Violence at a jute mill in West Bengal’s Hooghly district and the death of the chief executive officer at the hands of irate workers, apart from being condemnable, explain that there has been not much improvement in the state’s industrial relations ever since the Left Front lost power in 2011. There have been killings of executives at jute mills right through the past 15 years or so. This is almost in continuation since the late 1960s, when the precipitate decline began in West Bengal’s industrial climate, leading to a flight of capital. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, much in the way she has done in the past, was quick to blame the Opposition for the violence, and did not set a good precedent by doing so.
The incident also shows the crisis the Rs. 8,500 crore jute industry is passing through and there is little to hope for in the near future. Of the 84 jute mills in the country, 61 are in West Bengal. Jute products face the problem of competition from artificial fibres and hence the reason behind low productivity and the reason for the owners to go on lock-out, retrenchment, reduction in work-hours, cutting wages, etc. Workers on their part complain of wage agreements not being executed, gratuity not being paid and other financial irregularities, leading to their mistrust of managements. Many casual workers are forced to work at much below the minimum wage of `157 per eight-hour shift. Apart from the need to improve labour productivity, the industry should also look for ways to create new markets. Repeated court orders against the use of plastic bags should help the industry because jute is a safe material to package food. Moreover, it is biodegradable and hence environment-friendly as distinct from plastic.
West Bengal accounts for 71% of the area under jute cultivation in India, and 73% of raw jute production. Hence, the industry, along with tea, forms the economic backbone of the state. The jute upgrade fund given by the Central and state governments cannot be utilised because often there is confusion as to who the actual owner of a jute mill is. In the 1980s we saw textile mills of Bombay dying because of militant trade unionism. The West Bengal government and industry chambers should suggest a way out of the problem.