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Whiff of politics in Haldia Petro shutdown

Nov. 21: An indefinite strike has shut down Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd (HPL) for the first time since it became operational in 2001, clouding the fate of an expansion project and prompting the Opposition to smell a ploy by a fallen CPM strongman to regain ground.

The Citu-spearheaded strike to press for higher wages for 1,500 contract workers came on the eve of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s scheduled visit to East Midnapore, where the plant is located.

The strike has been called by the Citu-affiliated Haldia Petrochemicals Service and Maintenance Contractors Workers’ Union, headed by former CPM MP Lakshman Seth who was at the centre of the Nandigram land acquisition controversy.

Production will not be affected by the strike because the plant has been closed for 75 days since October 30 to facilitate the expansion project called Supermax. However, if the strike drags on, the project as well as the resumption of production will be delayed. HPL then could lose around Rs 10 crore a day.

Sections of HPL employees had resorted to cease-work earlier but never before had there been a complete shutdown.

The contract workers earn between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,500 a month. Seth wants them to be given a nearly 120 per cent raise.

Seth’s rival, Tamluk MP Subhendu Adhikary, said the strike was “politically motivated”. He said: “Lakshman Seth is desperate to regain the ground he lost to us, especially after his defeat in the Lok Sabha polls.”

Seth lost his Tamluk seat to Adhikary. After the Lok Sabha polls, Trinamul floated its own trade union at HPL with about 30 per cent of the Citu workers whom it had won over.

Seth dismissed Adhikary’s allegation, saying: “We called the strike as the management refused to sign a new agreement for enhancing the wages of contract workers.”

He claimed that the agreement signed between the management and the trade unions for the three years between 2006 and 2009 had expired.

About 11,000 workers were engaged in the Rs 1,230-crore expansion project that will augment HPL’s polymer manufacturing capacity by 30 per cent. But the strikers did not allow a single worker to enter the plant today.

Trouble started around 8am when about 500 casual workers, owing allegiance to Trinamul, were stopped by Citu activists at the gate. A clash broke out with the two sides attacking each other with the shafts of the flags they were carrying. Policemen posted nearby separated the groups.

An HPL spokesperson said the strike notice was served after the breakdown of talks yesterday between the management and the Citu-affiliated union, held in the presence of the additional labour commissioner. “The ongoing work for project Supermax has thus come to a halt at the moment.”

HPL is now managed by a board under the control of the state government. After initial losses, it became one of the few industrial success stories in Bengal but today’s strike could take the sheen off that glory.

Sudarshan Manna, vice-president of the Citu-led union, said the strike would go on “till the management meets our demand”.

Citu general secretary Kali Ghosh said in Calcutta: “For the past three years, there has been no enhancement of wages of contract workers in Haldia Petro. The strike was the last weapon left.”

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