COVID-19 underlines crisis in jute mills in Kolkata suburbs

With no jute bags available, farmers switch to plastic bags to pack and transport their harvest as Bengal's jute mills remain shut because of the pandemic. Its labour force is left in limbo with unpaid wages and little prospect of getting back to work.

Just days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown from March 24, states like Punjab and Telangana were looking forward to a bumper harvest and smiles on the faces of their farmers. And on the faces of the owners and workers in West Bengal’s labour intensive jute mills.

But the lockdown dashed everyone’s hopes. Farmers are unsure of how and who will procure their products. Especially given the acute lack of jute bags, given the complete shut down of West Bengal’s jute industry, putting lakhs of its workers out of jobs and income. It is during harvest time that the bags produced by these jute mill workers are in maximum demand. Now, Punjab, which requires over five lakh bales (one bale comprises 500 bags) for the current harvest, will be using polypropylene bags while Telangana, which urgently needs about 40 lakh jute sacks, saw its chief minister personally call Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata asking that the jute units be given special consideration. And that’s the requirement from just two states.

So far, Mamata Banerjee has not budged from her stand to close all jute mills as part of the pandemic lockdown. As the gap between supply and demand for jute bags widened, the Union government has allowed the use of plastic bags for stocking agricultural produce.  Wheat procurement started from April 15 and a record 40-41 million tonne procurement target has been set for this year.

Though jute bags are 60 percent costlier (a jute bag costs Rs 45-47 against the Rs 15 cost of a plastic bag) than their plastic counterparts, they are preferred because they are environment-friendly and the quality of the food grains remains unaffected over long time periods. The textile ministry, which implements the Jute Packaging Materials Act under which all food grains in bulk are mandated to be packaged in jute bags, usually relaxes the rule on use of plastic bags up to a certain quantity depending upon the availability of jute.

COVID-19 toll on jute industry

Those closely monitoring the jute industry in Bengal feel that while demand would not be impacted much, as the government has always been in favour of Jute, ensuring safety of the workforce would be a major challenge. “The Union government for the time being has allowed the usage of plastic bags given the massive demand from states like Punjab and Telangana,” said S P Bakshi, former secretary of the Indian Jute Manufacturers Association (IJMA). “The Food Corporation of India (FCI) has always preferred the use of jute bags. But the major challenge now would be the safety of workers”.

Normally, jute mills work throughout the year and some have diversified into other jute products but the industry as a whole is still totally dependent on jute bag production. At present, 42 jute mills, mostly located in North 24 Parganas district, are ready to resume operations. West Bengal is the country’s largest producer with 12.2 lakhs metric tonnes of jute sacks every year. Jute mill authorities say that they have no alternative but to wait and watch. “We are not much concerned about the marketing side as the government has assured us that orders would start once the lockdown ends”.

Jute is one of the oldest industries in West Bengal, which has extensive jute farming employing nearly 40 lakh people. The jute is procured from farmers by the Jute Commission of India (JCI) who then sell it to jute mills. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) for jute has been raised by the Union Cabinet to Rs. 3950 per quintal for 2019-20 season from Rs. 3700 per quintal last year. But there would be no immediate gain for the farmers because sowing will start only by May end and harvesting in August.

Jute farmers getting raw material ready for the mills. Pic: Gurvinder Singh

Workers accuse mills of non-payment

The jute mill industry employs over 6 lakh workers with 95 percent being contractual workers mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who settled in Bengal over the years. On March 20th, the Union Labour Ministry had advised employers of all private and public sector units to not terminate their employees — particularly casual or contractual employees — or reduce their wages in the wake of the pandemic.

But workers say that none of the mills followed the advisory and have stopped payments since the lockdown. “We have only been paid the outstanding wages of 5-6 days before the lockdown began but nothing has been given to us after the mills closed,” said Krishna Das, an employee of Naihati Jute mill in North 24 parganas. “The mills have adopted the rule of no work, no pay.” The 45-year-old who hails from Bihar said that he has taken Rs 8000 as loan from a money lender to run his family of five that includes his three children and his wife who suffers from a heart ailment.

Several other workers had the same story. When asked, Gupta, the IJMA chairman, said they were looking into the matter.

The mills mainly employ contractual labour as they are not liable for any statutory benefits and work for wages as low as Rs 100 for eight hours, while the the payment for Badlee, or permanent, workers can be high as Rs 500 along with other benefits like Provident Fund, ESI, gratuity and bonus. “Almost 95 percent of mills across Bengal are employing contractual labours who get no benefits,” said Ajay Kumar Singh, a social activist who works for the rights of the mill workers. “The mills have ignored statutory benefits even to Badlee workers who are eligible. A minimum of Rs 800 crore as gratuity is still unpaid by mills whereas the law mandates payment of gratuity 45 days after retirement. Sadly, we have come across several cases where workers have died waiting for their payments.”

Bloody confrontation 

Even before the lockdown, several jute mills were facing facing shutdowns due to a host of issues ranging from labour strikes to non-availability of raw material. The country’s first ever jute mill was established by George Acland at Rishra in Hooghly district in 1855. He brought jute spinning machinery from Dundee, Scotland. The jute growing areas were mainly in Bengal and there was an abundant supply of labour, ample coal for power and river connectivity.

Four years later, the first power driven weaving factory was set up. By 1869, five mills were operating with 950 looms. Until the middle 1880’s, the jute industry was confined almost entirely to Dundee and Calcutta. France, America, and later Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and Russia, among others, turned to jute manufacturing in the latter part of the 19th century.

The industry was doing well in the early years after Independence, before the decline began with the growing popularity of plastic in the mid-1960s. Between 1967 and 1969, with the steady rise of Naxalism, labour unrest in West Bengal had reached its peak. It led to the rise in wages of permanent workers but did not improve the condition of the daily employees. The industry remained sick and by 1977, when the Left Front came to power in Bengal, it was acknowledged that the industry had little capacity to generate new demands or rescue its workforce from impoverishment.

The situation has remained unchanged with the change of regime in 2011. There have even been murders of senior mill officials and violent clashes between workers and jute mill managements have been witnessed over the past few years. Workers of a closed Weaverly Jute Mills at Shyamnagar in North 24 Parganas district allegedly ransacked the office of the unit and torched two vehicles after the management put up a notice on February 20th this year announcing suspension of work. On June 15th, 2014, the chief executive officer of North Brook Jute Mill H K Maheswari in West Bengal’s Hooghly district was beaten to death on factory premises allegedly by mill workers.

When asked about the losses being suffered by the jute industry due to lockdown, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said, that her priority is to ensure safety of workers. But the fact is that it is a sunset industry today. “The immediate headache of the jute mills after the lockdown ends would be the payment of wages,” said IJMA’s Bakshi. “Over 5,000 workers are employed in a mill. It would be difficult for the mill owners to clear the wages without production. We have to watch how they respond to it.”

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