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Militant unions take toll on Hooghly units

The government may produce data showing improvement in industrial relations and decline in man-days lost due to labour trouble in Bengal, but ground realities tell a different tale.

While the Left government is busy scouring the country for investment, labour problem is posing a serious threat to the survival of 30-odd manufacturing units — involved in ingot, steel and steel products production — in Hooghly, along Delhi Road.

Industrialists here have joined hands to set up the Hooghly Chamber of Commerce to highlight their woes. Industries and commerce minister Nirupam Sen was present at the inauguration of the chamber on December 4, 2002, and promised help from the government to improve industrial relations in the area.

“We also met the minister in his office and had meetings with West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) chairman Somnath Chatterjee, urging them to rein in the Left-backed unions in the area. Both of them gave us a patient hearing and expressed concern. We also brought the matter to the notice of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. But nothing has changed at the ground level,” complained an industrialist.

Labour unrest characterises almost all the units and the district labour commissioner’s office has failed to sort it out. Though the area attracted huge investments with the setting up of 15 new units — with an initial investment of Rs 2 to 3 crore — in the mid 1990s, the recent trend is marked by closures. During the past two years, units like Assam Tubes, Modern India Steel Rolling Mills and Aashirbad Tubes, have downed their shutters, and others, like Adhunik Steels, have shifted base to Durgapur and other pockets. According to industrialists, the remaining ones — which collectively employ around 5,000 workmen and have a significant impact on the local economy —will be forced to follow suit unless the government initiates action.

“We spend 80 per cent of our time and energy sorting out workmen-related disputes. The arm-twisting tactics of the trade unions — strike, go-slow, refusing to work ‘overtime’, interference in recruitment — have affected productivity and resulted in losses for most of the units in the area. With a few exceptions, almost all the units are regularly missing repayment obligations with institutional lenders,” said an industrialist, who pumped in Rs 5 crore to set up a steel-rolling mill in 1995.

But the union leaders lay part of the blame on the promoters, who, according to them, don’t comply with the various “statutory requirements” and force the labourers to work in “sub-human” conditions. “Wherever possible, we have tried to sort out differences through dialogue. But in certain cases, we have found the industrialists are at fault. They exploit the workers and fire workmen if they seek their legitimate dues. Some of them even bring workers from other states to deny the local people their legitimate employment opportunities. In such cases, agitations by the trade unions is justified,” said Chittabroto Majumdar, Citu general secretary.

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