Interviewer: Would you tell us where you work or associated with?
Sunil Pal: I am associated with labour movement. I am an active member of TUCI - Trade Union Centre of India. We are present in various jute mills and participate in various movements on issues regarding workers. Since the last five years, we are operating in different jute mills. There were five jute mills run by the government where VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) policy was introduced. We protested against this policy, which forced the central government to stop pushing for VRS from 2005 to 2007 June and the government kept paying the wages to the workers. Ultimately, due to the pressure of various trade unions of well-known political parties everyone had been forced to take VRS. The only good thing in this VRS policy in comparison to others is that even the workers who were transferred for some days or even one or two days were given their VRS dues.
From 2005 onwards it has been the central government’s policy to encourage use of plastic, under the influence of plastic lobby. So the government’s attitude towards jute is not quite favourable at all, rather it is working to close down the mills. Thus, the conditions of the jute industry and jute farmers are pretty bad. Even then, wherever trade unions such as us are operating we are try our best, such as here at Loomtex at Titagarh (Loomtex Jute Mill, Titagarh, West Bengal). Here we have struggled from 2008 to 2009 to obtain gratuity for the workers and finally was successful through a tripartite treaty. Although the treaty mentioned that in each month 80 people will be paid gratuity money, and 980 people will be paid their gratuity in a year. However, only 400 people were paid so. So the struggle continues. There much contestation on the ownership of these jute mills but none of them are interested to give workers Provident Fund (PF) or gratuity, which is mandatory by government policy. PF and gratuity is due for mill workers of every jute mill. Various excuses are given, such as one did not have any work form this to that period.
The labour struggle continues in Bengal, one can remember there was a call of 11 and half hours of rail strike by ten trade union under the leadership of Sangrami Mazdoor Union on this issue. Still, the government has not paid any attention to the issue. The Labour Minister did call for a meeting but it was much delayed. Ultimately in February 2016, the government acknowledged one of the contesters as owners and handed over the mill to that party. The trade unions were kept aloof from the discussion. However, since we are the only trade union in the mill and all workers were on our side, the government had to take us in the discussion and makes a pact that within one month the gratuity amount will be paid and the calculations part of PF will also be provided. The other ten trade unions in other mills allied with the government and signed a treaty already, keeping us in the dark. However, since the earlier owners were not paying anything, our trade union and the workers agreed on this proposal and signed the treaty. It is January 2017 now and the workers have not yet been paid PF or gratuity.
The owners have taken full advantages of the problems created by demonetisation. Last month everyone was paid in the old currencies. This month they had not paid their salary yet whereas it should have been paid by the seventh of the month, thus the workers has been on strike.
Neither the labour minister nor the labour ministry are taking anything constructive measures due to which the people in the jute industry, such as the workers and the farmers are suffering greatly. We are trying to have a holistic approach on this issue with all concerns persons connected on this and take it in an all-India level.
In this context it should be mentioned that in 1998 Jute Packaging Act came into existence which stated that all the food packaging has to be done 90% in jute packaging and 10% can be packaged with plastic. In reality 80 per cent of the packaging is done by plastic. Since the Modi government has come, even this is not being practiced. They are trying to change labour policies, due to which the All India strike was called on September 2. If any holistic movement is not taken up then it would be extremely disastrous for the jute industry as a whole. Jute had been a crucial source of income for Bengal and a valued cash crop but now it is being driven towards an uncertain future. We are trying to start a bigger movement against this.