Ajit Naskar (54) is an employee at a stitching unit of a hosiery vest manufacturer situated at Kumrokhali in the Narendrapur region of South 24 Parganas district. However, he is now ferrying mangoes in his neighbourhood streets near the marketplace at Garia station with little luck in meeting the running expenses of his family after the unit owner stopped paying him salary during the lockdown period in West Bengal.
"What can I do at this age? So, to maintain my family of five, I am selling mangoes with the paltry resources that I have," he said in disdain as he still has not come to terms with the change of his status from that of a worker at a hosiery unit to a part-time mango seller. Selling mangoes is a difficult ball game for Ajit as with his limited resource he buys a single palla (quantity) of mango and on a good day, gets a profit of only Rs 100 to Rs 200 per day in the highly competitive local market.
However, as a hosiery worker, Ajit is entitled to, Under Disaster Management Act 2005 and under Epidemic Disease Act 1897, to get payment during the time of the lockdown. The recent notifications from the central and state governments have also been clear in this regard. Nonetheless, with no checking mechanism in place in West Bengal, about 1.5 lakh workers are suffering due to the present bout of Covid-19 induced lockdown in the state.
Even before the lockdown period started, the question of paying minimum wages was raised by the workers. But now, during the lockdown, the workers’ plight has become worse and many has to switch to the selling of fruits and vegetables.
Speaking to Newsclick, Ajit Naskar added that during the first bout of the lockdown, his unit owner had given them Rs 5,000. But during the second phase of the lockdown, nothing has been given so far by the unit owner to the 36 employees of the unit, which supplies stitched vests to multiple well-known hosiery brands of the state.
Most of the hosiery units in the state are situated in Kolkata, North 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hoogly and East Medinipore. The units together employ more than 1.5 lakh workers but have stopped paying wages to them during the current lockdown in the state.
In fact, Ajit had been lucky to get an amount of Rs 5,000 last year as most of the hosiery units in the state had not paid wages to its workers during the first phase of lockdown. During the second phase, all their wages are still due. Ajit added that even dye masters (prestigious position in big hosiery units) are not being paid their salary during the lockdown.
According to workers, country-wide well-known hosiery brands like Dollar, Rupa, LUX, Raju, P3, and Kothari are allegedly among the major defaulters on wages. They have allegedly also stopped paying wages in the knitting, threading and dying units. However, their advertisements in the National media are going on, said Mrinal Roychoudhury, General Secretary of West Bengal Hosiery Workers Association (WBHWA). The big units speak of not having sufficient funds during the time of paying of wages to the workers bur their scale of advertisements signifies something else, he added.
“We have also given a letter to West Bengal Hosiery Manufacturers Association and to Bharat Chamber of Commerce complaining and detailing the situation to the industrial body,” he said. Speaking to Newsclick, Roychoudhury also detailed that the union was trying to organise a protest movement against the non-payment of the wages after the lockdown measures are lifted. The condition in the small stitching units is more pathetic as the workers are deprived of minimum wages even now, he said, adding, “In the first phase of the lockdown, they ferried vegetables. However, with the prices of vegetables now skyrocketing high and scanty number of buyers, even selling vegetables is not a profitable venture right now and many are going hungry in the state.”
According to hosiery workers and the WBHWA, there are eight renowned brands that carry on its production process through employing contractual workers and in spite of directive of central and state governments they are not paying wages during the lockdown period to the employees. Interestingly, to get excise benefits, the companies like Lux, Rupa, Dollar, Raju, and Bangalaxmi carry on their production by employing 21 small-scale units in the city. The branded companies have given the wages for March to the regular employees while contract employees have got nothing till now. Recently, in Lux’s Billkanda knitting unit, four employees died in a fire but no compensation has allegedly been paid to the victims’ families so far. The union has demanded Rs 10 lakhs for the victims’ families and punishment for the owner of the unit.
Recently, a delegation led by CITU met with the West Bengal Minister of State for Labour, Becharam Manna and urged him to put pressure on the rogue units, which are not paying wages to their employees despite having Centre and state directives in this regard.