Plight Of Jute Workers

‘Golden Fibre’ No More

Nityananda Ghosh

The crisis of jute industry, the only labour-intensive area after tea, in West Bengal has been aggravated amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. As many as 18 mills were locked out prior to swearing-in of the Trinamool Congress government in mid-May this year when the second wave of the corona pandemic was knocking at every door. Over 50000 jute mill workers are now jobless. The environment-friendly industry is limping as both the State Government and the Government of India have no headache in marketing the jute products, both here and abroad. They don’t explore the export market. Nor do they modernise the industry as they are worried more about losing monopoly control over the business. The plastic lobby calls the shots. Essential commodities like potato, salt and fertilisers as also cement and other commodities are packed mostly in plastic bags and not in gunny bags as was the case in yesteryears.

The lock-out notices (in the form of suspension-of-works) are frequently pasted at the factory-gates,without statutory prior intimation to the state labour commissioner, let alone prior approval (a provision introduced by the state labour minister, the late Dr Gopaldas Nag during the Congress rule of 1972-77). Mill-owners, mainly lease-holders and contractors, can no more be described as ‘jute barons’ while the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) argues–rather makes a plea—that there is shortage of workers (due to Covid 19 pandemic) apart from shortage of raw jute, leading to shutting down of mills’ operations. They talk of ‘labour unrest’ also though labour militancy is an unheard thing in this sector. Trade Union leaders are busy to maintain status quo, not developing movement. They express concern about the challenge from Bangladesh which offers gunny bags at cheaper rates. Jute mill owners of West Bengal appealed to the Union government to restrict import of gunny bags from Bangladesh or neighbouring countries such as Nepal. But the government is not listening. So say the mill representatives.

Bangladesh government encourages jute export through subsidies/incentives. And the Government of India is reluctant to save this age-old industry which was once jewel in the British crown.

The central trade union leaders, associated with jute industry, timely called on the new West Bengal labour minister Becharam Manna, formerly a jute mill worker himself, in the second week of July to press for initiatives to reopen 18 mills that became dysfunctional due to lockout. The move yielded. The minister assured government’s efforts to reopen the mills. By July-end 13 of those mills were reopened but nobody knows how long they will remain functioning.

When all the manufacturing industries are in a state of serious crisis, jute mills cannot be an exception. But the canard that it is a ‘sunset industry’ is afloat. The fact remains that its health can be restored because the environment-friendly jute products are likely to be bullish in demand because Green Movement is not dead yet in the West. But mill owners are mostly feudal in outlook, having very little interest to improve the industry in its totality. Jute mills need some encouragement for innovative marketing and diversifying in production line through subsidies which would jack up sales of jute products which in turn will generate additional revenues, mainly to the union government. The Centre withdrew existing incentives in 2017 and the owners began to see red in declining profit margin while refusing to invest anything from their pockets for the development of the industry. They don’t understand anything but profit, rather super profit at the cost of industry and its workers.
The Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) accuses the present National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, of encouraging import of gunny bags from Bangladesh by lifting duties. What is more some of these bags are in reality re-exported to India via Nepal, to avoid taxing net.

Nagarik Mancha, a non-funded NGO devoted to protect rights and interests of workers hit by industrial sickness and frequent lock-outs, has been fighting for jute workers’ legitimate rights for over three decades. In 1995, based on a survey of jute industry, Mancha brought out a booklet in Bengali, ‘Hochchheta Ki’ (What’s Happening?) stating that out of 93 jute mills in India 59 were in West Bengal and four were Sterling Companies, incorporated in the UK. The survey of 59 mills showed 32 were under owners, 21 under lease or sub-lease and the rest under the state and central governments. The National Jute Manufactures Corporation Ltd is a central government undertaking, managing some sick mills only to make them redundant. Some of their mill compounds are dotted with skyscrapers for the rich. Mill owners themselves have become promoters in some cases to reap quick buck.

In 1941, there were 101 mills, employing 2.86 lakh workers. In 1995, the number of workers shrinked to 2.02 lakh. At present, hardly 10 per cent of workers are permanent. Mills are run by mostly contract labour, bhagawala, badli and temporary workers. During the CPI(M)-led Left Front regime, a new category workers was created-‘zero number’ workers who are not recorded as workers. Bhagawala or time-sharing (three hours, five hours and the like a day, when engaged in work) and ‘zero number’ workers have to put in extremely hard labour but are denied officially recognised wages and trade union rights. They are paid arbitrarily anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 200 a day while the statutory minimum daily wage is Rs 523 without dearness allowance.

Established TU leaders have been very much aware of all this but do little to build up movements to prevent unethical and illegal acts of jute mill owners who are basically traders—banias. For the last three decades, TU struggle for alleviating workers’ plight has been missing. The tradition of black money generation in jute industry is phenomenal. If anything, Jute Industry is a major source of black money. In truth it is raw jute otherwise known as ‘golden fibre’, actually produces black money in millions. Mechanism is simple. The management just tampers with quality of jute i.e. grade and mint black money. TU leaders know it but never raise their voice against corrupt practices. Many of them are said to be getting share of the booty.

Today, with majority of mills under lease and sub-lease, there is no big funding for technological up-gradation and expansion. TU leaders owing allegiance to the ruling party are more interested in serving the interests of owners than that of the workers who are in a hopeless situation. The employers always try to hire cheap labour and deduct money from workers’ wages illegally, under one pretext or another, a la feudal culture. Also, the stories of workers not getting their legitimate dues—gratuity, PF etc—after retirement abound in all jute mill ghettos.

Strangely enough, in most of the mills, nobody knows who are the real owners. Of 100 workers, on an average, less than 20 benefit from tripartite agreements that enhance wages and fringe benefits periodically, albeit employers violate their own agreements all the time. The irregular workers—bhagawalas, badli and their like—are left out and deprived of enhanced pay receipts. They have no TU rights. They can be fired anytime without showing any valid reason. Entry of Chinese looms in mills has increased workloads abnormally. There are reports of sweepers or cleaners handling looms to maximise production. In other words, the owners compromise with quality and skill to minimise production cost. The previous chain system for finished jute goods has been done away with. Now a days a jute worker has to do work of all departments. Imposition of excessive workload is evident from the fact that 16/17 workers are to produce one tone of jute goods daily. The immiserised workers are alienated more and more under capitalism. And it is nowhere so glaring as in the jute industry. "The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever-cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates". That is Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

For one thing the civil society does not stand by the oppressed jute mill workers. Rabindranath Tagore once supported jute workers’ strike. Nobody expects those days will return as solidarity is a dirty word in some section of the population. Then jute growers do not get remunerative prices, they incur loss year after year. As the owners and raw jute traders play the tricks, jute cultivators are being forced to resort to distress sales every year, though jute goods market shows upswing at the moment. They call it a sunset industry despite the possibility of transforming the entire jute spectrum radically from field to factory.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021