The Striking Workers at Lumtex Mill, West Bengal

June 28, 2011

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By Sharmistha Choudhury, Uttaran. Translated by Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati

Sanhati has followed the struggle of workers at Lumtex Engineering Pvt.Ltd., West Bengal, and translated a number of articles emanating from the ground. For example, this article, from 2009, gives a background to the struggle: “Lumtex continues to be a jute mill where 2,300 workers are well past the age of retirement. The management has not cleared their gratuity dues for the last 10-15 years and forces old, feeble, ailing workers to work at a measly rate of Rs. 100 per day. Loomtex is also a mill where the Provident Funds accounts of the workers have not been audited since 1997. Sangrami Mazdoor Union, newly formed by workers, has been agitating for clearance of the due provident fund and gratuity of since January 2008.”

The present article was published in Uttaran, and gives an update, current as of February 2011, of the struggle. Click here for the original Bengali version [PDF] »

Name: Shamsundar Shau, aka Lali.

Who is he: the popular leader of the workers of the Loomtex Jute Mill; the editor of the newspaper of the worker’s union, the union which is resisting in Loomtex.

His crime: the raising of the demand for the gratuity funds of thousands of retired labourers, the raising of the P.F of the working labourers.

His punishment: Almost 3 years of gate expulsion in the last 5 yrs, having almost 5 criminal cases pending against him in the last 5 years. Cases of dacoity, murder, attempted murder, etc.

Under the Left Front govt., this is the punishment that is given not for being a Maoist but for being part of a trade union movement! And as the main targets of the movement were not CPI(M) wokers, but factory owners, the “parivartan” brigade are also silent. Well, that is not strictly true; they have spoken out for the management. Both the CPM and the Trinamool have said that whatever the protest does, they should not harm the management. If they do so, they would have to pay for it.

The employees of Sarada Mill are not accustomed to receive either a part or all of the gratuity funds due to them. For ever so long, the life of the workers would be to sign a small piece of paper after retirement stating that they have received their P.F. Money, when in reality they would have received only a small part of it. They would not see any of the gratuity money, and would have to return to work for a fraction of the original wages. By returning to work in a weak physical state after retirement, many workers would die. While waiting for the gratuity money of the deceased husband, the wife would die, but not a single paise would ever appear.

Under these circumstances, from 2007, a new set of young fighting workers started the PF gratuity movement. Right from the beginning, the protest movement was headed by Shamsundar Shau or Lali. Specially among elderly workers, Lali’s popularity was astronomical. Afraid of the repercussions, the management called Lali for a meeting and tried to bribe him. Lali took the management’s proposal, made a copy and stuck it to the gate. This was the first time the management gave the “gate expulsion” order to Lali. And along with that they slapped a police case of dacoity against him. Lali had to go to jail.

The subsequent events are now history. The workers were successful in getting the management to withdraw the case against Lali. They built the Sangrami Workers union. The management felt cornered by the relentless struggle of the union. They repeatedly tried to break the back of the union by sending goons to union meetings. Falsely implicating the leaders in murder cases, sending them to prison under false charges. But even then, they were not able to succeed. The workers fought the mill management at every step, and became even more unified. They managed to obtain freedom of all the imprisoned workers. They re-opened the mill and went into a more aggressive agitation.

By 2010, the owners were forced to accede to several of the demands. To achieve these gains, the leader of the movements had to suffer “gate expulsions”, and needed to make other sacrifices. But their fearless, relentless struggle finally gave them victory. The owners declared that by 2010 they would pay the gratuity funds of 780 retired workers by 2010, and would provide the complete accounts of the Provident Funds of all the the workers, and would pay the money due for three years of vacation leave days. In jute mill agitations, this is quite a landmark event. What established unions like CITU and INTUC had not been able to achieve in over 20 years, was achieved by the Loomtex workers after three years of tumultuous agitation!

But even as the victory celebrations were in progress, the Sangrami union kept on cautioning the workers that they should not rely on the word of the management as they would try to cheat the workers at every step. And that is what happened in reality. The owners suddenly stopped distributing funds after providing gratuity fund money to 300 workers (still a record compared to other jute mills)! The owners also refused to honour the agreement that they had made with the central unions in increasing the salaries of the zeroth level workers. But none of the unions – neither CITU nor the reformists started any agitation against this breach of promise. On the other hand, they started to tell the workers that the employers are no longer gold mines and will not able to able to fulfill the needs of the workers. So the ball was once again in the court of the fighting workers union.

The union gave calls for a production slowdown – specially those retired workers who had been forced to work in the mill because they had not received their gratuity funds, were advised by the workers union to produce only what they would be able to, and not as much was the employers wanted them to. The agitation spread across the entire mill. At first, the management tried to forcibly remove from work those who were producing less. But the fighting union intervened and the owners were not successful in their efforts.

After the movement went on for a year, the profits of the local owners was significantly impacted. Now the management unleashed a lethal weapon. They executed the “gate expulsion” order on seven of the main leaders of the union. In addition, realising that such orders would not be sufficient to break the will of the workers, they filed false charges of attempted murder and other charges under the Arms Act on those leaders. As both of these are non-bailable warrants, the seven had no recourse but to go underground and become fugitives in order to avoid getting arrested. This meant that they were no longer in a position to lead the movement. The management felt that this would be enough to break the back of the resistance. But this incident only made them rise up in renewed rage. The agitation intensified. The owners were forced to sit down for talks again. In this meeting with all the unions, the owner Govind Sharma and the management agreed that it was because of the “crime” of agitating’ that these seven (and later on two more) had false charges slapped on them.

It could have been that the 7th February 2011 meeting would have resulted in withdrawal of the charges against the nine accused, and their reinstatement. But the problem now occurred due to the conciliatory nature of the other unions. By alleging that the Sangrami Union members were trying to “harm” the management by agitating against them, the Sangrami Union was once again put on the dock. And this notion was supported by the CITU and the “reformers” – an attack not only on the Sangrami Union, but on the whole protesting mass of workers. As a result, the management had room to maneouver. The other unions felt that by cozying up to the management, they might be able to get a few small victories, and touting them, would be able to draw back most of the workers into their own fold.

In reality, it was seen that by taking advantage of this quarrel between the unions, the management refused to accede to even the smallest of the workers demands. And despite the threat of massive workers agitations, the unions were forced to go back on their demand of lifting of the “gate expulsion” notices on the concerned workers.

At the end it was decided that the Sangarami union along with all the other unions would come up with a joint charter of demands – at the forefront of which will be demands that the false cases against the workers at Loomtex be withdrawn. There would be further negotiations with the mill owners based on this list of demands. The owners have agreed to this. What will be the result of this meeting will become clear in the next edition of the magazine Uttoron, but it is certain that if owners of Loomtex mill do not agree to the hopes and desires of the workers, then the agitation by the workers will become even more forceful and militant.

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