March 2010. Translation by Koel Das, Sanhati. Original report ShramikShakti Dec 2009 Issue.
Through unrelenting struggle, Loomtex workers managed to obtain their their long overdue provident fund(PF) and gratuity demands. Quite a few finished products were stuck inside the mill due to the ongoing struggle. When time came for the management to finally send the products to their destination, the workers steadfastly refused to release them till the management came to a final decision regarding their PF and gratuity. In the face of workers’ united front, the owners failed to get the products out of the factory even with police protection. On 7th October, the workers blocked the entrance using bricks, stones and pipes right in front of the police. When police tried to intimidate the workers by imprisoning the leaders of the protest belonging to the “Sangrami Majdoor Union” within the factory premises and picking up the leaders in their jeep, their strategy backfired. The workers became more organized and intensified their protest against the police. The police were forced to release the leaders.
Incidentally, the Sangrami Majdoor Union was formed in 2007 out of the workers’ protest demanding PF and gratuity. The resisting workers created this union after being disgruntled with the conciliatory and bootlicking attitudes of the other unions. For two years the management tried to dissolve the union using various means: by implicating the union leaders in fake cases and imprisoning them, by refusing to let them enter the factory premises, by not acknowledging the union in spite of it being registered, by luring and threatening the workers. But in spite of all these attempts, the union was not weakened at all due to the workers’ unrelenting resolve. In fact instead of crippling the union, all these incidents led to a more organized workers’ union, one with which the workers could identify strongly.
When leaders of this union came to the forefront of the ongoing agitation, it enhanced the workers’ efforts by multiple folds. Although the management tried intimidating the workers by threating to cut the power lines and threating to reduce the wages, trying to explain to the workers, but the workers persisted till the very end. They stood firm on their demands: either give gratuity and account for PF or the products cannot be released.
Finally the management were forced to concede to the workers’ demands and agreed to a meeting to discuss the demands. They were forced to face the same union that they were hellbent on destroying. The first meeting was mediated by the S.D.O. where both management and members of all unions including Sangrami Union were present. It was decided in the meeting that if the workers are satisfied with the forthcoming bilateral discussion between the workers and management, only then will the release of products be discussed. Accordingly, bilateral meeting was held on 13th December. The Sangrami Union demanded that the gratuity be paid off in one year and all P.F. related documents be submitted in the office within 7 days.
The management refused to act on these demands. Accordingly, the workers continued their movement of not releasing the product. Incidentally, the other unions also supported the movement and demands of Sangrami union. In order to break the deadlock, the management themselves asked the labor department to mediate. Additional labor commissioner, Subal Bishwas, called all the unions and management for a meeting on the 17th. The meeting was attended by Govind Sarda himself on behalf of the management, and all unions on behalf of the workers. Although Arabinda Banerjee, the leader of CPIM run CITU, told the deputy commissioner of Barrackpore that he was unable to attend the meeting, the new CITU leaders from the Loomtex factory attended the meeting. After a long 6 hours discussion, the management finally gave in to the following demands:
1. 80 workers will be given gratuity each month for one year, starting from December.
2. All PF related documents will be submitted within 25 days and all related problems have to solved within that time frame.
3. Money given for S.T.L (rule for getting 14 days holiday for working 240 days) will be doubled.
The management were forced to agree to the above demands. Next day, all unions together (CITU and BMS were absent) announced the terms of agreement. The other unions agreed to stand by the side of workers in this struggle and to fight if the terms of the agreement are violated. During this time, a section of the management, who employed outsiders and some factory workers to close the factory, tried to distract and mobilize the workers against the agreement. As a result, it took some days to normalize the factory production. The management, true to their colors, initially tried to take out the products from the factory without taking any effort to implement the terms of the agreement. But they were again obstructed by the workers under the leadership of Sangrami union. Finally after the management put out a notice declaring that they are going to implement all the terms in the agreement and will bring raw material inside the factory, a new meeting was held and under the terms of the meeting, a limited amount of finished products were taken out of the factory and management were allowed to bring raw material for production. They were forced to pay the full weeks wage to the workers in spite of no production during the week. Afterwards, production attained normal speed and workers joined the factory with a sense of victory.
The age old management ploy of using a section of workers against the workers’ rights, using compliant unions to create an anti-worker conspiracy could not succeed this time. This workers’ movement demonstrated how it can create universal unity among workers by resisting against the corrupt agents and by forcing the leaders of sycophantic unions to enter the struggle zone.
By Suvarup Saha, Sanhati. Nov 8 2009. Translated from ShramikShakti, June-July 2009
This article is an update to the previous workers struggle news from Loomtex Engineering Pvt. Ltd. published on Sanhati in Feb 2009.
The workers of Titagarh Loomtex Engineering, West Bengal, have achieved an important victory in their struggle against the current management. The 24 workers who had been suspended for allegedly being involved in the murder of a manager have all been re-instated to work. On 15th May, 2008, the hired hooligans of the management had orchestrated an attack on the gate-meeting organized by the ‘Sangrami Mazdoor Union’, after which the personnel manager of the factory, Mr. Apurba Roy Choudhury was found murdered in his office. The management blamed 24 workers for this incident and took away their jobs. After spending three months in jail, these workers got bail from the high court. Since then, it has been a long drawn struggle for the Union till 6th June 2009, when the management finally accepted their demand of asking all these workers to join their duties.
The main issue that plagued the management was the fact that the workers, with the help of some revolutionary political workers had formed a fighting Workers’ Union in the factory. The majority of the workers who were already fed up with the double-speak and servility of the established trade-unions and their leaders, joined them. Under the leadership of the new union, the workers’ struggle to realize their legitimate demands regarding provident funds, gratuity money and other benefits intensified. As a result, they incurred the wrath of the unholy nexus of the factory-management, the established political forces, and the strongmen of the erstwhile MP of the area – Tarit Topdar. The blame of Apurba Roy Choudhury’s murder was put on the fighting workers and the leadership of the new union was targeted. In spite of all this, the morale of the workers remained high. They continued to fight legal battles as well as organize regular meetings, rallies, dharnas, fasts. This has helped them sustain their fighting spirit and now, inspired by their recent victory, the workers are upbeat to win even more victories regarding their original demands of PF, gratuity, loan and wage hike.
The recent agitation at Kolkata TV
Kolkata-TV, a privately owned television channel, is facing the wrath of its workers who have been subjected to enormous delay in payments for the last two years, followed by 80% payment for the month of February 2009 and finally no payment after that.
Kolkata-TV has been running a poor show, financially, since its inception. Things didn’t improve after a failed tie-up attempt with Jain TV in 2007. In 2008, it partnered with the big media house Network 9. There are serious allegations against Chairman Tathagata Dutta regarding lack of transparency and personal spending of channel’s funds. Due to his illegal activities, TV 9 soon broke up with Kolkata TV.
Just before the Indian Premier League (IPL), cricketer Saurav Ganguly was made the brand ambassador of the channel with a payment of Rs. 5 Crores. During the recent Lok Sabha elections, the TV workers with a majority of 172-9, decided in a general body meeting to strike work. Though they did work during the first two phases to keep the management’s request, they stopped working from the third. The channel started airing old shows. The channel’s office started to get flooded with loan repayment notices. Finally, the High Court announced the Channel as bankrupt.
From 11th June, more than 100 workers started sit-in demonstration in front of the owner’s residence in Ballygunge. However, he was all along on the run and hadn’t entered the office in past three months. On 22nd June when he finally came back to office, he was immediately gheraoed by the agitating workers. In the presence of police and lawyers, the owner promised in writing to pay off the dues by 29th June 2009.
By Ranajit Majumdar, Sangbad Manthan July 2009 issue. Translated by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati.
Shikarpur tea garden is about 30 km from Jalpaiguri town, in West Bengal. This was originally developed by princess Prativadevi and is located in a very scenic setting. However, a visit to one of the dilapidated workers quarters brought out the crude reality of a shut down industry.
The titular owner of the estate is Ghanashyam Agarwal. There are three more gardens under this estate – Division, Bhandipur and Nagpur. The workers allege that the factory-less gardens and the garden-less factories (also called bot leaf factories) that the management had set up was the main cause of its decline in revenues. On 12th January, 2004, the estate was eventually shut down with about 1500 workers losing their employment. With the management and clerical workers soon leaving for alternate means, it were the 4000 resident workers of this factory who had to carry on with their struggle. Shankar Beni, Ruhidas, Mary and others narrated their tales of despair.
With some governmental help, the staff and union representatives set up a management committee which supervises the tea-picking for nine months in a year. The workers get paid a daily wage of Rs. 50. For three months there is hardly any employment for a family. The old-age pension and the 100-days work schemes provided by the panchayat is the only governmental help that these people receive. Even though the workers have ration cards, the PDS schemes hardly work for them. The very essential home fuel, kerosene, is not provided to them for some mysterious reason. Though the workers have received their voter –ID cards, they are yet to get the BPL cards.
There is a primary health centre beside the factory and little far from the workers’ residence. Belakoba and Kukurjaan Rural Hospitals are within a radius of 5 to 7 km. However, there is often a conflict as to which hospital is supposed to be referred to about complicated cases and thus the Jalpaiguri Government Hospital, which is 30 km away, is the last recourse. Shikarpur has a primary school, but for secondary and higher secondary education, the people have look forward to Belakoba.
It’s a pity that while the entire urban neighborhood is abuzz with the new development mantra of fly-overs, market and residential complexes, and shopping malls promoted by the government, the Shikarpur Tea workers live only 30 km away in an absolutely inhuman condition. The worker quarters are almost about to collapse and often the crumbling concrete has been substituted by polythene sheets to make roofs.
The only future that the workers look forward to is opening the garden and the factory under the ownership of some other proprietor. A couple of years back, central government had warned the existing owner of a take-over, citing the Tea Law article 16D of 1953. However, this is a messy issue, and the law has really not been evoked in the last 54 years, though hundred of gardens remain closed. (Recently, there has been some movement towards an amendment of the Tea Act, 1953. As per the proposed amendment, if a tea-garden owner abandons a leased or owned garden, his rights to use his property will be curtailed and workers would be allowed to run the garden as an interim measure till a new owner is found. – Ed.)
The OMC committee is looking for prospective buyers who can take over the garden from the current owner and re-open it. Though some negotiations about paying the workers their arrears is on, the workers seem to be more interested in getting the garden opened; they would look into matter of arrears later.
The main reason for the general sickness of Tea-estates across North Bengal seems to be the garden-less factories or the bot leaf factories. These factories buy tea leaves from small tea-farmers and process them. On one hand they pay the raw material suppliers miserably and also reduce the price and quality of the processed tea. The tea-estates, after taking care of the normal benefits of the tea-garden workers and the factory workers, can’t match the bot leaf plants in price. This makes them skeptical of their long term future about the revival of the Tea-estates in North Bengal as long as the bot leaf plants flourish. It’s an irony that in the mean time, the workers have to earn their livelihood by selling their self-grown tea-leaves to these bot leaf factories for nine months a year.
By Suvarup Saha, Sanhati. Translated from ShramikShakti, Sept 21 2009.
About seven thousand workers agitating continuously for more than a month in June-July 2009, at Haldia Port in West Bengal, secured an important victory in the struggle for increasing their wages.
These workers, who perform the strenuous task of loading and unloading of goods at the port, are mainly employed by contractors such as Replay, Carry On and Five Star. A long-standing grievance of these workers is that they receive only a third of the amount that contractors charge the importers and exporters for their work. Moreover, though funds are directly deducted from their wages for PF and ESI, in reality they do not get back the benefits in entirety.
Arun runs a mobile crane at the port while Sameer is the helper. We were talking to them at a tea-stall just opposite to the Rani Chawk port gate. Arun told us that though the contractors charge the clients about Rs. 380 per worker, they actually pay only around Rs. 140/150. In fact, the workers involved in loading and unloading sometimes get even Rs. 80 or Rs. 100 as daily wage.
Workers involved in handling iron-ore and coal (locally called Loha-Mati) also made similar allegations. Not only are they being cheated with paltry wages, the company also does not provide necessary masks, gloves or shoes. This has a direct impact on their health, since the entire area where these ores are being loaded and unloaded gets terribly polluted by mineral dust.
There have been organized movements to demand for an increase in wages. But the constant fear of losing their job coupled with the dictates of the management-CITU combine prevented them for going into an all-out struggle. However, the exemplary resistance of the people of Nandigram, which is just across on the other side of the Haldi river, as well as the recent debacles of the ruling coalition in the electoral processes at various levels have emboldened these workers.
Contract companies maintain nexus with CPIM’s trade union CITU
Most of the contract companies maintain nexus with the ruling party and the CITU. Some CITU leaders in fact have their own contract businesses. For instance, Shekh Mojaffar, who is also a councillor in the Haldia Municipality, owns the company Five Star which employs about 900 workers. Amit Mukhopadhyay, owner of the 1500 strong A. M. Enterprise, is known to be extremely close to the local CITU leadership. Sanat Bhattacharya, who owns Carry On is a close relative of the erstwhile CPIM MP of Tamluk, the infamous Laxman Seth. Further, CPIM leaders like Suresh Karan, Amit Dey, Prasanta Das, Shantanu Pattanayak (son of Ashok Pattanayak – Haldia Zonal Secretary of the CPIM) all have blooming contract-worker business or transport business.
Chronological progression of strike
It was the Loha-mati workers who started the agitation. About 1500 workers gheraoed the CITU leadership on 3rd June 2009 demanding an increase in their wages. The next day, the Dumper and Pay-loader drivers and their helpers started a strike with the same demand. This totally stopped the loading-unloading activities at the port. About 1000 workers took part in that strike.
Though they received an assurance that their demands would be met, they were back into action within two weeks as the management failed to keep their promise. On Saturday, 20th June, the Loha-mati workers put up a strike which paralyzed all business at the port. When they wanted to join work the next day, the management prevented them from joining work by stopping them at the gates of the port.
This led the workers to put up blockades at gates 1 and 3 on June 21. Towards the afternoon, almost all casual workers at the Haldia port joined the protest. The air was abuzz with abuses hurled at the profiteering management and the corrupt trade-union leaders. CITU leader Natku Jana, who arrived at the scene was immediately surrounded and asked about the reason for the workers being prevented from joining their work. The fumbling Jana was then tied at the port and beaten up.
The workers realized that this act of the management-CITU combine of not letting the workers to rejoin work was to create division in ranks and thus break up their movement for increase of wages. This led the workers to go on an indefinite strike. The union leaders faced more of the workers’ wrath on Monday, June 22nd. Sachin Samanta, Ashok Pattanayak, Sudarshan Mannas and other leaders all got a fair share of the beating. The office of Five Star at Rani-Chawk was vandalized.
Even Laxman Seth faced a very boisterous and agitating crowd. He was asked to answer why it was that almost all the owners of the contract companies were either his relatives or close associates. He was asked to answer why he has been patronizing their illegal activities. He was accused of being responsible for the uncanny growth of wealth of some of the union leaders.
Union leader Ananta Bera was once a car-helper. Now he owns a house that is almost a mansion. Natku Jana, Uttam Majhi were drivers. Now they ride the company paid cars, use company paid mobiles and as a result work on behalf of the management rather than negotiating on behalf of the workers. In fact Ananta Bera, Ashok Pattanayak have faced CBI raids at their homes in disproportionate assets cases.
A history of exploitation and abuses have united all the workers and drawn them into this movement. The indefinite shut down even prompted the government to think about invoking the ESMA. This idea was later dropped suspecting worker backlash. On the fifteenth day of the strike, the contract companies finally agreed to surrender to the demands of the workers. A meeting was held at the DM’s office on 5th of July which had the management representative, CITU leaders and workers’ direct representative. An eighty percent hike was negotiated. Further, benefits like 4 leaves in a month, wage for attendance (even if work is not provided), PF and ESI schemes for all workers were also achieved. This led the workers to withdraw their strike and get back to work.
The stunning victory of the Haldia port casual workers has inspired workers at other neighboring factories like Hindustan Lever, Mitsubishi, Hindustan Petrochemicals, IOC, Hugli Metacoke (TATA owned), Exide, Sugar Mill, etc., to start their own movements to increase wages.
Articles by Subhasis Mukhopadhyay on Workers Movements
January 21, 2008. Beni Sanhar Part 2: Tracing the workers history of Beni Engineering, a factory in West Bengal.
This second part covers the the judicial maneuvers and illegal methods used by the the management of Ratnagiri Engineering and in particular Mr. Ganesh Singhania during the crucial months between 1997 to 1998.
December 11, 2008. Beni Sanhar Part 1: Tracing the workers history of Beni Engineering, a factory in West Bengal.
From formation, to success, to sickness, to the formation of Save Beni Committee, 1997
November 18, 2008. Shrama-Shramik O Kichhu Katha: An article on the condition of workers in West Bengal
November 4, 2008. Adalat, nirob sakshi tumi, Part 2: The judicial system and justice for workers, Part 2
October 19, 2008. Adalat, nirob sakshi tumi, Part 1: The judicial system and justice for workers, Part 1
September 14, 2008: An article on Shopping Malls around Kolkata