By Soumik Chakraborty
Editor’s Note: The Industrial Disputes Act and other peripheral labor law legislations are socialistic, beneficial legislation, and must be interpreted in the best manner possible to favor the vulnerable sections of society. But at the same time attempts by parties to file frivolous and malicious suits based on provisions of the Acts must also be discouraged. The author attempts to analyze the shift in labor jurisprudence in the state of West Bengal.
When India gained independence in 1947, Bengal was partitioned along religious lines. The western part went to India and was named West Bengal while the Eastern part joined Pakistan as a province called East Bengal giving rise to Bangladesh in 1971. In 1967 a peasant uprising broke out in Naxalbari, in northern West Bengal. The insurgency was led by hardline district-level CPI(M) leaders Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal.
The Naxalbari movement was violently repressed by the West Bengal government. During the 1970s and 1980s, severe power shortages, strikes, and a violent Marxist-Naxalite movement damaged much of the state’s infrastructure, leading to a period of economic stagnation.
The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 resulted in the influx of millions of refugees to West Bengal, causing significant strains on its infrastructure.[i] Fresh elections were held in West Bengal in 1969. CPI(M) emerged as the largest party in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.[ii] But with the active support of CPI and the Bangla Congress, Ajoy Mukherjee was returned as Chief Minister of the state. Mukherjee resigned on March 16, 1970, and the state was put under President’s Rule.
In the 1977 election of the state legislature, the Left Front, headed by Communist Party of India (Marxist), won 243 seats thereby gaining a majority. The first Left Front government was established with Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister. West Bengal politics underwent a major change when the Left Front came to power. The Left Front, led by Communist Party of India (Marxist), has governed for the state for the subsequent three decades[iii] before being defeated in the 2011 Assembly elections.
When the Left Front government came to power, it brought with it an incorrectly founded interpretation of Marxism. Workers Unions were fed teeth by the support of the State Government. Standing up for the rights of laborers meant rampant strikes and lockouts. However, workers cannot be solely blamed. The babudom in West Bengal was sitting peacefully encased in a shell of immunity that contributed to pitiable working conditions for the working class. The Left Front seemed to be a messiah to the crowd of disgruntled workers.
These contributory factors led to unrest and disturbances in an otherwise industrially flourishing state, bringing the whole mechanism to a standstill. However, with the change of power after 34 years in 2011, the dissatisfied middle class has looked towards the new government with the hope that better days are here. According to the report filed by the Labour Department, Government of West Bengal, in 2012-13, the government has not disappointed, but the question remains as to how soon can we see these measures being implemented.
The Labour Department
The West Bengal Labour Welfare Board is a statutory and autonomous body under the Department of Labour, Government of West Bengal. The Board started its journey from 1st July 1976. The Board administers the West Bengal Labour Welfare Fund and promotes welfare amongst the working class community of the state of West Bengal.
The Board collects contributions from the employees and the employers of the establishments and other statutory revenues under the West Bengal Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1974. The Board with the fund, so collected, implements various Labour Welfare Schemes for the benefits of workers who are paying the contribution to the Labour Welfare Fund. The Welfare Schemes and activities are implemented and carried out mainly through the Labour Welfare Centers set up in different industrial areas of this state.
The diversified activities of the Labour Department, West Bengal are carried out by the different directorates of the Department viz.(i) the Directorate of Labour (ii) the Directorate of Shops & Establishments (iii) the Directorate of Employment (iv) the Directorate of Factories (v) the Directorate of Boilers etc. Besides these, the Employee’s State Insurance (Medical Benefit) Scheme, West Bengal, the Workmen’s Compensation Act,1923 and the State Labour Institute are also administered under the aegis of the Labour Department.
The Labour Directorate is chiefly concerned with the administration of the enactments under Industrial Relations Branch, Social Security Branch, and Labour Welfare Branch. The functions of the Labour Directorate also include promotion of harmonious industrial relations and implementation of various social security schemes such as State Assisted Scheme of Provident Fund for Unorganised Workers in West Bengal (SASPFUW), West Bengal Beedi Workers’ Welfare Scheme, Financial Assistance to the Workers in Locked -out Industrial Units (FAWLOI) and the beneficial schemes for the welfare of the building and other construction workers.
In addition to the West Bengal Labour Welfare Board which has been functioning effectively since its inception, two other Boards – The West Bengal Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board and The West Bengal Unorganised Sector Workers’ Welfare Board- have also been constituted in 2006 and 2008 respectively for the purpose of administering the benefits under the schemes introduced by the state government and the board.
Despite such an active Labour Board, there have been major Industrial Disputes which have been adjudicated by the Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court.
Major Disputes relating to Labour Law in West Bengal
1) State of West Bengal & Anr. v. West Bengal Minimum Wages Inspectors Association and Ors.[iv]
In this case, the Supreme Court bench of Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice Swatanter Kumar held that the Principle of equal pay for equal work, not a fundamental right but a constitutional goal.
The respondents were employed in or around 1975 as ad-hoc Inspectors-AMW, in Pay Scale No. 9 (300-600). They were subsequently absorbed into regular service and appointed against permanent vacancies. Though Inspectors (Minimum Wages), Inspector (Trade Unions), Labour Inspectors, Supervisor (Labour Welfare), Investigators, Inspectors (Shops & Establishments) also in Pay Scale No. 9 were included in the west Bengal Subordinate Labour Services, Inspectors-AMW were not included in the said Labour Services.
The Second Pay Commission recommended the revised Pay Scale No. 9 to the Inspectors – AMW subject to the condition that the minimum qualification for recruitment for the said post should be a University degree. On 28.7.1981, the Government framed the West Bengal Services Revision of Pay and Allowances Rules, 1981 to implement the second Pay Commission Recommendations effective from 2.4.1981 under which Inspectors-AMW, were assigned Pay Scale No. 9 (380-910).
Holders of the post of Inspector (Co-operative Societies), Extension Officer (Panchayats) and KGO-JLRO (Revenue Officers) who were also in Pay Scale No. 9 earlier, but with a higher initial pay of Rs. 330, were granted the higher Pay Scale No. 11 (425-1050). Feeling aggrieved, the respondents filed a writ petition (CR No. 247(W) of 1982)
The Court decided on the matter in a three-fold approach, it held that:
“It is now well-settled that parity cannot be claimed merely on the basis that earlier the subject post and the reference category posts were carrying the same scale of pay. In fact, one of the functions of the Pay Commission is to identify the posts which deserve a higher scale of pay than what was earlier being enjoyed with reference to their duties and responsibilities, and extend such higher scale to those categories of posts.
The Pay Commission has two functions; to revise the existing pay scale, by recommending revised pay scales corresponding to the pre-revised pay scales and, secondly, make recommendations for upgrading or downgrading posts resulting in higher pay scales or lower pay scales, depending upon the nature of duties and functions attached to those posts. Therefore, the mere fact that at an earlier point of time, two posts were carrying the same pay scale does not mean that after the implementation of revision in pay scales, they should necessarily have the same revised pay scale…
The Fourth Pay Commission has recommended in 1999 that the Inspectors-AMW should be extended the benefit of Pay Scale No. 10. In view of the pendency of the dispute relating to pay scale in the appeal before the High Court, the Government did not take a final decision on the recommendation of the Fourth Pay Commission insofar as the post of Inspectors-AMW.”
Hence, the principle of equal pay for equal work cannot be secured as a fundamental right, it is more of a constitutional goal that Pay Commissions seek to address through recommendations, in an attempt to realize the vision of a Welfare State.
2) C.E.S.C Ltd. v. State of West Bengal & Ors.[v]
C.E.S.C., a company and a licensee under the Electricity Act, 2003 approached this Court mainly for quashing of a certificate issued in Form-S as per Rule 12A(3) of the West Bengal Industrial Disputes Rules, 1958, and a notice issued by the learned Judge, Second Labour Court, requiring the appearance of the petitioners before the Court for framing of issues. The controversy arose out of illegal termination of one of the respondents. It was at his instance the Assistant Labour Commissioner, being the Conciliation Officer had issued the impugned certificate in the exercise of his power under Section10(1B)(b) of the Act. The notice directing appearance of the petitioners before the Labour Court for hearing regarding the framing of issues was issued by the learned Judge, Second Labour Court under the provisions of Section 10(1B)(d) of the Act.
The original status of the complainant as a workman of the petitioners is not in dispute in the present proceeding. The case of the petitioners is that he had retired from his service on 31st December 2005 upon having attained the age of superannuation, being 60 years. The case of the complainant, on the other hand, is that his date of birth is 1st February 1949 and hence he would have attained the age of superannuation only in the month of February 1949. His allegation was that he is being illegally compelled to retire before attaining the age of superannuation.
The Calcutta High Court held that:
“In Sub-clause (a) of Section 10(113), the party raising the dispute is empowered to apply before the Conciliation Officer for a certificate about the pendency of the conciliation proceeding if no settlement is arrived at within sixty days from the date of raising of dispute. Thereafter, the mandatory time-frame sets in its course. In this sub-clause, however, the expression “dispute” has been used twice.
In order to attract the provisions of this sub-section, there must be a subsisting industrial dispute in relation to a single workman in which a conciliation proceeding is set in motion. This is apparent from the said provision, in which the first time there has been using of the expression “dispute”, in conjunction with the expression “industrial”. The expression “industrial dispute” as used in the said provision would be an “industrial dispute” within the meaning of Section 2(k) of the Act.
The second time the word “dispute” has been used in Section 10(1B)(a) is in relation to counting of the period of sixty days, and here the expression is used in isolation, as opposed to its use in conjunction with the word “industrial” in the first part of this sub-clause. Here, the phrase “raising of the dispute” appears to imply making one’s grievance known to the Conciliation Officer. Thus, the legislative intent is clear that there must be pre-existence of an industrial dispute before the single workman makes his grievance known to the Conciliation Officer. The “industrial dispute” does not come into existence from the date of making the grievance known to the Conciliation Officer.”
The High Court ruled that the certificate issued by the Conciliation Officer under section 10(1B)(b) of the Industrial Disputes Act cannot be sustained as it was issued by him without conducting any investigation and without recording his satisfaction about the existence of an industrial dispute and directed the Conciliation Officer to complete such pending investigation within four weeks to redress the grievance of the complainant.
3) Haran Chandra Naskar v. State of West Bengal & Ors.[vi]
In the present case, Shri Haran Chandra Naskar was permanently working under the Management of M/s. Switz Foods Private Limited. The Management of the said M/s. Switz Foods Private Limited dismissed Shri. Haran Chandra Naskar on and from 17th May 2000. The Union raised an industrial dispute on his behalf. After the failure of the conciliation proceeding, the Government of West Bengal referred the matter to the First Industrial Tribunal, Kolkata for adjudication of the issues mentioned in the order of reference dated 4th September 2001.
However, no intimation was given to the Union in this regard due to which the Union failed to represent itself at the Tribunal and a “No Dispute Award” was passed by the Tribunal. The Tribunal set aside the petition of the Union on 17th April 2002 to set aside the No Dispute Award. Following this, an appeal was filed with the High Court.
The High Court read into Rule 27 of the West Bengal Industrial Dispute Rules,
“Rule 27. Correction of errors and review of an award. –The Labour Court, Industrial Tribunal or Arbitrator may –
(i) Correct any clerical or arithmetical mistake arising from an accidental slip or omission in ay award made by it or him, and
(ii) review an award on the ground of some mistake or error apparent on the face of the record, either of its/his own motion or on the application of any of the parties;
(iii) for sufficient cause set aside after notice to the opposite party or parties, as the case may be, the ex parte award or an award on the footing that the industrial dispute under reference is no longer in existence either of its/his own motion or on the application of any of the parties.
Provided that no correction shall be made without previous notices to the parties or opposite party, as the case may be:
[Provided further that no application for review under Clause (iii) shall be entertained on the expiry of the 15th day from the date of the award].”
The Court held that in the present case the Tribunal had not decided the matter on the merits of the case, it had not given an opportunity to the Union to be heard. The fact that the Union had filed the present appeal before the High Court shows the eagerness of the union to see that justice is delivered. Hence under Rule 27 of the West Bengal Industrial Dispute Rules, the Tribunal was liable to set aside the “No Dispute Award” and set a fresh date for hearing the matter while giving equal opportunities to both parties to let their contentions be heard.
4) Indian Drug Manufacturers Association and Ors. V. State of West Bengal[vii]
The Petitioners were aggrieved by a Notification dated 17.08.1998, issued by the Labour Department of the Govt. Of West Bengal whereby and whereunder, in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 3 read with Section 5 of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Governor of West Bengal, after considering all representations with regard to fixation of minimum wages, fixed, in consultation with the State Minimum Wages Advisory Board, the rates specified in the Schedule appended to the said Notification, declaring them to be the minimum rates of wages payable to the employees employed in the State of West Bengal in the employment in establishments which were added to the Schedule to the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
The petitioners prayed for quashing of the said Notification by making a prayer to the effect that a Writ of Mandamus is issued commanding upon the respondents to withdraw, rescind and/or recall and cancel the said impugned Notification dated 17.8.1998.
The petitioners also contended that Drug Manufacturers are not covered in the Schedule of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. According to them, since their employment is not covered in the Schedule to the said 1948 Act, their employment does not fall within the definition of “Scheduled Employment” as per Section 2(g) of the said Act.
In the present matter, the Court looked into the definition of Employee as per Section 2(i) of the Minimum Wages Act, which has been defined as, ““employee” means any person who is employed for hire or reward to do any work, skilled or unskilled, manual or clerical, in a scheduled employment in respect of which minimum rates of wages have been fixed; and includes an out-worker to whom any articles or materials are given out by another person to be made up, cleaned, washed, altered, ornamented, finished, repaired, adapted or otherwise processed for sale for the purposes of the trade or business of that other person where the process is to be carried out either in the home of the out-worker or in some other premises not being premises under the control and management of that other person; and also includes an employee declared to be an employee by the appropriate Government; but does not include any member of the Armed Forces of the (Union).”
In other words, the condition precedent for an employee to claim that his employment is covered under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, must be that his employment should be “scheduled employment”.
The court ruled that;
“Under these circumstances, neither the Minimum Wages Act can be made applicable nor can the Sales Promotion Employees (Conditions and Services) Act, 1976 be routinely applied to such employees. They can certainly take benefit under the provisions of the said Sales Promotion Act only when they become “employees” within the meaning of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 by the inclusion of their employment in the Schedule.
“This Court, therefore, is not in a position to appreciate the submissions of the State that since Pharmaceutical Industry is an establishment, therefore they should be deemed to be employees under the Sales Promotion Act and consequently, the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act should be made applicable to them. Such an argument, in the opinion of this Court, cannot be accepted.”
The court dismissed both the notifications issued by the Government of West Bengal.
5) Surendra Mishra & Ors. v. State of West Bengal & Anr.[viii]
In this case, in 2001, a Recovery proceeding under Section 33C(1) of the Industrial Disputes Act was initiated against the present petitioners for a sum of Rs. 4,48,200/- as due and payable to the workman as an award. The petition was filed for quashing of the recovery proceeding against the Petitioner.
According to the provisions of Section 33C of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, until it was amended by virtue of Section 18 of the Industrial Disputes (West Bengal Amendment) Act, 1980, if the appropriate Government was satisfied that a money is due to a workman from an employer under an award, it should issue a certificate for that amount to the Collector, who shall proceed to recover the same in the same manner as an arrear of land revenue.
Thus, till that amendment came into force for recovery of the arrear dues of a workman from the employer on the basis of a certificate issued by the appropriate Government, a recovery proceeding has to be instituted before the Collector and he has to proceed to recover the same in the same manner as prescribes for recovery of an arrear of land revenue.
However, after the said provisions being amended by Section 18 of the Industrial Disputes (West Bengal Second Amendment) Act, 1980, “the Collector” was substituted by the word “the Learned Chief Judicial Magistrate or the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate” as the case may be and authorized to recover such due in the manner as prescribes for recovery of fine. Subsequently, the State of West Bengal brought another amendment in the year 2007, being the Industrial Disputes (West Bengal Amendment) Act, 2007, and a new Section 33D has been inserted after Section 33C.
Section 33D provided for an alternate method of initiating proceedings to recover the money and the counsel for the petitioner argued that due to the amendment having happened in 2007 and the appeal has come to court after the amendment, that the Court be pleased to rule that the initial proceeding under Section 33C has become redundant and new proceeding be initiated under Section 33D.
The Court rules that because of insertion of Section 33D of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, a proceeding for recovery which has been instituted in the year 2001 under Section 33C of the said Act and which is almost at its verge end has become redundant. It cannot also be said that a particular procedural law as regards to the recovery of arrear dues of a workman from his employer-provided under Section 33C of the Act has now been repealed or changed or altered by virtue of insertion of Section 33D, which provides an additional mode for recovery of arrear dues from the employer by the employee, the impugned proceeding has become nugatory. It upheld the proceeding initiated and directed the Learned Metropolitan Magistrate, before whom the proceeding was pending at the time to quickly dispose of the proceeding and ensure that the workman gets his dues.
6) Eagle Wood Agencies (Pvt.) Ltd. and Anr. v. State of West Bengal & Ors.[ix]
In the present case, a writ petition under Article 226 was filed in the Calcutta High Court. The petitioner had purchased 2 partnership firms, namely, M/s. B.S. Industries and M/s. B.S. Machine Tools Corporation on or about 21st August 1985. The petitioner No. 1 is a private limited company registered under Companies Act, 1956. on 7th March 1989.
The petitioner received a letter dated 20th February 1989 from one Mr. Bidyut Bose of B. S. I. and B. S. N. Employees Union by which the petitioner company was requested to implement the award, impugned in the application, passed on 22nd December 1988. The petitioners asserted that for the first time on 7th March 1989, the petitioners came to know that the impugned award was made and within 10 days of such knowledge, on 17th March 1989, the petitioners filed an application for review of the award passed by the learned Tribunal. The Petitioner cited ignorance of the fact of the passing of the award.
The Tribunal by order No. 10 passed on 3rd May 1989 had rejected the application of the petitioner for setting aside the award on the ground stated therein. The impugned ground for rejecting such an application was the view of the Tribunal that it becomes functus officio after 30 days of the publication of the award and in such a case an application for review of the ex parte award filed after 30 days of the publication of the award must be held to be barred by limitation. The Tribunal also referred, to Rule 27 of the West Bengal Industrial Disputes Rules, 1958 which, provides that no application for review under Clause (iii) shall be entertained on the expiry of 15 days from the date of the award.
Rule 27 of the Industrial Disputes Rules states that:
“The Labour Court, Industrial Tribunal or Arbitrator may-
(i) correct any clerical or arithmetical mistake arising from an accidental slip or omission in any award made by it or him, and
(ii) review an award on the ground of some mistake or error apparent on the face of the record either of its/his own motion or on the application of any of the parties;
(iii) for sufficient cause set aside after notice to the opposite party or parties as the case may be, the ex parte award or an award on the footing that the industrial dispute under reference is no longer in existence either by its/his own motion or on the application of any of the parties:
Provided that no correction shall be made without previous notice to the parties or opposite-party, as the case may be:
Provided further that no application for review under Clause (iii) shall be entertained on the expiry of the 15th day from the date of the award.”
The Court held that Proper procedure for notice was not followed as per Rule 20-B(1) and 20-B(5).
Clause (1) of Rule 20-B of the Rules provides as under:
“(1) The Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court shall on the date fixed in the summons for appearance of the parties direct the party which appears to the Tribunal/Labour Court to be the party at whose instance the reference has been initiated or where no such party can be ascertained, the party which, in the opinion of the Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court ought to be required to state its case first (hereinafter referred to as the first party) together with the grounds upon which the claim for relief is founded, and a list of relevant documents which are in their possession and upon which they want to rely in writing on a date fixed by the Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court which shall ordinarily be within 2 weeks from the date of the order”.
Clause (5) of the said Rule 20-B provides as under:
“A copy of the statement of case or the written statement shall be served on the first party or the second party, as the case may be, by the Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court within 7 days from the date on which copies of the statement of case or the written statement, as the case may be, are filed by making it over to the party concerned or to its authorised representative in the office of the Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court on a date and time fixed for the purpose and intimated to the party concerned by the Industrial Tribunal/Labour Court.”
The Court ruled that if these mandatory provisions are not complied with then whatever order was passed on 22nd December 1988 would not acquire the status of an award. In that view of that matter, the award becomes a nullity ab initio or a non-est phenomenon. The employer must be given a chance to be heard and hence be asked to appear before the court, failing which the Tribunal can proceed with the ex-parte order. If there is no award in the eye of the law, mere publication of the same will not confer any sanctity on the same.
The court held that even though the Act and Rules were social, beneficial legislation and must be construed as far as possible in favor of the vulnerable sections of Society, over-enthusiasm by any party to litigation must be discouraged. The court held the award passed null and void and directed the Tribunal to issue fresh summons under Rules 20-B(1) and 20-B(5).
7) Sudhir Chandra Mahato v. State of West Bengal[x]
The Petitioners in the present case had worked in the office of different gram panchayats casually for more than 240 days. Therefore, they were entitled to regularisation of their services. The Respondents contended that when the original appointment is irregular such an appointment cannot be regularised subsequently. According to them, there is a difference in between the post of Gram Panchayat ‘Karmee and Sahayak’. The first one is group D wherein the second one is group C post.
In each case, no formal appointment was given by the respective panchayats. But they have resolved in a meeting and certified that the respective Petitioners was working as ‘Gram Panchayat Karmee’ and to meet the exigencies their services were required as ‘Sahayak’. Taking advantage of such situation the respective Petitioners were insisting regularisation in respective services in the post of ‘Sahayak’ which was different from Gram Panchayat Karmee which was nothing but a back-door appointment.
The Petitioners contended that the circulars were issued by the State Authorities being dated September 13, 2000, and November 10, 2000, which were governing the field of regularisation of services who were irregularly appointed earlier. At no point of time, it was the case of the Petitioners that they regularly appointed. But when the government had taken a policy for regularisation of service of themselves who were irregularly appointed but worked for more than 240 days. The question of irregular backdoor appointment cannot be sustained.
It was held by the Calcutta High Court that both the Articles 141 and 142 of the Constitution of India if any, ratio or principle has been laid down by the Supreme Court, will have binding effect upon all. The basic difference is under Article 142 Supreme Court passes an order out of its own which the High Court cannot pass but under Article 141 it passes an order in a dispute arising from High Courts, Tribunals etc., alike an appellate forum.
It was an absurd proposition that if an order is passed by the Supreme Court under Article 142 that will not have any binding effect to the extent that High Court cannot pass any order following such ratio or principle laid down in such proceeding. The power of passing an order by the Supreme Court is restricted under Article 142 but that does not necessarily mean ratio or principle, the order cannot be passed by the High Court following such ratio.
The true purpose of issuance of different circulars of circular letters is for regularisation of respective irregular services which cannot, under no stretch of imagination be regarded as statutory principles laid down by the state for the purpose of regular recruitment. The regularisation of service, cannot become, automatic. The names of such candidates should be forwarded by the appropriate panchayat authorities, to the appropriate governmental authority in turn, with their recommendation and/or approval, panchayat authorities can regularise such service.
The Calcutta High Court suggested that the best course is to issue an appropriate well considered circular in active consultation with the Governor by way of notification in the official gazette to regularise the irregular appointments, if any, given by the respective Gram Panchayats.
However, as soon as such notification will be issued the same will have a superseding effect over all the existing circulars or circular letters as yet circulated and/or the order or orders impugned in this respect having no face value and be considered as redundant pieces of documents.
On the other hand, immediately after publication of the notification in Official Gazette, the authority concerned will call upon the names of the irregularly appointed candidates as per such notification from the respective Panchayat or Samity or Parishad and prepare a roster for giving appointments and periodically take steps for regularisation. In such cases, an age bar may be condoned.
It has been 3 years since the New Government came to power. Not a lot has happened for the common people since then. The Government has tried to form Employment policies and offers benefits to workers especially disabled workers but such measures continue to remain in the pipeline instead of nourishing the people.
Labour being a subject on the concurrent list as per Article 246 of the Indian Constitution, both the State and the Centre need to legislate on the subject to provide measures and benefits to the workmen. West Bengal is home to two major industries: the tea industry and beedi making industry. Both are languishing in ignomity.
The tea estates of North Bengal are a major source of Labour discontentment in the State. Tea picking is a fine art, it requires a lot of care and labor. A tea picker can at most fill a single bag picking tea leaves for the entire day. However, for their effort, these tea pickers, most of them women, are paid a very nominal amount. They continue to be exploited by the tea estate owners. Most of these managers in tea estates are simple graduates without any degree/diploma in tea management.
No law has been made to ensure the protection of the rights of these workers. This was part of the reason for these workers supporting Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in their fight for Gorkhaland. They felt that their rights would be better realized in an independent state rather than their home state that had continued to ignore them, irrespective of the change of power.
More than 1.1 million people live in the tea estates of northern West Bengal, spread over Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts. In closed estates, more than a 1,000 lives have been lost to starvation since 2002. Pitifully low wages have created an environment of destitution, which is unwarranted when domestic demand for tea is soaring and retail brands are commanding high prices in the market. Orthodox organic tea varieties from the prized gardens of Darjeeling are mostly exported at prices estate owners do not want to reveal.
Owners say cash wages of Rs 95 per day are justified for they spend on “in-kind benefits” like housing and medical facilities that are statutory requirements under the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. Housing and medical facilities are in a shambles. Financial mismanagement is rife—many estates are not depositing the provident fund contribution deducted from workers wages, a criminal offense.
Beedi making is the largest cottage industry in the State of West Bengal. The process of Beedi making involves tightly rolling dried tobacco leaves onto shal leaves in the form of a cigarette. Beedis are the major vice of the lower income group who cannot afford cigarettes. Beedis are so indigenous to the state that they may be granted the status of Geographical Indicator like the Aranmula Mirrors of the Aranmula region in Kerala.
This would lead to better wages being paid to the workers by making Beedis a global commodity. However, no step has been taken in this regard by the state yet, to grant Beedis GI status. In the face of the widespread uproar the Government has initiated the West Bengal Beedi Workers Welfare Scheme pursuant to the pre-existing:
- Beedi and Cigar Workers (Condition of Employment) Act, 1966: The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966, has a limited coverage inasmuch as it does prescribe some measures to improve the working conditions of the beedi and cigar workers in industrial premises only, such as cleanliness, ventilation, first aid, canteen, working hours, weekly holidays, etc.
- Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976: The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 Act does not provide for medical, educational, recreational facilities, etc. In order to provide welfare measures for the persons employed in the beedi establishments, the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976 was enacted.
Under the law employers of beedi workers are required to issue identity cards to their employees to enable them to receive welfare benefits. However, as many employers do not issue the ID cards, the responsibility has shifted to the Labour Welfare Organization through the Welcome Commissioner.
Thirdly, the most blatant violation of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) regulations can be observed in the Sagar Island region of West Bengal. This region is the headquarters of the shrimp & prawn fishing industry of the State. There are a number of pickers involved who have to sift through the waters and pick out the shrimp larvae, which is usually thinner than a sewing thread and extremely difficult to spot.
After sifting through the waters for the whole day, at most, each picker may be able to collect around fifty larvae, for which they are paid a paltry amount of ten rupees. I can assuredly cite such figures as I have personally seen the plight of these workers. The state continues to turn a blind eye to the fate of these workers. This is exploitation at its worst.
Lastly, something which we can all vouch for is that the major number of daily wage workers in other states happen to speak Bengali as their mother tongue. This is simply for the reason that these workers are forced to leave the state for greener pastures as the daily wage amount payable to a worker in the State is an amount that has not been changed since medieval times and it is imperative for the State to revise the amount and ensure that workers are paid their due wages.
The industry continues to languish in a State that once housed the Tatas and Birlas in the 60s, a State which was the Industrial Hub of the nation before the Naxalite movement. The party in power is more focused in fighting inner battles such as the Saradha Scam and blaming the opposition for its own shortcomings by citing conspiracy theories than working for the people and reinstalling our faith in them by electing them to power in 2011.
The Judiciary has till now done a good job by maintaining a balance between the rights of the employer and rights of the employee. On the one hand it has directed the Labour Tribunal as well the the Court of the Metropolitan Magistrate to follow procedure and quickly conclude investigations to ensure that due payments are made to the aggrieved workmen, at the same time it itself has interpreted procedure wisely and has discouraged over-enthusiastic attempts by parties to litigate and thereby unnecessarily burden the court with frivolous litigation.
As pointed out by the Calcutta High Court in the decision of Eagle Wood Agencies (Pvt.) Ltd. and Anr. v. State of West Bengal & Ors, the Industrial Disputes Act, and other peripheral labor law legislations are socialistic, beneficial legislations, and must be interpreted in the best manner possible to favor the vulnerable sections of society. But at the same time attempts by parties to file frivolous and malicious suits based on provisions of the Acts must also be discouraged. With great power comes great responsibility.
Formatted on March 1st, 2019.
[i] (Bennett & Hindle 1996, pp. 63–70)
[ii] Indian National Congress had won 55 seats, Bangla Congress 33 and CPI 30. CPI(M) allies also won several seats.ECI: Statistical Report on the 1969 West Bengal Legislative Election
[iii] Biswas, Soutik (2006-04-16). “Calcutta’s colourless campaign”. BB
[vii]. 2013(5) CHN 36