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Hooghly jute mill simmering since November over shift cuts and pay

Two of the three jute mill workers arrested in night-long raids being taken to court; (right) Maheshwari's son-in-law Pradip Pasari talks to reporters on Monday. Pictures by Ananda Das

Champdani, June 16: Discontent was simmering among workers at Northbrook Jute Mill over the way the management had cut down work hours and closed the unit for 40 days to curb losses over the past few months, affecting their wages.

Workers staying at the Northbrook Jute Co. Ltd’s quarters, about a kilometre from the mill in Hooghly’s Bhadreswar, said most of them were angry with the management after it cut down the daily shift from eight hours to five several times since November last year.

Yesterday, when the management proposed a three-day week or a five-hour shift to its employees, rumour spread that the mill could close down, the workers said. The anger, coupled with fear, claimed its victim — mill president H.K. Maheshwari who was battered to death with bricks by a section of the employees.

According to the workers, the jute mill had been operating on a five-hour shift for four months since November 16 last year. On March 4 this year, the management announced closure of the unit for 40 days, citing paucity of orders. When it reopened, it again operated on a five-hour shift for a month. The mill had restored its normal eight-hour work schedule only last month.

“Just when we thought all was well, the management yesterday proposed cutting down working hours again. We were angry and terrified,” said an employee who declined to be identified.

Northbrook’s 2,800 workers are paid on an hourly basis, which means reducing the shift time would affect pay. When the factory was closed for 40 days, the workers claimed they did not get any wages.

Mill owner Prakash Chorariya had yesterday said each worker is paid Rs 475, against what he termed the industry average of Rs 380, for an eight-hour day.

After several attempts by The Telegraph today, Chorariya picked up his phone and said he would not talk about the incident as he was at a condolence meeting organised for Maheshwari.

The jute mill’s workers said they and their families were tense for the past few months because every time the management announced steps to curb losses, rumours would spread that the company could close down.

Sheikh Alamgir, a 45-year-old worker in the loom section of the mill, said: “Over the past seven months, we had been suffering from tension over the way the mill was operating. Since November, we are facing one crisis after another at the mill. There were five-hour shifts and then came a 40-day closure. All these led to a reduced pay for us.”

Nizamuddin Ansari, a 50-year-old worker who said he entered the mill at 11am and fled when the trouble broke out, echoed Alamgir.

“When I entered the mill yesterday, the other workers told me that the factory was going to close down. Everyone was angry with the management because of some of its decisions. I was told by some of my colleagues to march with them to the administrative building. But I fled instead, anticipating trouble,” Ansari said.

“I learnt that the angry workers marched to the main office building. When Maheshwaribabu came out of his office to pacify them, they attacked him with a vengeance,” the worker added.

Police conducted night-long raids in the Coolie Line area, where the workers of the jute mill stay, and arrested three more employees, taking the total number of arrests to seven. The three arrested today were identified as Swapan Singh, 27, Rajinder Chowbey, 44, and Mohammed Kamruddin.

Hooghly superintendent of police Sunil Choudhary said: “Two of the three workers we arrested belong to the BMS-affiliated union at the jute mill. We produced the six arrested persons in a Chandernagore court today. Five of them were remanded in five days’ police custody while the other was sent to 14-day judicial custody.”

Trinamul MLAs Tapan Dasgupta and Muzaffar Khan today visited Maheshwari’s widow Sunita at her residence on the jute mill premises, apparently on the instructions of Mamata Banerjee.

Khan said: “We met Maheshwari’s wife. She told us she is satisfied with the police action.”

According to MLA Dasgupta, Maheshwari’s body, which has been kept in a morgue in Serampore, would be cremated after his son Mayank arrives from Chicago, where he works.

Maheshwari’s son is expected to arrive tonight. The jute mill president’s two married daughters, Payel and Anjali, have arrived from Mumbai and Jaipur, respectively, with their husbands.

Pradip Pasari, the husband of Maheshwari’s elder daughter Payel, said: “From what I have heard, my father-in-law’s murder was pre-planned. We have faith in the police.”

The Indian Jute Mills Association today condemned the killing of Maheshwari.

In a press release issued today, the association requested the state government for immediate action “to restore faith among the jute mill owners”.

“This ghastly incident is the culmination of what IJMA has been writing to the West Bengal government during the last six months. Without the usual indent from the Government of India during the months of February, March, April and May, 2014, the industry has been starved of orders and most mills across the board have had to cut back production. Several mills closed down…,” the release said.