On June 15, a group of workers at Northbrook Jute Co. Ltd, of whom six have thus far been arrested, beat their CEO with iron rods and other heavy objects. The CEO later died from injuries sustained from the incident. So whose fault was this death at Northbrook?
As promised, South Asia Labor Watch has some follow up. This story is complicated; there are multiple narratives and it is extremely difficult to evaluate which ones are correct. On the one hand, the Trinamool Congress state government and the owners have tried to implicate ‘outside’ parties stirring up the workers to violence. Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee has referred to ‘goons’ from the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) being involved. This type of party-led action or the use of outside instigators would not be new to West Bengal or India: each major party has its own trade union and labor issues are sometimes used in party politics. However, it would not be surprising if Bannerjee’s accusations are baseless as she has a tendency to blame the opposition before doing anything else. Similarly, those who have worked on labor issues know that owners are frequently wont to blame ‘outside agitators’ rather than looking at the conditions that they are responsible for creating.
On the other hand, this fact-finding report from the far left Trades Union Centre of India makes the claim that it was abusive conditions in the factory and the local industry that led the workers to rise up in protest and kill their boss. I encourage you to read this report, not only because its self-conscious emphasis on worker voice is more in line with SALW’s values than the ruling government’s, industry’s, or the media’s. In this, it seems a valuable complement to press reports as we try to learn what happened at Northbrook.
To close, two pieces of broader context: 1. The jute industry in West Bengal is in long run decline, partly due to the emergence of plastics as a replacement for jute bags. Jute has historically been an important crop in Bengal, but today the industry appears to subsist on government orders for domestically produced goods at this point. Pertinently, the trigger to this incident was a dispute over how many hours a week the factory would be open; the owner wanted to run it at 60% capacity while the workers wanted it at 100%, thereby earning 40 hours a week in wages. Similarly, one of the claims made against management are that it was illegally importing cheaper goods from Bangladesh and Nepal rather than employing workers at the West Bengal plant to make jute products.
2. India-wide industry has been reluctant to bring plants to West Bengal, pointing to incidents like these as providing an unfavorable environment for doing business. The actual historical and present day reasons why they’re not bringing work to West Bengal warrant a post of their own, but for now, it is enough to note that in recent years, there have been a number of high profile incidents in which labor-management relations broke down to the point of violence. It is unclear to me, though, that this is unique to West Bengal- day-to-day violence is endemic in India and takes many forms, though it may play out in a way that makes doing capitalism in West Bengal particularly difficult. What is important here is that the threat of worker violence is useful to Indian capitalists looking to gain more concessions in West Bengal; they can claim that they are doing the state and its people a favor by doing business there.
There is undoubtedly more to be said about this incident and its wider context, but SALW will leave it here for now.