Murder in Mills

Answering deprivation with violence? Maybe. Maybe not. The brutal murder of the Chief Executive Officer of the North Brook Jute Mill at Chapdani in the Hooghly district of West Bengal on June 15 was not the first of its kind. Nor will it be the last. Only a few months back an officer was murdered at Maruti Suzuki’s factory at Manesar in Haryana for farming out jobs to contractual labour. The captains of industry didn’t raise much hue and cry then. Nor did they threaten with flight of capital because the state was Haryana otherwise not traditionally identified with militant labour organising. But the case of Bengal—the eternal villain for propagating militant trade unionism—is different and the first thing the Chambers of Commerce did was to discourage investment in the state that has been witnessing a kind of de-industrialisation since the days of Nehru due to the Centre’s discriminatory policy.

Nobody supports such kind of violent labour agitation. Everybody condemns it. And representatives of labour of all hues were no less harsh in condemning the killing of CEO. Then everybody tried to pass the buck without stating the prevailing labour reality in jute mills which actually led to such gruesome murder. As for political parties they simply indulged in blame game without duelling with the plight of jute workers who have a chequered history of past with no future.

Jute continues to be the only labour intensive industry after tea and coal, in this part of the globe though it is golden fibre no more. Both workers and growers who are being forced to resort to distress sales every year, have been in dire straits for long. But the industry, the representatives of labour and the government are in no mood to rationalise jute scenario as they are more interested in running it in business as usual fashion at a time when the industry urgently needs change in basic orientation to cope with the changed context, both globally and nationally.

Workers are always aggrieved as the practice of tripartite wage settlement mechanism no longer works. It’s ad-hoc-ism all the way and labour is always asked to bear the brunt of market. For one thing workers numbering around 2 lakh 20,000 or so including contractual, vaghawalas, temporary and all other labour bashing categories, despite their struggling past are increasingly becoming docile owing to uncertainty perennially looming over the industry and vested interests in labour movement itself. The North Brook incident—or for that matter Manesar murder—cannot be treated as a general pattern. It is an exception in desperation. Labour everywhere has been defensive ever since the advent of neo-liberal onslaught.

When the British left the industry their raw jute suppliers, mainly traders from Rajasthan and Gujarat became new owners by acquiring controlling shares in managing agencies. The banias have been running the industry since then as feudal lords with no vision to develop and modernise it. In truth they declined to take central funds for modernisation apprehending central intervention in their family fiefdoms. Despite being one of the earliest organised sector industries in the east, it now looks most disorganised, notwithstanding the existence of IJMA—The Indian Jute Mills’ Association. One does rarely heard the voice of IJMA when it is the question of industrial policy framing at the centre; for all practical purposes IJMA is a divided house itself.

The industry is in such a mess that sometimes it becomes difficult to trace the original owners of the mills as leasing system is rampant which is no less responsible for the decline of the industry and aggravating the woes of workers. Short-term owners are only interested in short-term running for maximum gains, mainly through dubious means and depriving workers of their legitimate dues.

The captains, many of them are described in the media as barons, enjoyed the bonanza when construction industry in America and in the western hemisphere saw the boom. It was carpet-backing, that was literally gold to them. They enjoyed the right to fix export-pricing, somewhat arbitrarily. But that boom ended and the industry began to struggle for survival in domestic market where plastic already made its large in-roads. In reality some mill owners themselves switched over to plastic while crippling their original business and rendering a sizeable portion of workforce jobless or providing them with a few days’ job. No doubt the centre’s reluctance to introduce mandatory 100 percent packaging in food grains and sugar has its impact on the current slump but this is one side of the story.

If the industry is ailing today it is because the owners diverted huge funds from the industry to other areas of lucrative business, particularly in cement, chemicals and real estate, and that too in other states. Vacant land of almost every jute mill is now being promoted for quick money and the industry does hardly benefit from it. In short mills continue to starve of cash and workers do not get salaries.

Plight of jute workers has all the familiar rings but despite being traditionally organised in different trade unions under the sway of almost all central trade unions owning allegiance to all major political parties—Congress, CPM, CPI, Forward Bloc, BJP and now Trinamul Congress—workers have very little bargaining power, thanks to labour aristocracy and ineffective labour laws. Lockout has been endemic in this industry for decades. Now they would like to call it Suspension of Work but the effect is the same—helplessness in the coolie lines. Employers in this industry are notorious in defaulting statutory contributions mocking at the so-called social security net of workers. After retirement workers don’t get their dues and now for months they are not paid wages. The North Brook management was no angel. Reduced working hours, increased workload, non-payment of wages, trade union rivalry—all these factors precipitated the crisis at North Brook and it led to a murder otherwise condemned by all.

With two murders in recent months—one in automobile industry and another in jute industry—the corporate lobby has just renewed their campaign for a comprehensive labour legislation and introduction of new labour contract system seeking to dismantle whatever remains of social welfairsm in the existing laws. In other words more troubles are ahead.

Vol. 46, No. 52, Jul 6 - 12, 2014