13,000 jute mill workers in Andhra Pradesh on strike over non-payment of wages for lockdown period

Many workers have been on strike since May 3 when most mill owners began operations after the second phase of lockdown ended, while others went on strike on May 20

13,000 jute mill workers in Andhra Pradesh on strike over non-payment of wages for lockdown period
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Ashlin Mathew

More than 13,000 people working in jute mills located mainly in four districts of Andhra Pradesh have refused to begin work unless they were paid their wages during the lockdown period as ordered by the Central government. The workers went on a strike in front of the mills just ahead of their shifts since they had not been paid ever since the lockdown began on March 24, leaving them all in financial distress.

The 13 jute mills in the state are situated in the four north coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh – Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, Visakhapatnam and West Godavari. Most of the mill owners decided to begin operations after the second phase of the lockdown ended on May 3. Workers of a few mills owing allegiance to Indian Federation of Trade Union (IFTU) have been on strike ever since then, while those in Saluru and Nellimarlain Vizianagaram district began their strike on May 20.

The workers have been demanding wages for the period of March 23 to May 3. Several mill managements have been trying to convince the workers to take an advance against their May salary, but the workers have refused to agree to that since it would mean that their salaries would be subsequently cut in the future months.

“We don’t want an advance. We want the wages to be paid as ordered by the government. The average salary of a person in a jute mill is around Rs 6,000 after deductions. If we take an advance, they will cut Rs 500 every month. Every paisa counts for us. We have children, school fees, rents to pay. In some cases, this Rs 500 is what most families keep aside every month for a rainy day,” said P Jaganatham, general secretary of the workers’ union at Andhra Pradesh Fibre Limited in Saluru.

13,000 jute mill workers in Andhra Pradesh on strike over non-payment of wages for lockdown period

Several of the workers have had to take loans from micro-financiers to help them get through these two months, which will attract penal interest if the amount is not repaid on time.

“Most of the workers live close by to the mills in colonies. Thankfully landlords have not insisted on rents. We borrowed money to buy food. The Andhra Pradesh government has given us five kilogram rice per person on the ration card, half-a-kilogram sugar and one kilogram dal or lentils. But, it is not possible to run a family only on these items. Milk, vegetables and pulses are also required. We survive only because of the monthly salaries. We are not in a position to find work elsewhere because of the lockdown due to COVID-19,” said Venkaiah, who works in a jute mill in Visakhapatnam.

People in his mill were paid wages only till March 23, after which they haven’t been paid anything.

5,000 workers of a jute mill in Eluri in West Godavari district have been on strike for wages for almost three weeks, after the management ordered them to join work without discussing the issue of paying them their wages. “Workers of Sri Krishna Jute Mill have been protesting in front of their mill and on Wednesday all of them marched to the district collector’s office for a solution to be worked out with the management. By Wednesday evening, the district administration promised to implement the government order,” said P Prasad, AP state president, IFTU.

13,000 jute mill workers in Andhra Pradesh on strike over non-payment of wages for lockdown period

The management of three mills in Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatanam agreed to pay Rs 5,000 to the workers for the lockdown period. “When workers of Saluru and Nellimarlaheard of the success of those protests, they also went on an impromptu protest. They had been talking to the management, but the authorities weren’t heeding to their demands. The workers are underpaid. The management doesn’t want to pay the workers what is due to them also,” Prasad said.

By Wednesday evening, the authorities of the Nellimarla mill had agreed to the demands of the workers in the presence of the state labour officers. The mill employees have decided to continue the agitation if the lockdown wages of at least Rs 5,000 are not paid within a week.

The jute mills in Andhra Pradesh have been facing a severe crisis for almost a decade. The workers have been demanding fair wages, upgradation of the machinery and a future course of action to safeguard the interests of the workers.