Industrial scenario and industrial relations in West Bengal

A PALL of gloom shrouds the industrial scenario in West Bengal. Despite projecting itself as a Shilapabandu (industry-friendly) government, attracting substantially higher new investment is still a far cry for the LF Government. The much-trumpeted Haldia Petrochemicals, the dream project of the Left Front Government, considered to be the largest and most modern industry in the state, is reeling under a crisis. After commencing production, this mega project incurred a loss of approximately Rs. 80 crore within a short span of two months. Purnendu Chatterjee, the NRI partner of this joint sector, has proposed amputation of the loss-making Naptha Cracker Plant from the Haldia Petrochemicals. He further proposed that IOL, a central PSU, be requested to take total control of the cracker plant by forming an independent entity and all the liabilities incurred so far be transferred to its account. A unique proposal to ‘nationalize’ the losses! Be that as it may, what is of immediate concern is that till 12 December 2000, the Haldia Petrochemicals, the premier industry in the state in which the LF Government has a stake, had defaulted in PF payments to the tune of Rs.53,29,000.

While the state government is busy luring investors to the state, textile, jute and engineering units, the three pillars of the state’s industry, are gasping for breath. A brief account of major traditional industries is as follows:

Jute industry: Out of 73 jute mills in the country 59 are in West Bengal, providing employment to 2,00,000 workers directly, and approximately 40 lakh jute growers are also dependent on this industry. Of these 59 mills, 5 mills are run by National Jute Manufacturing Corporation (NMJC) Limited and one by the Government of West Bengal. Of late, this industry has been witnessing widespread workers’ unrest against the most barbaric repression of the jute barons. Lockout was declared in 17 mills and only 10 have been reopened. Out of these ten, in some mills, the management forced the unions to agree to very adverse terms and conditions to lift the lockout. Again, in some mills, wages were reduced for all categories of workers.

The entire jute industry is undergoing a structural change. Restructuring and reorganizing the jute industry is the strategic aim of the jute barons. By dismantling the existing wage structure and recomposing the existing workforce, the jute barons are engaging a large number of new workers with very low wages sans statutory benefits like PF, ESI, gratuity etc. The three-decade old pattern of workers composition, viz. permanent, special badli and badli, achieved after numerous struggles is fast eroding and the innumerable day-labourers called ‘vouchers’ are emerging as the main component of the workforce and they are becoming the determining factor in both production and movement. The emergence of this highly backward, almost medieval, production relation coupled with drastic reduction in man-machine ratio is the source of all movements in recent times.

The NJMC Ltd. runs five mills in West Bengal and one in Bihar. The production in these mills has been adversely affected due to non-supply of raw jute and other inputs as the Government of India has curtailed budgetary support for this purpose, resulting in increase in its losses. The workers and staff are not getting their wages and salaries in time. The statutory liabilities of this corporation as on 1-1-2001 are as follows: provident fund and pension dues approximately Rs. 55.64 crore, ESI dues Rs.17.63 crore, tax dues Rs. 1.16 crore, salary and wage dues Rs.17.51 crore (wages of three fortnights due to the workers and salaries for two months due to officers and staff), and gratuity dues of about Rs. 5.94 crore to 702 workers. The Union Ministry of Textiles has declared before the BIFR, at its hearing on 27th June, that they were relinquishing their control and responsibility over NJMC, thereby paving the way for closure in near future.

The jute barons have not deposited their PF and ESI contribution and a large number of retired workers have been deprived of their gratuity. Total PF, ESI and gratuity arrears till December 12, 2000 were Rs. 144.7 crore, 86.78 crore and 100 crore respectively.

Engineering industry: This is one of the major traditional industries of the state employing a large number of workers. Many of the big engineering units are largely dependent of orders placed by railways and defense department. Wagon manufacturing is a major segment of the engineering industry here and a large number of small and medium engineering units serve as ancillaries to bug engineering firms. The Railway Board has drastically reduced its orders to the wagon manufacturing units in the state. Hindustan Motors, the biggest unit in the automobile sector, which occupied a monopoly position for several decades, has drastically reduced production and has been regularly downsizing its workforce for the past few years.

Cotton textile industry: Out of 65 mills in the eastern region, 37 are located in West Bengal. Out of these 37 mills, 19 are in private sector and 18 are in public sector, six are run by the West Bengal government and the remaining 12 mils are under NTC. Out of the 19 private sector mills only 6 – Eastern Spinning Mills, including Vikram Spinning which is a division of Eastern Spinning, Jayshree Textiles, Rajashree Syntex (a division of Indian Rayon-Midnapore Cotton, GIS Ltd., Shine Up Fibres and Hada Textiles – are running at present. Likewise, only a few mills under NTC are running at present, and that too only the spinning department on a job conversion basis while other departments are not functioning. The workers and staff are not getting their wages and salaries in time.

Industrial relations: In West Bengal, the mandays lost due to lockout has far surpassed the mandays lost due to strikes. The statistical information published in the annual report of the Labour Department, Labour in west Bengal 2000, indicates that the percentage of mandays lost due to lockout in the years 1998, 1999 and 2000 are 98.10%, 82% and 83% respectively while the figures for mandays lost due to strike are 1.90%, 18.00% and 16.92%.

Industry-wide wage agreements: The industry-wide wage agreement for cotton textile industry was last signed on June 11, 1995 and was valid for a period of three years. The wages of the workers in engineering industry covering units employing 50 workers and more are governed by an industry-wide tripartite wage agreement which expired in February 2000. It is evident from the above facts that tripartite agreements in these important segments are deferred for years, making thereby a complete mockery of the principle of collective bargaining. As a consequence, out of a total of 26 strikes in 2000, 12 were called on the issue of settling the charter of demands.

The extremely aggressive position of the employers is evident from the fact that out of a total of 274 lockouts in the year 2000, 143 were declared to reduce the workforce under the pretext of loss of economic viability.

Role of the Labour Department: The Labour Department under the LF rule has utterly failed to act as an effective conciliatory forum. Only 4 cases of strike and 21 instances of lockout were resolved in 2000 through conciliation while 10 strikes and 34 lockouts were resolved at bipartite level, excluding the case of the general strike in 52 jute mills called by the central trade unions, which was settled unit wise on different dates through bipartite agreements.

The role of the government as a conciliatory machinery is gradually eroding. According to this government publication, the percentage of disputes settles through conciliation in the years 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 were 29.94, 21.17, 23.68, 22.57, 20.64 and 18.24 respectively. The report even admitted the dismal role of the Labour Department in settling the labour disputes and mentioned that most of the disputes relating to dismissal, discharge, suspension etc. could not be resolved through conciliation and these disputes accounted for 35.91% of the total number of disputes referred to the conciliation machinery under Section 12(4) of the ID Act.

The ID Act provides for the recovery of unpaid dues of the worker from his/her employer, payable under a settlement, award or under the provisions of Chapter VA and Chapter VB of the ID Act, upon the state government issuing a certificate to the Chief Judicial Magistrate or Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, who would proceed to realize the money from the employer. The number of cases that came up for such recovery in 2000 was 111 but none of them were disposed off during the year.

Employment scenario: The employment scenario continued to be grim. The number of factories and the total employment remained stagnant in recent years. The average daily employment for the years 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 was 9,35,503, 8,89,857, 8,91,179 and 8,85,788 respectively while the number of factories in the same period was 11,047, 11,238, 11,441 and 11,720 respectively.

The employment of women in factories is gradually decreasing. The average daily employment of women workers in the years from 1995 to 1999 is 22,687, 22,580, 22,203, 22,470 and 21,270 respectively.

PF default: West Bengal tops the list in PF default. As on December 12, 2000, the PF arrears by exempted establishments was Rs. 271.04 crore and by un-exempted establishments Rs. 65.23 crore. The main defaulting industries are in jute, textile and engineering sectors. The incidence of default in public sector establishments is also very high.

ESI dues: The total amount of ESI dues on account of contributions, interest, damages etc. as on 31/12/2000 was Rs. 13,749.92 lakh. Out of this the private and government sectors have defaulted to the tune of Rs. 9721.92 lakh and 4027.69 lakh respectively.

No wonder, the LF Government’s claim of being Shilapabandu finds general approval in industry circles.

-- Atanu Chakravarty