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Hooghly: Lakhs of jute mill workers who are dealing with an uncertain future are representative of the struggle of the largest jute producing state in India, West Bengal. The state accounts for over 80 percent of the jute production in the country and employs one-fourth of its population in jute mills.
Quaint and densely populated, Hooghly has the maximum concentration of jute mills and is known as the jute belt of West Bengal. The district houses the 150-year-old Wellington jute mill, Hastings, Angus and Victoria jute mills, which used to export jute to foreign markets. Wellington was the first jute mill set up in 1856 in Hooghly district and many others followed suit, paving the way for the jute revolution. Prior to partition, Bengal produced half of the world’s jute. However, in 1947, when the partition of Bengal occurred, it hit the region’s economy hard, in particular, the hugely profitable jute industry. Suddenly, the raw jute growers in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and manufacturers in West Bengal found themselves in two countries.
British jute businesses exited India and the jute mills were soon taken over by Indian traders, motivated to earn short-term profits. Signs of rot in the industry started showing up in the 70s and today, the jute industry lies in shambles. The slow economic decline of West Bengal is being blamed for the closure of industrial units and the loss of employment for many. It became a hot button issue just ahead of the general elections among political parties in the state, with the indefinite strike declared by unions in March. The Opposition, comprising mainly the CPM and BJP, have raised the issue of the plight of unemployed jute mill workers and their families in Hooghly.
This industry provides a livelihood to more than 3 lakh mill workers and more than 4 million families. However, low and irregular wages, alleged exploitation of workers, and a host of other problems have led to mills shutting down in the state. Sambhav Pandey, 57, who is among the 5,000 workers of Wellington Jute Mill, says he is staring at an uncertain future. “We are living on the edge and do not know when we would be asked to quit. A skilled worker like me is not getting fixed pay, which we have been demanding since decades. What worries me the most is that I may end up losing my job. If that happens, I along with my family members will be out on the streets, begging for survival,” says Pandey.
Even jute mill owners are not faring well, and many have shut down or are struggling to pay their workers. In its heyday, the jute industry had drawn thousands of workers from Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to West Bengal, but many have since returned. Hundreds of local labourers have either opted for menial work or migrated to other states in search of work. Hemanta Sahu, 52, a mill worker at a now-closed India Jute Mill, says, “When we asked for our wage, the management said it does not have funds to pay us. India Jute Mill employed 2,000 workers but has been closed for 11 months. I am from Odisha but made Hooghly my home decades ago on joining the mill. Now, I am forced to work as a rickshaw-puller and am barely able to meet my expenses.”
The jute industry is also facing a challenge from alternative materials/fabrics available in the market. Low awareness among consumers of the versatility and eco-friendly nature of the jute fabric have also been a stumbling block in making it popular. Another major issue is the availability of good quality raw jute. “Owners get cheap and poor quality raw jute from Haryana, Bihar and sometimes, even illegally from Nepal and Bangladesh, to save money. Such jute products would not find takers,” says Sahu.
His fellow worker, Chetan Yadav, 54, a native of Bihar, shares that choosing another alternative source of income would prove difficult for seasoned workers like him. “I have been working at a jute mill for more than 20 years. I can’t imagine doing anything else, so I continue to travel to Howrah to work in a jute mill, which is on the verge of closure. Local MPs and MLAs only offer lip service and visit us during elections. After elections, they forget about us,” says Yadav.
The jute industry's decline began in the late seventies, when the Left came to power in West Bengal. Experts blame lack of modernisation and the industry’s failure to evolve with changing demands as key reasons for its downfall. Post-demonetisation, about eight jute mills closed down, but a few re-opened after a few days. The Shree Hanuman Jute Mill in Howrah clearly called out demonetisation as a reason for the delay in payment of wages in their closure notice.
The industry is staring at another agitation once the general elections conclude. Former labour minister and CITU leader, Anadi Sahu, who led several state-wide agitations for workers’ demands, says eight out of 55 jute mills have shut down over the past few years and rendered thousands of workers unemployed, but the central and state governments have not done much for the workers.
However, the state government has attempted to help the jute industry through certain measures. In January, the state's food and supplies department instructed the Jute Corporation of India to buy seven crore jute bags from jute farmers. In addition, jute bags have been made compulsory to buy rice from farmers.
These measures are not enough to address the looming crisis the industry faces. Post elections, the jute industry will have to brace itself for a state-wide, trade union strike. According to Sahu, the Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union, which he leads and other Left-backed trade unions, are planning to organise a state-wide strike after the general elections to protest against the government’s apathy. All trade unions except the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress have agreed to join the strike.
Sahu states, “The government is killing an industry from which it earns 1,000 crore. In West Bengal, at least 5 lakh people, including skilled labourers, unskilled labourers, jute producers and their dependants are living in abject poverty.” Since 2011, no major wage revision had been undertaken in the jute industry. In a tripartite meeting organised by the state government, mill owners and trade unions on 17 January, 2019, a decision was taken to give an interim relief of INR 70, raising the workers' wages to INR 327 per day till the most recent wage agreement in March.
Around 21 trade unions had called for an indefinite strike on 15 March, 2019 to demand for wage revision and implementation of the Minimum Wages Act, among others. Anticipating the strike-related problems, the state government signed a wage agreement on 14 March, 2019 with the jute industry. As per the agreement, new workers would get paid a maximum of INR 385 per day, up from the existing INR 257.
Not everyone was appeased by the terms of the agreement. "The pay of workers has increased only by INR 2 in four years. An unskilled worker earns around INR 550-600 per day, but a skilled worker in a jute mill gets paid only INR 250-300 a day! There is disparity in pay, gross violation of labour laws, delays in paying PF and gratuity and other forms of exploitation by the managements of these mills," says Sahu. Six Left Front-supported trade unions have not signed the agreement. However, the agreement put an end to the call for an indefinite strike in the state.
Sources in the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) have stated that resistance from trade unions in signing the agreement would likely impact the future functioning of the mills. IJMA has in the past cited rising costs, cheap Bangladeshi imports and the onslaught of the plastic industry in packaging as causes for inability to pay more to mill workers.
Once the general elections in Hooghly conclude on 6 May, Sahu and select trade unions stay determined to conduct a strike in support of jute mill workers. It remains to be seen how the ailing, jute industry that is grappling with rising stocks, diminishing orders and closures will handle the onslaught of another state-wide, labour strike.
(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)