential complex under construction. Some of them had not been paid for six months and decided to launch a protest against the contractor. “Within no time, after a verbal duel with the contractor, the security guards of the builder started firing, severely injuring two of our co-workers,” recalls Ram.
“The incident shocked us. There was police action against the security guards but no one dared to raise his voice after that day,” Ram says. Around 5,000 people work at such construction sites in Noida. And most of them get paid very irregularly. “The builder does not take any responsibility of timely payments to the workers and leaves everything to the labour contractor, who himself is outsourced. Every day, there is a stampede-like situation in the morning. So many workers have to report to work exactly at 6 a.m. Even if there is a five-minute delay, the day counts as a half-day. The guards abuse us every day. The work conditions are abysmal. We build houses for rich people and we get next to nothing,” says Ram.
Noida and Greater Noida are hubs of industrial and real estate development in Uttar Pradesh. Almost 26 per cent of the total revenue of the State is collected from these two regions. Factories producing automobiles, garments, little semiconductors and many others fill the industrial landscape of the region. Government support to infrastructure development in the region has also made this region a bustling residential township for the aspirational middle class.
At present, the area is dotted with incomplete buildings with scores of workers living in shanties. Similarly, in the industrial area permanent workers have been long retrenched and private contractors have been given the responsibility to source cheap labour.
“All forms of labour violations happen in this belt. These are skilled and semi-skilled workers. All of them work for not less than 12 hours a day. But they do not get minimum wages or overtime payments. Despite the fact that they work in risky and abysmal conditions, none of them gets any health benefits, which is mandatory. Many families of workers have been rendered completely impoverished because of delayed payments. As a result, we have seen many incidents of labour unrest in the last two years,” says Aslam of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).
The last time workers struck work on a large scale was on February 20-21, 2012. The very next day, more than 200 workers were arrested under various sections of the law. Workers allege that some of them were randomly arrested.
“There were so many arrested, some of them did not even participate in the strike,” says Ram. The Noida police filed first information reports (FIRs) against 120 workers. It took almost 10 months for various trade unions to bail them out. For these 10 months, the families of these workers did not get a penny. “Many families were destroyed in those 10 months. No wages or compensation for them,” says Aslam.
To add insult to injury, Mahesh Sharma, the then legislator and now the Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Noida, argued in the State Assembly that the factories suffered huge losses because of the strike and that they should be compensated adequately. Consequently, the government paid them huge sums to restore investor confidence in the area.
Some trade unions have tried to organise the workers in the region. However, the contractors have come down heavily on unionised workers, preventing many from raising their voices.
Facing such indifference at their plight, workers have sometimes resorted to violence. The past two years have seen many clashes between factory managers and agitating workers. Two incidents of industrial violence took an ugly turn. A managing director of Graziano Trasmissioni in Greater Noida was hammered to death by dismissed workers in 2008 and a human resources professional of the Indo-Japanese company Allied Nippon was beaten to death.
The government’s new labour reforms, which make forming a trade union even more difficult, may lead to further problems as trade unions represent the only organised voice of workers. They not only articulate the problems of workers but also prevent them from resorting to impulsive violence. With the government only concerned about attracting investment, and in the process giving so much liberty to industry owners who have scant respect for workers’ rights, the situation in the future can only be grimmer.

Realty of pharma

Lyla Bavadam
ON August 1, the multinational drug firm Pfizer issued a lockout notice at its Thane plant. The notice said the step was necessary for the safety of its employees. It said: “Pfizer has been forced to issue a lockout notice at its Thane manufacturing plant to ensure the safety of our colleagues.”
It went on to explain that there had been cases of indiscipline and threats to managers by certain workers as well as attempts to disrupt production. In a filing to the Bombay Stock Exchange, the company blamed these incidents on some workers: “It has become impossible for the management to continue with the operations of the plant in a peaceful and productive manner.” It said it would not be able to restart operations until it had assurances that safety of employees would not be compromised.
In legal terms, a lockout notice gives both sides two weeks to resolve the issues between them. In this case, matters remained unresolved, with the issue at the Labour Commissioner’s doorstep, as some workers held out against a total shutdown at the plant which employs 212 workers. The company has initiated a voluntary retirement scheme for workmen at the plant, and while it has been accepted by many, there is a section that has not taken it up. Workers have denied the charges of indiscipline and even said that the exact reason for the lockout notice was unclear. They said they had been in talks with the management for over six years regarding a raise in salaries and, more recently, medical coverage. Pfizer said the charter of demands was an altogether different issue and not related to the lockout notice.
What is clear is that this plant of Pfizer’s is the last one directly under company control. The one in Goa is under Wyeth, a pharma multinational which is in the process of being merged with Pfizer. About a decade ago, Pfizer had said that its global strategy was to have one plant in every country.
Workers fear that the plan may be to sell the plot to a real estate company. This is not an uncommon strategy with large companies. In 2007, Pfizer sold its property in Chandigarh to CSJ Infrastructure for Rs.278 crore. In 2004, GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals sold its Mumbai plot at Worli for Rs.107 crore to I-Ven Realty Ltd, a joint venture between ICICI Venture Funds Management Company Ltd and Oberoi Constructions. In 2012, Bayer CropScience sold its Thane land for Rs.1,250 crore to the Kalpataru group.

Death and starvation

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
RECENTLY, a special lot of organic tea from the Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal sold for Rs1.11 lakh in the international market. While it is undoubtedly a moment of pride for the tea industry to be able to produce something of such quality, it is also a matter of shame that the tea plantation workers of the Darjeeling hills earn a daily wage of Rs.90. Those working in the tea gardens of the Terai and the Dooars in the foothills earn Rs.95 a day. Until 2011, a tea garden worker’s wage was Rs.67 a day.
It can be argued that the cash component in the tea gardens of north Bengal, which are governed by the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) of 1951, is but a part of the cost of employment of labour. The Act enjoins the tea estate management to provide a worker and his family with housing, medical facilities, primary education, potable water supply, sanitation and conservancy, and amenities like concessional foodgrains, firewood, footwear and umbrellas.
Idyllic though it may sound, reality presents a totally different picture. Sources in the industry have conceded that there is an overall vulnerability in the tea industry of West Bengal, and major lapses on the part of tea estates in providing the amenities as ordained by the Act are common. “Even the well-managed gardens whose tea fetches prices above the auction average continue to face pressure on costs,” Monojit Dasgupta, secretary general of the Indian Tea Association (ITA), told Frontline.
The worst-affected tea estates are those in the Terai and the Dooars, in the foothills of Darjeeling. Of the 309 tea gardens in West Bengal, 222 are in the Terai and the Dooars, and of them, 60 per cent are in the red. According to sources in the industry, most of the gardens in the region are unable to extend anything beyond the wages of the workers. With five gardens closed down for a prolonged period and many others facing an uncertain future, prospects look bleak for the tea workers of the region. Of the total 2,64,976 tea workers in the State, 2,10,774 are in the Terai and the Dooars.
Starvation and death stalk these closed and sick gardens, with workers and their family members dying of malnourishment and lack of medical facilities. “The wages of the workers are so low that there is no scope for saving. As long as the tea garden remains functional, they can somehow survive; the moment it closes down, they face starvation,” observed Kiran Kalindi, president of the Progressive Plantation Workers’ Union based in Nagrakata in Jalpaiguri district.
The State woke up to the plight of those in the sick tea gardens in June and July this year when a number of “starvation” deaths were reported in the closed Raipur and Red Bank tea estates. Though the State government denied that starvation was the cause of the deaths, the emaciated bodies of the deceased pointed to severe malnourishment and lack of medical care.
According to Debjit Dutta, the spokesperson of the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF), a conglomerate of unions in the tea belt, such deaths are not a new phenomenon in the tea gardens. “In December 2013, we visited the Bandapani Tea Estate in Alipurduar, which had closed in July the same year. In the span of a little more than five months, eight workers aged between 18 and 50 had died evidently because of malnutrition,” Dutta told Frontline. He pointed out that between October 2011 and November 2012, 20 people, including three infants, had died at the Dheklapara tea garden in Jalpaiguri district.
For medical treatment and other necessities, the workers are selling personal belongings and livestock. Unlike in other industries, the workers in tea gardens have little scope for alternative employment. For generations they have been living in the same estate, and apart from governmental schemes of food for work, they have no option other than migrating to other places. “Migration of tea workers has already started. To survive, even children and teenagers are leaving the gardens to work in other States like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh,” said Kalindi.
Though the State government has of late been seen to take measures to ameliorate the condition of the workers in the closed tea gardens, industry sources claim that traditionally the State government has never been proactive in ensuring proper wages for workers. “The governments have always presided over the meetings between the management and labour, and allowed whatever decision was arrived at without much intervention,” said an industry source. At present such a tripartite negotiation for a fresh three-year agreement on wages for tea garden workers is on.

Jute in decline

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
JUTE, the Golden Fibre, once the pride of Bengal, is now one of the main symbols of its industrial decline. Many industry insiders feel that the death knell for the jute industry has already been sounded and it is a matter of time before the gradual and inexorable descent reaches its inevitable conclusion. A dark and dismal future stares at the 2.5 lakh workers in the 67 jute mills and the 40 lakh jute farmers of West Bengal.
For many years now, the State’s jute workers have been fighting a losing battle to get even the most basic of their rightful dues. Living constantly under the threat of closure of factories or suspension of work, many of the workers have had to make do with wages at far reduced rates. They have gone without any hope for provident fund, gratuity, Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) and dearness allowance.
The industry’s downturn has already resulted in around 40,000 jute mill workers losing their source of income in just three years and the number of permanent employees in the industry dwindling to around 20 per cent from 90 per cent in about 10 years. “By 2016, there will be no permanent employees in the industry,” a source in the Bengal Chatkal Majdoor Union told Frontline.
With the working hours and days being drastically reduced, the earnings and scope for livelihood of the workers have also decreasedpari passu. According to the veteran trade union leader Pramathes Sen, the worst affected have been the 70,000-odd casual labourers who have found themselves increasingly shunted out of the industry. “The workmen in the rolls are hardly getting paid, let alone the casual workers. The entire burden of the industry has fallen on the workers rather than on the owners of the mills,” said Sen. According to the unions, the wage structure in the industry has been demolished, and the wage agreements settled upon in 2002 and 2010 were never fully honoured by the mill owners. Union sources maintain that wages are paid on a completely ad hoc basis for the same work. A worker entitled to Rs.420 a day may get anything between Rs.180 and Rs.330.
The unions themselves are on the horns of a dilemma. “With the management having the power to shut down a mill, it is difficult for us to even fight for our rights. Our priority now is to save the industry and its workers,” said a union leader at a jute mill. In the last two years there have been numerous instances of mills shutting down for prolonged periods, resulting in a perpetual state of panic among the workforce.
The deep-seated resentment and insecurity of the workers often find expression in violent outbursts against the management. In fact, workers’ agitation and strikes are an integral part of the jute industry’s history in post-Independence Bengal. Lynching and murder of management staff are also not unknown in the mills. The latest killing took place in May this year when the chief executive of the North Brook Jute Mill was lynched to death by workers over rumours of work suspension. Seven such murders have taken place in various jute mills in the State since 2001.
There is no simple explanation for the plight of the jute industry and its workers. While the workforce may have a legitimate grievance for being deprived of what is rightfully theirs, the management would point at the arm-twisting methods of the unions for the decline of the industry. Though both may be right in their own way, the real reason possibly lies in the nature of the jute industry itself. In the competitive market for packaging materials, jute has been losing its primacy over the years to other less expensive substitutes and has been heavily dependent on government orders. (The Jute Packaging Material Act, 1987, made it compulsory for government agencies to use jute for packaging.) Around 66 per cent of the total jute goods manufactured is procured directly by various state agencies like the Food Corporation of India. The decline in government orders has been acutely felt by the industry, particularly in West Bengal, which accounts for 85 per cent of the jute produced in the country.
“Our production capacity is over 17 lakh tonnes a year, but the demand has been 12 lakh tonnes for the last few years. Even two years ago, jute packaging for the sugar industry was more than 100 per cent; now it is 20 per cent. We have lost a market of 2.5 lakh tonnes in the sugar industry alone,” Sanjay Kajaria, former chairman of the Indian Jute Mills Association and owner of several large jute mills in the State, told Frontline.
According to him, indifference on the part of the government has been instrumental in the industry’s downfall. “There is not a single jute mill that is in good shape financially in the State. The matter needs to be addressed politically rather than industrially,” said Kajaria.