In West Bengal, jute industry workers are very familiar with the word ‘lock out’. But they’ve never heard ‘lockdown’ in their life time. While a lock out offers some certainty of getting a job in times of crisis, a lockdown may just mean they have run out of that last sliver of hope. “We always fear a lock out situation. Because it means we will be out of work. But there’s hope that maybe we will have some work in other sectors. But after lockdown, not only will we become penniless, we will also not have any option to earn,” said Rabi Raha, a daily wage labour at the Hukumchand Jute Mill.
Raha’s predicament is shared by other jute mill workers.
In West Bengal, there are 52 jute mills along the eastern side of the Hoogly River. Out of that, 46 are open. But all the mills came to a grinding halt after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a state-wide lockdown on March 22.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day nationwide lockdown announcement from March 25 midnight threw a spanner in their future job prospects. Enforcing the longest stay-at-home order as health authorities try to break the coronavirus transmission chain, PM Modi underlined social distancing as the only way to deal with the outbreak threat.
But this decision is not without consequencues, especially for at least 2 lakh jute mill workers who now stare at an uncertain future.
Now, in West Bengal, there are three types of jute mill workers. First is the permanent worker, who comprises only 5 per cent of the total work force. They get a monthly salary, other facilities and have a proper retirement age. Second is the contractual worker, who accounts for 10-15 per cent of the total work force. They also get a salary but the contract is time-bound and subject to renewal. The third, and the biggest chunk of the work force, is ‘Badli’. They are daily wage labourers who get paid on a weekly-basis.
After the lockdown announcement, these badli workers are the worst affected out of the lot. “We are daily wage earners. We never have so much money to buy three weeks worth of rice, dal and other basic things to survive. So, we requested to give us loan from our provident fund, so that, we will have some food. Otherwise, we will be in severe crisis,” said Raha.
Another daily wage worker from Kamarhati Jute Mill, Shahajada Khan said, “Prime Minister told us to stay in the house. We are obeying that. But in this situation we may survive from corona, but we will not survive from hunger. In other situation, if lock out happened, we will earn otherwise. But, in this situation, we can’t do even as rickshaw puller job.”
Gargi Chatterjee, the leader of CITU, the trade union front of CPM, said, “The workers are in severe crisis. They are also in severe panic also. Firstly, they don’t know what to do now and secondly, they also don’t know what will the fate of this industry. Because, many jute mills are now so weak, they are in panic that, these industries will be closed after this coronavirus pandemic will over.”
Another Trade Union Organisation, MKP’s (Majdoor Kranti Parishad) leader Amitabha Bhattacharya said, “Jute industry’s production is now zero. The daily wage workers have no relief. In this lock down situation, we can’t arrange any relief for them. So, their situation is deteriorating. If immediately government will not intervene, a disaster will happen to them.”
However, the Jute Commission of India and the Labour Department of the State Government asserted that they won’t leave anyone behind in this situation. One senior official in the Jute Commission said, “The central government already announced package for unorganised and organised workers. So, if the owner of the jute mills will contact the ministry, they will do something for them.”
On the other hand, one senior official from the state government reiterated CM Mamata’s promise of providing ration to those affected. “Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee already said, the government will not let anybody in hunger. So, government will give them necessary ration and other necessary things,” said the official who didn’t want to be identified.
Meanwhile, state labour minister Malay Ghatak lamented the impossibility of any other alternative, other than a lockdown. “This is a unavoidable situation. So, we have no other way other than lock down. In this situation, poor peoples are in a severe problem. That’s why Government already announced free ration for the poor people. They can also procure free of cost medicine from government hospitals. But, after these one family also need some other things for their livelihood. For that, we already ordered to local councilor and MLA to go there and arrange them necessary help,” he said.
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