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Raise ends strike, stirs fear
- Citu claims gain at HPL

Calcutta, Nov. 24: The four-day-old strike at Haldia Petrochemicals ended tonight with the management agreeing to a steep hike in wages which sections of industry described as a precedent that would bear heavy on other companies.

According to the deal HPL struck with CPM labour arm Citu, contract workers’ wages will go up by 104 per cent in the first year, followed by another 21 per cent in the second year and 20 per cent in the third.

Bengal’s showpiece industrial venture was in the midst of a Rs 1,230-crore expansion when fallen CPM strongman Lakshman Seth enforced the shutdown demanding an almost 300 per cent wage hike, allegedly in a bid to cling on to the support of workers slipping away to a fledgling Trinamul Congress-backed rival.

Work at HPL will resume tomorrow morning, the company announced, but the developments of the past few days may not have left a sweet taste.

The money HPL spends on the contract workers’ wages will go up to Rs 21 crore a year from Rs 11 crore. The bill will creep up to Rs 24 crore in the second year and Rs 27 crore in the third.

It has lost close to Rs 40 crore because of the strike-enforced delay in the expansion.

However, there is a minor consolation: had Citu’s original demand been met, the bill would have ballooned to Rs 34 crore in the first year itself.

Speaking to The Telegraph from Washington, HPL chairman Tarun Das said: “I am relieved. We can now get on with the expansion and focus on work.”

Seth sounded much more jubilant. “I am very satisfied that all parties — the management, contractors, labourers and the labour department — did their best to find a solution to the impasse after just over three days of strike. The agreement reached addresses practically every concern raised.”

Citu’s strong-arm tactics, reminiscent of the militant trade unionism of the ’60s and ’70s, came at a time a Trinamul application to formally launch a rival HPL union is lying with the government.

Many industries were closely watching the developments at HPL because of fears that the outcome of the strike and the wage talks could have an impact across the state.

S.B. Ganguly, chairman emeritus of Exide Industries, conceded that the steep rise in wages would put pressure on other companies. “There will be an impact. But every management will deal with it differently keeping in mind its own market dynamics,” Ganguly said. Battery maker Exide has a plant in Haldia.

Seth made no bones about his gains from the shutdown. Asked if it helped his waning political clout, he said: “Of course, it did. Any such successful agitation has its political dividends.”

He did not sound as convincing when he expressed sadness for enforcing the strike on Bengal’s second-largest industrial venture. “The Haldia project is one of its kind in the state and there has never been a strike or loss of a man day in its history. It is sad that we had to resort to our last resort — a strike — for a solution,” added Seth.

The HPL wage pact will be valid up to June 2012.

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