Kolkata – Laid off workers fight lone battle

March 7, 2010


By Nilanjan Dutta (Source : Current News)

The Maidan around the Shahid Minar is the Hyde Park of Kolkata – an old favourite with political parties for holding rallies. But on 11 March, the gathering looked a little different. There were no banners or signs of an ‘organised’ rally. Instead were people who had come on their own, to voice their own demands. They were the workers of closed factories in and around the city. Some had come from distant industrial townships like Kalyani.

The rally was called by the Joint Action Committee of Workers of Closed Industries. As the organisers explained, the problem of closed industries is a long-standing one in West Bengal.

The workers of various such units have also held demonstrations in the city from time to time. But till now, they were doing so in a scattered manner. This time, a considerable number of them had come together to launch this joint platform, that they hoped would carry forward a struggle which the established big trade unions had abandoned long ago.

The big trade unions that had once launched many militant movements in the state were mostly affiliated to the Left parties.

And since these Left parties are in the seat of power for more than three decades now, it seems to have become a responsibility of these unions to prevent any move by workers that could embarrass the government. Even if their factories are closed for years. Even if they are starving.

Even if they are driven to suicides.

The industries from where workers had taken the initiative to form the Joint Action Committee were Bauria Cotton Mills, National Jute Mills, Sign Up Fibres, Poddar Projects, Pashupati, Kanoria Jute Mill, Perfect Steel, Papyrus Papers Limited, Himalayan Rubber, Somani Steel, Allied Chemicals, Winpower Hindustan, Bidyut Udyog and U-Chemicals, besides the Darjeeling-Tarai-Duars- Chiacoman Mazdur Union. With some more joining later, the number of units now affiliated to the forum stands at 29. Apart from the National Jute Mills, all are private sector units. These are of different sizes, some employing as many as 4,000 workers and some as few as 25.

While industrial sickness has become a chronic ailment in the economic scenario of West Bengal, there is a lack of clarity over the exact number of units and workers affected. This is because the number of unregistered units is much larger than that of the registered ones, thanks to the inefficiency and negligence of the government machinery. “According to 2009 figures, there were 440 closed units in West Bengal, employing 70,000 workers. Besides, there are 12 tea gardens. These are all registered units. Experts estimate the number of workers in closed unregistered units would be at least three times this figure, so the total comes close to 300,000,” said Kushal Debnath, a spokesperson of the Joint Action Committee. The 2003 industrial census revealed that around 26,000 units were closed, putting 500,000 workers out of job. If we consider the number of family members dependent upon them, the total figure of people affected by the closure of these industries comes to about three million! Nagarik Mancha, a citizens’ forum for labour, industry and environment, has made an analysis from another angle: “Whereas the total population of the state increased by 17.84 per cent between 1991 and 2001, the total working population increased during the same period by 34.62 per cent. But this seemingly positive trend is not really positive for the industrial scenario. This will be clear when one observes that during the same period, the workers in the primary sector increased by 12.06 per cent that is a third less than the rate of total population increase (17.84 per cent). This means a huge lot of workers lost their jobs in the organised sector. The picture will be clearer when one finds that the number of marginal workers increased from 13.34 lakh to 64.39 lakh in these 10 years, which is a whopping increase of 412.67 per cent []]marginal workers are those who get 183 days of work per annum]! In 10 fateful years the percentage of marginal workers in the state rose from a modest 1.97 per cent to 8.03 per cent of the total West Bengal population.” This analysis points not only to the problem of job-loss, but also of that of a huge section of the workforce being underemployed.

In this scenario, the initiative of the Joint Action Committee would seem really too small.

However, the demands that it has raised can show the way to a larger section of affected workers to confront the situation. These are:
* Open all closed factories and tea-gardens.
* Increase the closed industry workers’ allowance to Rs 3,000 per month.
* Remove the ceiling of 58 years for paying the allowance. Pay the allowance till the settlement of gratuity and PF.
* Make government healthcare facilities freely available to the closed factory workers and their families.
* Issue BPL cards to the workers of closed factories.

“Government statistics show that almost 98 per cent of the closures are due to incorrect policies of the management. The workers and their families cannot be forced to suffer for that. So, the government must take care of them until it can make the managements to take the corrective steps,” explained a representative of the Joint Action Committee. In 1998, the state government started paying a monthly allowance of Rs 500 under the FAWLOI (Financial Assistance to Workers of Locked Out Industries) scheme. The amount has recently been increased to Rs 1,000. It is only one-third of the present minimum wage. “The minimum wage is calculated on the basis of the least requirement of a worker.

How does the government think the worker of a closed industry can live even below this level?” asks Debnath. So, they are demanding that the allowance be raised to at least on a par with the minimum wage. In fact, this demand is not very difficult to meet since the government has allotted Rs 1,000 crore for this scheme, but in any fiscal year the total expenditure has hardly crossed half of this allocation. They are also demanding that the age bar of 58 years be removed for getting the allowance. For, according to them, a worker cannot be considered to have “retired” until one receives one’s gratuity and provident fund dues. And the way these statutory dues are handled in West Bengal is scandalous.

Only 8.7% of the total workers in the state have PF coverage. The total PF dues had tripled over the 15 years between 1989-90 and 2003-2004, from Rs 113.89 crore to Rs 348.11 crore. The Jute industry alone accounts for about 36 per cent of these dues. “Misappropriating the PF has almost become a legitimised business practice in thousands of industrial units.

In the absence of any state intervention this malpractice is assuming unmanageable proportions,” says Datta.

Healthcare is another important issue. “Because of the closure, we cannot use the ESI facilities. And medical treatment has become so expensive nowadays, that health problems have become a nightmare for us,” said a worker. Datta mentioned that the number of beneficiaries covered by the ESI (Employees State Insurance) Scheme had come down from 10.75 lakh in 1990 to 3.5 lakh in 2004. During the same period the unpaid ESI dues have shot up from Rs 35 crore to Rs 203 crore. Again, the jute industry accounted for 62% of the entire arrears. “The defaulters are not punished, but by default, the workers get punished!” he commented. As it is, the small-scale sector is not covered by the scheme and so about 3.5 million workers are not eligible for the benefits at all.

A delegation of workers from the rally went to the Writers’ Buildings and placed their charter of demands before the principal labour secretary, Tallin Kumar. “We will see whether our demands get reflected in the state labour budget on 22 March. After that, we will launch a larger movement,” Debnath asserted.


Rally of Workers of Closed Industries on 11th March

Our Demands

* Open all closed factories and tea-gardens
* Increase the closed industry workers’ allowance to 3000 rupees per month
* Remove the ceiling of 58 years for paying the allowance. The allowance has to be paid till settlement of gratuity and PF is done
* Government has to take care of the health issues of the closed factory workers and their families
* Closed factory workers have to be issued BPL cards

The problem of closed industry is a general social phenomenon in our state. Thousands of factories (and many tea-gardens) have shut down rendering a huge mass of people unemployed. The workers and their families are immensely suffering to just earn a square-meal. The government statistics show that almost 98% of the closures are due to incorrect policies of the management. The workers of these closed industries (and tea-gardens) want their work places to open at the earliest so that they can earn their livelihood through their hard labor. Till then, it is the duty of the government to provide alternatives to these workers. In 1998, the West Bengal government started payment of a monthly allowance to the workers of closed factories. The initial 500 rupees have till date only increased to a 1000.

However, this allowance is only paid till the age of 58. After that, even if the factory does not open or the worker fails to receive his legal claims to PF or gratuity money, the allowance is stopped. Because of the closure, these workers cannot use the ESI facilities, as a result of which, health care issues have become a nightmare for them. So, the workers of these closed industries demands an increase in their monthly allowance to 3000 rupees. If this allowance has to go beyond tokenism and provide for the basic living requirements for these workers, then it is obvious that considering the current inflation, 1000 rupees is too small an amount. Is this an unjust demand? Government had allotted 1000 crores for this scheme, but in no fiscal years the total expenditure has crossed 50 crores. Further, we would urge the government to get rid of the ceiling of 58 years or take care of payment of all their legal dues like PF and gratuity. Also, the government has to take care of the health issues of these workers and their immediate families. These are our basic demands that we want to make to the labor-minister and the labor-secretary.

The problem of closed industries is huge long-standing problem. Factories in well known industrial belts in this state have come to a grinding halt. Their doors are locked out. And the workers wait impatiently to get back to work and lead a life of wellness and dignity. Hence these workers and their families have decided to walk the streets of Kolkata on 11th March, 2010 and present their just demands. We wish enthusiastic cooperation from the general public in support of this just cause.

In Solidarity

Joint Action Committee of Various Closed Industries

[Bauria Cotton Sangrami Sharmik Union, National Jute Sangrami Sharmik Union, Sign Up Fibres Sangrami Sharmik Union, Poddar Projects Sangrami Sharmik Union, Pashupati Sangrami Sharmik Union, Save Kanoria Jute Mill Committee, Perfect Steel Sangrami Sharmik Union, Papyrus Papers Limited Sanjutko Sangram Committee, Himalayan Rubber Sangrami Sharmik Union, Somani Steel Sangrami Sharmik Union, Allied Chemicals Sangrami Sharmik Union, Winpower Hindustan Employees Union, Bidyut Udyog Sangrami Sharmik Union, Darjiling-Tarai-Duars-Chiacoman Mazdur Union, U-Chemical Sangrami Sharmik Union and other Organizations]

Venue – Rally will start from Gandhi Statue, Mayo Road, Kolkata
Time – 1pm

Click here to read the Bengali and Hindi version of the leaflet