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HM workers want Bengal to drive them out of the woods

Ambassador

 

The remaining workers at Hindustan Motors' silent factory at Uttarpara, close to Kolkata, want the state government to take managerial control, similar to what it did with the Ruia Group's Jessop and Dunlop units.

The plant, which mothered the iconic Ambassador, closed down in May 2014, amid falling demand for the car, with the HM management notifying a suspension of work. Trade unions and the then 2,500 workers viewed this as an outcome of the CK Birla-controlled HM's loss of interest in the brand. The final disappointment came with sale of the brand to French carmaker Peugeot this month.

They now want the state government to step in. "Then, either the government may restart the factory or bring another company which can," says C Singh, who joined the company in 1981 in the Ambassador assembling line.

Some of the workers, who still occupy the labourers' quarters in the factory township, are suspicious that production will never again commence in the Uttarpara plant, as only the brand has been sold. Their suspicion is based on a previous instance when HM had sold off 314 acres from the township area for Rs 285 crore with the promise of using the money to improve factory conditions.

"The money was never pumped into the factory and we don't know what the management did with it," said Jamil Nawaz, who used to work as a supervisor.

The then Left Front government, which had approved the sale on this plea, took HM to court with the same accusation. "They're now getting another Rs 80 crore by selling the Ambassador brand, while no company official ever cared to tell us what will happen to us and this factory," said Singh.

When asked, an HM spokesperson said the company continued to explore opportunities with prospective partners for reinstating operations.

Soon after the factory's closure, the management had snapped water and electricity connections in the labour and staff quarters, forcing them out of the township. A third round of a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS), promising Rs 100,000 as compensation, was also announced. This had reduced the then workforce from 2,500 to around 600.

Workers allege those who opted for VRS are yet to receive their payments. Disgruntled with the management and the various trade unions' inability to negotiate for reopening or to settle their dues, the 450 remaining workers are questioning why the state government is not stepping in and repeating what it did in Jessop and Dunlop.

The HM management has said proceeds from the Ambassador brand sale will be used to clear dues of employees, lenders and others.

"It has been more than two years that the plant is shut and there is no likelihood that it will ever open under HM. Why doesn't the state government look at our appalling living conditions and our rightful pending dues, and take over the company?" asks C B Singh, who joined HM a decade before the plant closure.

The workers still occupying the labourer and staff quarters inside the township say they earn about half of what they had under HM.

Last February, after the West Bengal government took over managerial control of Jessop and Dunlop, it has been paying the workers there a monthly Rs 10,000. HM workers are getting Rs 1,500 monthly, in line with the unemployment subsidy scheme.

INTTUC, the ruling Trinamool Congress' affiliated union, says it has taken up the workers' demand with the state administration since closure. "We have told both Moloy Ghatak (present labour minister) and Purnendu Basu (former labour minister) but are yet to hear back from them," said Uttam Chakraborty, the INTTUC head at HM.

However, the unions and the INTTUC leadership seem to be divided on this stance. Dola Sen, a Rajya Sabha member on a Trinamool Congress ticket, who is also a senior in INTTUC, said unlike Jessop and Dunlop, Hindustan Motors hasn't seen the kind of bad years that had prompted the state to take over those companies from arrested businessman Pawan Ruia.

"Further, there were indications that Ruia did not wish to revive those companies, which prompted the takeover. In this case, we haven't got any signs like this from the CK Birla Group," he said. Neither Ghatak nor Basu could be reached for comment.

The CPI (M)-supported CITU union feels a takeover will not solve the workers' problems. "The workers don't want to sit idle and live their life on government subsidy. They need work and the government should try to restore industrial confidence and reopen closed factories," said Santoshree Chatterjee, a CITU leader.

The plant, which mothered the iconic Ambassador, closed down in May 2014, amid falling demand for the car, with the HM management notifying a suspension of work

The plant, which mothered the iconic Ambassador, closed down in May 2014, amid falling demand for the car, with the HM management notifying a suspension of work