West Bengal – On the spontaneous strike by workers in factories of Falta SEZ

September 29, 2012

Source – ShramikShakti, June 2012 (Translated by Siddhartha Mitra)

“I have been working here since the beginning of the Falta SEZ. Sometimes, one or two factories had sporadic strikes. But the coming together for a strike- this is the first time I have seen this. Workers are coming out in groups, and are agitating, are part of the struggle. All workers from all factories in SEZ #1 and #2 are participating today – all factories are closed.” So said a veteran worker of the Falta SEZ.

On 12th May, all the workers of the Falta SEZ #1 and #2 went on a spontaneous strike. Why this sudden strike? What made the workers of different factories come together? What were their demands? To search for answers, we spoke with the striking workers of the Falta SEZ.

We came to know that workers of the plastic waste-recycling factory led the agitation. Exploitation of workers by factory owners is most extreme in these factories. Owners do not obey any rules or regulations. Managers are constantly threatening workers and abusing them both verbally and physically. Plastic waste from different foreign countries comes to the different factories in Falta SEZ for recycling. This plastic waste consists of dirty and poisonous waste from foreign hospitals. These are sorted and recycled in the SEZ factories. The workers are primarily female. No one knows how many of the workers, who have little or no protection at work, have been infected by viruses and other germs from handling toxic plastic waste from the hospitals. They get Rs. 130 a day; one of the main demands of the workers has been to have this increased to Rs 194, which is the minimum wage as stipulated by the government. However, this demand has been ignored till date.

On 8th May 2012, a deal was signed in Nizam Palace in Kolkata between the Falta SEZ Development Commissioner (DC), the head of the Gram Panchayat, representatives of the managers and the factory owners. We will highlight some parts of the deal here. In the deal, it was stated that daily wages for skilled, less skilled and unskilled workers, would increase by Rs 15 on 1st April 2012, and this increase would be valid until March 31st, 2013. Besides, the daily wage for all levels will increase by Rs 15 per year from 2013 to 2015. It was mentioned that workers needed to be brought under the ESI Workmen’s Compensation Act, and EPF Act. For inclusion in the EPF, the daily wage would need to be Rs 75.

In addition to the wage increase, the agreement had several disciplinary causes, which stated:

1. The production would need to be of the best quality.

2. If any labourer is absent for 2 or more days, then (s)he would be asked to provide reasons and not allowed back to work unless the management was satisfied with the given reasons.

3. For the following improper behaviours, any worker could be suspended.
(i) Smoking in the factory.
(ii) Disobeying an order.
(iii) Use of profanity.
(iv) Theft in factory
(v) Committing illegal activities in the factory
(vi) Disrupting the discipline of the company
(vii) Taking leave without permission

4. Not willing to do the following will be considered a misdemeanour and could result in warning, termination, with or without severance pay.
(i) Taking leave without permission
(ii) Neglect at work
(iii) Taking a break without authorization
(iv) Disobeying management order
(v) Absence without permission
(vi) Staying longer in factory for 2 days without permission
(vii) Not listening to good orders or discipline
(viii) Illegally stopping work or provoking others to do so.

Quite naturally, the workers raised the question: how did the DC, Panchayat, representatives of the management, and the managers agree to such a set of rules? Why were workers’ representatives not involved in the discussion? Why is the minimum wage of Rs. 194 not applicable to this factory? Why should people be frequently turned back from the gate, after having come long distances, by hiring vehicles, looking for work ? Why can workers not get more no more than 15/20 days of work per month? Why do managers subtract Rs. 15-20 per day even if workers do not work for 24 days at a stretch ? Why do the workers have to endure verbal abuses from managers and supervisors? Why are they being misbehaved with? These grievances were like a powder keg waiting to ignite for many years, but the discontent had not reached the level where it would materialise into workers agitations and strikes.

Days of the strike

It was on 11th May 2012, Friday that the workers of the Promozin factory had decided that they would go on strike. During earlier meetings with the workers, the owners had said that the daily wage would increase by Rs 30, and workers had accepted that offer. On payday Friday, workers noticed that their wages had increased only by Rs. 15 and not Rs. 30 as promised earlier. The workers refused to withdraw their wages, and stopped work. They got together, and decided that some action needed to be taken. It was felt that if they were alone in the strike, it would not be successful. So they decided that the other factory workers should also be incorporated into the struggle. The first day of the historic strike in Falta SEZ thus began.

12th May, 2012 Saturday could be considered a historic day for the SEZ. Like other days, there was no change in the morning grouping of people from the villages. Plastic waste is recycled in the factories of Promozin, Plastolin, Anita, Bavaria, Amarnath; these factories employ 7,000-8,000 workers out of which 70-80 % are women. On that day (Saturday) when the Promozin factory workers stopped work, they grouped together and requested other factory workers to stop work and join in their strike. A worker of the Anita factory stated, “We were just waiting for when the strikers would ask us to join in the strike.” One by one, all workers of all the plastic factories emerged from the factory and the units of sectors 1 and 2 fell silent.

The distance from sector 1 to sector 2 is almost 1 km. These sectors are connected by a concrete road and are connected to smaller roads. Workers streamed out on all roads. There were no scripted slogans, no organised marches. When the swelling crowds came to the DC office, factory managers became nervous and were not able face the crowds. Feeling uneasy, they fled the area. On the same day, workers submitted a list of their demands to the DC. They demanded compensation as per the government prescribed rate, holidays with bonuses, etc. Meanwhile, the workers had decided that no official or unofficial cars would be allowed in the complex. As a result, locks were put on the large #1 and #2 gates of the SEZ. The DC then declared that there would be a conference with representatives of labourers on 14th May around noon. Finally, the DC declared that in the next Monday (14th of May), a meeting with the representatives of the labourers would be held, around noon.

Meanwhile, labourers had decided that the strike would continue only in the plastic waste recycling factories, not in other factories. The discussion with the owners and management was to be held at noon on Monday. In the morning it was rumoured that the DC would not be coming, and there would be no discussion. Some workers left on hearing this news but others stayed back. The discussion started at 2 pm. Apart from the 40 labour representatives, there were local representatives from INTUC and CITU. At that more than 1500 workers were present outside the office. The meeting was inconclusive. It was decided that the workers would not have to work on Tuesday and there would be further discussions on Wednesday.

As expected, the workers did not show up for work on Tuesday. This is what the agents of the owners were waiting for. On that day in the afternoon, there was a meeting with the DC, LC, owners, supervisors, and local Trinamool Congress leaders. It is worth mentioning that no representatives of the workers was present in that meeting. In the evening, it was announced via loudspeakers mounted on auto-rickshaws that the dispute had been resolved — the daily wage would increase, and that the next day (that is Wednesday) production work would begin again. The workers got to know that the owners had decided that the wage would increase by Rs. 15 that month and what would happen next month would be decided later.

On Wednesday morning, the agents of the management took control of gates 1 and 2. According to some labourers, the head, the sub-head, the Trinamool leaders and thugs were standing in front of the factory gates since dawn. People who came by were sent inside sometimes by threats; sometimes they were physically pushed inside. Though unsatisfied, the workers returned to work. This is how the historic 4-day strike at Falta SEZ ended. Later on, 7 workers were also dismissed.

Why did the labourers fail in the end?

To answer this, we can say that the workers of the Falta SEZ were not able to come together in an organized manner. Or, in the absence of a strong organisation, a struggle cannot be taken too far. Here, the workers did not have their own organization. Therefore, they had no clear idea of how to organize the movement, how to take it forward, or how to use the strike to extract their demands.

One of the features of a spontaneous movement is that it can begin suddenly, spurred by some evenets, without any previous preparation, and it can quickly die in the absence of planning and organization. This is exactly what happened in Falta. Without adequate organizing and without any proper union, the workers had entered into a fight with the owners.

But one must still state confidently that in no way the oppression by the owners has put an end to the narrative. The struggle at Falta establishes that if the workers wish, it is possible for them to stand up courageously against the owners and demand their rights. However, the agitation also showed that no spontaneous struggle can continue for long and win that struggle, if there is no genuine organization of the workers. Maybe now is the right time to organise. After taking lessons from the shortcomings of this spontaneous movement, whether the workers of Falta can now build up a strong workers union to carry forward the struggle, this remains to be seen.

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