West Bengal: The Neo-Liberal Offensive in Industry and the Workers’ Resistance

Kushal Debnath

The New Economic Policy was adopted by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991 in consonance with the principle of imperialist globalization. This principle propounded by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh has aggravated the imperialist aggression on our country. Different ‘leftist’ parties including the CPI(M) have cried hoarse against this, but the Left Front government in West Bengal has adopted a new industrial policy in almost full pursuance of the new economic policy of the central government. As a result we find even in this state the working class has been subjected to the most severe attacks as it has been in the rest of the country. The closures or sickness of the industries one after another, appropriation of Provident Fund and E.S.I funds of the workers by industrialists and the stoppage of new employment have become the order of the day. The state government in West Bengal has openly surrendered to the multinational corporations and big capitalists. To this government MNCs like Pepsi, Hindustan Lever, Mitsubishi etc., and monopoly capitalists like Tata, Premji Azimji, Goenka and Ambani have become the fountainhead of industrialization. In addition this very government has acquired special skills in destroying the workers’ movement by its ideological and political weapons as well as by the application of state repression, since a very organized party and its trade union front are instrumental in implementing the anti-worker policies of the government and they execute this task in a most political fashion and since no powerful political campaign of the workers’ movement have been organized to oppose it, the real character of the government is not yet exposed to the workers.

Given below are four tables that will show how fast the aggression of the industrialists against the workers and that of the closure of factories has increased in this state.

This is just one side of the picture. As for the other side, what is the state of industry itself in West Bengal? Each industrial zone of this state is gasping for life. The factories by they in Hyde Road, Garden Reach, Barrackpore, or in Hoogly, Howrah, Durgapur and Asansol, are being closed or becoming sick in quick succession. Of the old and traditional industries in West Bengal, the tea and jute industries are surviving by some means or other, but the engineering industries and cotton mills are in a grave crisis. The leftists in power and the government conducted by them are least concerned with the question of the roots of the problems and the ways and means of solving them. Instead, they are looking to the MNCs or big industrialists as their saviours. The chief minister of this state has been clamouring for the development of Information Technology. But unless the industries based on production develop and unless the closure of industries one after another stops, what is the use of I.T.? In any country of the world, the development of industry is deeply connected with the socio-economic conditions of that very country. The real import of industrial development lies in the increase of employment along with this development, for it is for the well-being of man that the industries are needed, not the other way around. The leftists in power in West Bengal have been scrupulously avoiding this question and instead upholding the programme of industrialization only to safeguard the interest of the MNCs. In this respect there is hardly any difference between Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee on the one hand and between Chandra Babu Naidu and Buddhadev Bhattacharya on the other, who have to work within the constraints of ‘limited powers.’ When the media is all praise for Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu as being the high-tech chief minister of Andhra Pradesh the cotton growers commit suicide in a large number. The chief minister of West Bengal, too, talks tall of information technology and brands the jute mills as an obsolete industry while the jute workers fall victim to the limitless anarchy let loose by the owners of the mills. The jute industry which declined in the eighties of the last century, has shown signs of a fresh revival in the nineties. Jute is grown in the very state, i.e. the raw material necessary for this industry is conveniently at hand. Almost two lakhs of workers work in the industry and almost 50 lakhs of peasants in the cultivation of jute. This means that 1.5 crore of people of this state are dependent on jute directly or indirectly. The yearly turnover of this industry is nearly 4000 crore rupees. In the last few years production has shot up. In 1971 the number of workers was 2 lakhs 30 thousand and the yearly production reached 16 lakh tons. The above statistics clearly demonstrate that during the last three decades jute production steadily kept increasing while the number of workers kept falling.

In the jute industry the workers are being forced to work at the rate of Rs. 40 to Rs. 100 per day. This is done by various skilful manoeuvrings by the owners, categorising the workers as ‘bhaga’, ‘voucher’, ‘zero number’ ‘temporary’, ‘apprentices’ etc. The normal wage of a jute worker is, at present, above Rs. 200 per day. The owners of this industry are thus amassing unbelievable profits by underpaying the workers. But this anti-worker practice of the barons of the industry has been legalized by the left front government of West Bengal. On 5th January 2002 a tripartite agreement has been reached where among the signatories were trade unions like CITU, AITUC, INTUC and the government of West Bengal. Apart from imparting legality to all the illegal acts of the mill owners, this agreement has destroyed the wage structure of the jute mills in totality. What we want to say will be clear if we quote sections iii and iv of the agreement:

(iii) ‘that the question of productivity-linked wages has been discussed with the parties in details. After discussion it is however agreed that for this purpose 33.33% of the total wages payable in a month will be linked to production which may be adjusted proportionally for non-fulfilment of the prevailing agreed norms of production in each mill.

(iv) That the wages at new entrants such as workmen who are paid through vouchers engaged popularly known as zero number other than retired person or who are paid less wages than the rate payable as per industry wise wage settlement etc., and whose names are not borne on the master rolls of workers of mill who are paid wages as per industry wise settlement will get a sum of Rs. 100/- per day as wages plus usual fringe benefit thereon.’

These two sections prove in very clear terms that through this agreement the state government has introduced the production linked wage system and legalized the long practiced illegal acts of the mill owners through the clever twist of compelling the jute workers to accept Rs. 100 as a wage by branding them with new names and categories. Today as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been prescribing the abolition of the system of permanent workers, reduction of wages and making the system of employing contract labour almost universal, the West Bengal government, too, has been pursuing the same path by legalizing the same practice of the jute mill owners. Not only in the jute mills or in other industries alone, in various other sectors, too, like the teachers, physicians, technologists etc. the same system of ‘contract’ has been introduced. Carlos Giuliani laid down his life in the anti-globalisation movement. In Bengal several jute workers also have been martyred to the same cause like Rajeshwar Rai of Gourishankar jute mill, Someswar Rao of Ganges jute mill and Bhikari Paswar of Victoria jute mill who disappeared from police custody in West Bengal during the rule of the left front government. Very recently two workers at the Chandmoni tea garden were shot dead by the police. Besides, whenever any workers’ movement grows in intensity, the state government openly sides with the industrialists. The most glaring examples of this surrender of the government in the last decade are Kanoria jute mill, Paharpur Cooling Towers and Titagarh jute mill II.

In the name of globalization and structural re-adjustment, the imperialist forces and multinational corporations have raised the demand of reforms of labour laws. In our country too, the central government led by the BJP has taken the decision to ‘reform’ labour laws. Already in this direction the report of Ravindra Varma Commission has been submitted. This report recommended various reforms of the existing labour laws. Most importantly it had advocated the imperialist hire and fire policy. In West Bengal also the same policy of hire and fire is being implemented. Government officials, too, are advocating the reforms of labour laws very vigorously. Is it not surprising that even after 25 years of ‘left’ rule, the workers in the private sector cannot directly go to court when they face the onslaughts of the industrialists.

In a nutshell, the West Bengal left front government is opposing the imperialist globalization in theory, while in practice it has been following the policies of the imperialists in respect of the industries and the workers.

Workers’ Movements: in Search of an Alternative

In reality, a clear trend of an anti-globalisation workers’ movement is latent in the movements of the workers that have been taking place during the last few years. Although those movements are confined to single factories till date, in essence they are pointing to the development of a comprehensive alternative movement. We are giving a brief sketch of it.

In the eighties of the last century the workers of different factories defied the central trade union leaders and started organizing themselves independently. Thus they kept the flag of struggle flying. The most important event of this decade is the unwavering struggles of the Hindustan Lever, an M..N.C. The workers held out against the severest onslaughts of the management and are still holding out. This trend kept on increasing in the nineties. Although small numerically this trend appeared in the society as a principal one in the working class movement. Two main tendencies were discernible.

(a) Sudden outbursts of the workers as retaliation to the prolonged oppression perpetrated by the industrialists. This sparked off a wide ranging reaction in society. But in the absence of systematic and organized thought the initial rebellion gradually subsided. The workers’ struggles of the Victoria jute mill in 1993, or the events of Baranagar jute mill and Ganges jute mill in 2001 represent this tendency.

(b) Waging an organised and protracted struggle against the onslaughts of the industrialists. The main feature of this tendency was organizing the majority of workers and advancing the movement step by step. The workers’ movement of Kanoria jute mill, Hindustan Lever, Garden Reach Ship Builders, Bauria Cotton and Hindustan Motors etc. represents this tendency. The most important among them was the movement of the Kanoria jute mill which attracted wide attention. Though a trade union struggle in essence, this movement rocked the entire society. This movement left its marks on the minds of people for various reasons.

i) This movement did not confine itself to a mere struggle of the workers against the mill owner. Instead, against the attacks of the owner the workers could successfully organise their own families and the people in general along with themselves. This movement could spread the T.U. Movement in the large arena of the society.

ii) It was able to convert a workers’ movement to a movement for life by the introduction of common kitchens, free coaching camps, free medical centres etc.

iii) A very conscious attempt was made to practise democracy in a scientific manner. The movement here was conducted on the basis of the opinion of a large section of the workers. As a result this struggle could carry on for a long time against various odds.

iv) The programmes of this movement were set on the basis of the objective conditions of the movement obtaining at a particular point of time. The movement which started in 1993 with the demand of getting dearness allowance and house rents turned into a struggle for the survival of the factory itself by building a workers co-operative. This means the entire movement developed with an alternative scheme for the survival of the mill. The workers put forward four proposals in the course of the movement:

a) The promoter himself can run the mill legally by paying the workers their dues.

b) Any other individual owner can run the mill abiding by the legal rules.

c) The government itself can run the mill.

d) All the above-mentioned proposals failing, the workers will run the mill by forming a co-operative of their own.

Whereas any closure of factory in this state brings in its trail ‘black’ agreements, despondency, surrender of the workers to the wishes of the mill owners, death or suicide, this positive formulation of the Kanoria workers created ripples among the entire workers’ community. The Kanoria workers never said that the co-operatives are the only solution in case of closures. But they consider the formation of co-operatives as one of the weapons to fight against the onslaughts of the industrialists. They are still pursuing this policy.

In the bargaining agent elections during the last decade, the workers have shown their solidarity with this struggling trend of the workers’ movement, be it in Garden Reach Ship Builders or H.D.C. or Hindustan Lever and Hindustan Motors.

During the last few years these alternative T.U. Movements are unfolding a new course of development of the working class movement. It is only the working class and other toiling masses that can really translate the concept of ‘another world is possible’ into reality. In the world of today the workers of Europe and Latin America are upholding the banner of struggle by rallying in their millions by demonstrations and strikes. In West Bengal these alternative movements are in essence an integral part of the anti-globalisation movement. At times, these movements have burst asunder the confines of the factory and played a role in the larger areas of politics and society. The development of the struggles against the imperialist globalization are largely dependent now on the development of this new trend of the workers’ movement.

Table 1
Lockouts in Industries in West Bengal: The last decade

Strikes

Lockouts

Both Strike and Lockouts

Year

Total no. of Strikes

No. of people dependent on the factory (in thousands)

Work days lost (in 10 lakhs)

Total no. of lockouts

No. of people dependent on the factory

Work days (in 10 lakhs)

Total no.

No. of people dependent on the factory (in thousands

Work days lost (in 10 lakhs)

1990

16
(8.2%)

2.30
(1.9%)

0.32
(1.5%)

179
(91.8%)

120.75
(98.1%)

20.69
98.5%)

195
(100%)

123.05
(100%)

121.01
(100%)

1991

21
(9.85%)

3.05
(2.1%)

0.80
(0.4%)

192
(90.15%)

144.42
(97.9%)

19.97
99.6%)

213
(100%)

147.47
(100%)

20.77
(100%)

1993

23
(10.9%)

27.69
(16.1%)

0.32
(1.6%)

187
(89.1%)

144.18
(83.9%)

19.18
98.4%)

210
(100%)

172.26
(100%)

19.50
(100%)

1995

33
(19.9%)

234.40
(76.0%)

1.25
(12.2%)

136
(80.1%)

74.14
(24.0%)

5.25
(80.8%)

169
(100%)

308.54
(100%)

5.50
(100%)

1998

25
(10.5%)

2.73
(2.53%)

0.12
(1.90%)

213
(89.50%)

104.98
(97.47%)

11.35
(98.10%)

238
(100%)

107.71
(100%)

11.57
(100%)

 

Table 2

 

No. of industries having P.F. facilities

No. of workers/staff who deposit money in P.F. (in lakhs)

Total dues (in crores)

No. of industries that have dues in P.F.

1989

22,797 19.47 113.89 1,215

1990

23,128 19.69 116.30 1,206

1991

23,928 20.03 120.00 1,206

1993

12,175 20.29 162.68 ----

1995

26,360 20.98 166.98 ----

1998

16,953 23.02 232.00 ----

1999

17,461 24.42 284.57 ----

 

Table 3

 

Insurance holders in the purview of

No. of members getting privileges ESI

No. industries having dues (in lakhs)

Amount of dues (in crores

1990

925,000

41.50

2,641

40.75

1991

910,000

40.60

3,146

45.50

1993

1,024,000

39.00

3,332

61.09

1995

1,029,000

39.00

3,286

85.09

1999

819,615

37.00

4,700

107.45

 

Table 4
Closed and Sick industries of West Bengal under B.I.F.R. (1991-2000)

Year

No. of Industries

1991

127

1992

150

1993

160

1996

188

2000
(up to March)

243

Source: Labour in West Bengal

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