Trade union participation in leather industry in Kolkata.

AuthorBose, Indranil


The Kolkata leather industry has been divided in to different sub-sectors such as tannery units (medium and small scale), export oriented leather goods manufacturing units, fabricator of leather goods and units catering to indigenous market, fabricator of industrial gloves, small, medium and large scale footwear manufacturers, house-hold manufacturing units and merchant exporters etc. The available data shows that the trends in the employment creation by these subsectors are not uniform. The lack of uniformity seems to be natural as the number of units in each type of sub-sectors widely varies across leather industry in Kolkata. For example, the number of micro-enterprises across sub-sectors of Kolkata leather industry has been maximum creating highest number of employment whereas the number of large scale units in the leather industry has been very limited. Table 1 shows the trend in employment creation in the sub-sectors over the years.

During 2007-2009 period employment in Kolkata leather industry has increased at a very moderate rate of about 4.6%. The growth rate is relatively higher in fabricator and house hold manufacturing units, export oriented leather goods manufacturing units etc. However, the only large scale footwear manufacturing unit in the Kolkata leather cluster has witnessed reduction in the number of workers.

Except a few major leather and leather products manufacturing units, in majority of the units across different subsectors of the Kolkata leather cluster, the working conditions are not only appalling but there is also scant regard for workers' safety or health. Though, the traditional leather units of Kolkata is dominated by low caste and Muslim migrant workers from neighboring states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the entry of people from different backgrounds are growingly visible in the sector. About 70% of the workers engaged in the industry are traditionally employed as temporary workers. Most of them join the industry as workers with very low or no skill and they acquire required skills simply by observation at the initial stages. Very often these low skilled new entrants to the sector acquire skill under the guidance of their relatives or somebody else from their place of origin, also employed as worker in a leather unit in Kolkata. They are the people who actually bring these very cheap workers from their villages to enable them to learn the required skills at the place of their employment.

However, the labor market is flexible and intensively competitive and mostly they are paid on a piece rate basis. Abundant supply of labor together with the absence of unit level strong labor unions has pushed down the wages to the reservation level. Minimum wages are not followed in most cases and the workers are also not in the position of demanding higher wage rates as the supply of labor is in abundant. According to a recent government order, the minimum wage rate for unskilled /low skilled workers in tanneries and leather manufacturing units in KMDA area should be Rs. 162.33, Rs. 178.46 for semi-skilled workers and for the highly skilled workers it should be Rs. 196. 31. In reality very few units comply with these minimum wage rates. In most of the manufacturing units, specially in the leather footwear and accessories manufacturing units, work is based on almost putting out system and during peak season the workers work for 16 to 18 hours per day and during the slack season the daily working hour comes down to 6 to 7 hours per day only causing loss of employment to many low skilled or unskilled workers. However, the limited number of workers under the regular pay-roll remains with their jobs. In tanneries and fabricating units the machine operators and highly skilled workers are offered regular employment and in leather product manufacturing units the high skilled workers, specially the solemen and uppermen are kept as fixed workers. The practice of child labor and the women workers is rampant in many small home based leather product manufacturing units. It has been growingly restricted in organized units due to self regulation by the units themselves under the surveillance of respective industry bodies like Indian Leather Products Association etc. Though the regular workers and supervisory staffs in formal sectors in the Kolkata leather industry are covered under Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, Employees State Insurance Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act, large number of temporary, casual and contractual workers do not get these facilities. The unions campaign to extend the provisions of the PF Act to the temporary, casual and contractual workers of Kolkata leather industry. But it has not been possible as the numbers of such workers' continue to vary from season to season and very insignificant level of permanency exists for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in Kolkata leather industry. However, since 2008 with the passing of the Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act by the Government of West Bengal, the conditions of the irregular workers from the Kolkata leather industry has improved along with the same types of workers from other industries as well. Still the coverage of the Act has not reached any significant level and majority of the irregular workers are yet to be benefited in the state from many industries, including the leather industry.

Kolkata Leather Cluster Unionism

Three different trends in trade union involvement are clearly visible in Kolkata leather industry. In low to moderate technology leather units, specially in the tanneries, the unskilled or low skilled irregular workers join the trade unions with the main objective of ensuring the job with the same unit even in the case of seasonal employment along with reasons like ensuring higher wages, whereas the semi-skilled or skilled workers with relatively permanent employment status tend to join trade unions with the objective of enjoying collective power to safeguard themselves against any unfair decision by the employers. The highly skilled professionals, mostly independent professionals employed through retainership basis have their own unions on the issues of professional advancement, remuneration, service contracts etc. However, the rate of unionization across the Kolkata industry does not show any specific trend as different types of people employed in the sector have different penetration rates and different units also show the different levels of unionization. Most of the units do not have unit level unions and instead have industry level unions with different penetration rates across industries. These industry or craft unions are politically affiliated and have different levels of influence on the respective union members at the local levels.

Workers of Kolkata leather industry are affiliated to three different unions based on their professional status. For instance, most of the medium scale leather units have the presence of Calcutta Tannery Workers Union (affiliated to INTUC), Calcutta Leather Workers Union (affiliated to AITUC), Bengal Leather Workers Union (affiliated to CITU) and All Bengal Charmakar Union (INTUC affiliated) whereas in relatively larger units like Asian Leather Limited, Bata India Limited etc. with relatively larger workforce, the existence of organization specific trade unions has been traditionally witnessed. In Bata factory at Batanagar near Kolkata, eight unions affiliated to different political parties exist over last 40 years and the Bata Mazdoor Union (affiliated to INTUC) and Progressive Workers Union (affiliated to CITU) demand majority union status with larger workforce support during this period. Bata has the highest trade union penetration rate as more than 90% of its current workers of about 3000 people are members of either of the unions. However, from the overall industry perspective the trade unionization rate is not only relatively low (less than 10%), but also the union membership is unevenly distributed across units. State level unions affiliated to the different political central unions are also active to varying degrees which have considerable influence on the casual and temporary workers of Kolkata leather industry.Since AITUC and CITU are the central unions with the largest membership among most of the unorganized sector, it can be accepted that the temporary and casual workers from the leather industry in Kolkata are also the members of major craft unions...

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