The gruesome killing of Northbrook jute mill CEO at Champdani in Hooghly district on Sunday comes as a setback to the process of industrial revival in Bengal. So far, six persons have been arrested.
Financial irregularities, mismanagement, exploitation of workers and the continuing legacy of a rebellious workforce has together made the jute industry vulnerable. Purnendu Chatterjee, state Labour Minister, said that financial irregularities, non implementation of wage agreements, dues in gratuity payments had created an atmosphere of distrust.
The attack on CEO H S Maheshwari was preceded by talks of wage-cut and production-cuts, following reported lack of supply orders from the Central government and a huge pile up of finished products in the mill. The management cited this as a reason for scaling down production, which, in turn, meant a slash in wages. What went wrong was a false alarm of a possible shutdown of the mill, triggering panic and violence.
Incidentally, the company was one of the 55 mills that defaulted in provident fund deposits. Jute industry sources said that PF dues of the mills total to Rs 500 crore-plus. Added to the woes are unpaid gratuity to 60,000 workers. There is virtually no room for grievance redressal as almost half of the 12 labour courts do not have judges.
Industry sources said that the jute sector provides employment to 350,000 workers in Bengal, but close to half of them are not on regular pay rolls. Norhtbrook claimed to have a workforce of 3,400. Naba Dutta, a jute industry researcher, said that all the mills had “shadow workers” in the name of “badlee worker” “bhagawala worker” and “zero number workers”.
The mill management paid a much less amount to these workers as they did not have permanent status and Northbrook was no exception, Dutta added.
Industry captains are blaming the UPA-II government for the present situation. In a statement, former chairman of Indian Jute Manufacturer’s Association Sanjoy Kajaria alleged that present outcome is on account of the industry being starved of supply orders for jute bags as the UPA-II government had drastically cut down the orders. The UPA-II had decided to purchase 700,000 bales of plastic bags instead of jute bags.
However, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put the blame on “some unruly section of workers owning allegiance to particular political parties”. She said, “My government does not support violent trade unionism, which is a legacy of the Left rule.”
In the recent past, a number of jute mill officials have been killed. On June 29, 2001, two executives of Barangar Jute Mill were lynched to death. The next year on May 16, the chief personnel officer of Dalhousie Jute Mill was killed and the same year on October 8 the labour officer of Hastings Jute Mills was also killed. On May 15, 2008, the personnel manger of Loomtex Jute Mill was lynched to death in Titagurh. And on July 15, 2011, another labour officer was murdered in Chandennagore.