The Calcutta Jute Mills

Stories from the Dundee Year Books

 

Calcutta, June 1894.

I have just had a tour amongst the jute mills on the banks of the Hooghly, and will give you the results of my observations and of the information, gathered during the round. In the first place, coming fresh from. Dundee, with the most of its mills cramped and confined in streets, I had no idea until I saw them of the palatial nature of the Indian mills, all, with two or three ex­ceptions, erected on the shed system, and situate in spacious compounds (compound comes from the Portuguese word signifying an enclosure), having fine river frontages. The Victoria Mill, for instance, which is one of the finest specimens of the Dundee-owned mills, has a compound of about 40 acres, or 120 biggahs. A new mill costs about Rs.5000 (£270) per loom to erect and start.


To give an idea of how the jute industry has expanded here of late years, I may mention that 10 years ago there were 21 mills having 5600 looms and 90,000 spindles giving employment to 40,500 persons. Today there are 27 mills with a little over 9000 looms and 180,000 spindles, giving work to 67,000 hands. Of these workers, 42,000 are men, 15,000 are women, and 10,000 are children.


The wages and social condition of these operatives I will deal with in a subsequent letter.


The above figures will show that the expansion of the trade has been going on by leaps and bounds, and one very notable feature in the gunny statistics for the past 10 years is the rapid increase of the exports to other countries. For the purpose of comparsion, the cloth has. in calculation, .been converted into bags, but the following figures will give a correct idea of the ratio of increase during the period referred to :—

 

Country Trade,

Exports,

1883,

79,442,150

57,531,350

1892,

90,764,200

132,303,200

It will be seen that the export trade has more than doubled between 1883 and 1892. But this is not all. The markets of Australia, New Zealand, the Cape, Egypt, and San Francisco have been captured by Calcutta, for a considerable time now; the alarming feature, so far as Dundee is concerned, is the steady headway with which hessians are pouring into the Eastern ports of America since 1888. In 1883 the exports to New York were 2,210,850. In 1892 they had risen to 35,295,700. Up to 1888 the Calcutta mills gave most attention to heavy goods, not more than one-third of their looms being on hessians. Now they are going in largely for hessian manufacture, and the competition between Calcutta and Dundee will be increasingly acute as the years go on. The relative costs of production will be given and compared in another letter. The fault of the Calcutta hessians hitherto has been the finish: the yarns have been far too hard twisted, with the object of getting off pro­duction, which gave the cloth a raw and grinning appearance even when finished. Slacker twisted yarn, dressing-machines, and mangles are now the order of the day, and ere long Calcutta hopes to get the same price as Dundee in the New York market. The hessians I saw at Hastings Mill will compare favourably with the best Dundee makes. I send you herewith a photograph of this mill, as perhaps it may be described as the best equipped mill in India at the present moment. Its nucleus consisted of the old machinery brought out from Gourock by its far-sighted proprietors, the Messrs Birkmyre, about a quarter of a century ago. It was then a comparatively small affair. The old machinery has long since disappeared, and it is now a magnificent property of over 500 looms and employing nearly 4000 hands. It derives its name from the ground on which it stands, being originally the place where Warren Hastings bad his country seat, and amongst the title-deeds I was shown one which bore the great Governor's signature.


The old country seat still stands, and is now used as a dwelling-house for the European assistants at Wellington Mill close by, Hastings Mill, being personally owned and very ably managed, has made more money than any other mill here. The manager, John Finlay., who is the Nestor amongst the mill men now, in addition to a thorough practical knowledge of his busi­ness, has tact, mother-wit, and common sense in the management of the workers. He is intimately acquainted with their language and character, and the consequence is that things go on smoothly. There are no better workers in the world than those in the Indian jute mills. A paternal despotism suits them exactly. Whenever they get to believe in their manager as one who will be kind though firm wifch them, who, while demanding absolute obedience, will give them absolute fairplay, their loyalty is secure. They look up to him as a sort of god. There are no strikes at Hastings Mill.


I have mentioned this mill not only because of its premier position, but also because its recent action in commencing to work night and day will likely bring to a head the question, which has often been mooted before, as to whether the time has not now arrived when Government action should step in, and by legislative enactment fix a 60 hours' week. Trade has not been good, and the majority of the mills are going only five days per week with a view of curtailing production, and so helping up prices for bags, and this sudden action of Hastings in going 12 days a week has greatly incensed the other mill agents. They are to commence full time again after 1st July, and are trying to see if the provisions of the Factory Act cannot be brought to bear upon the Messrs Birkmyre to compel them to knock off the night work.


The truth is, the Indian Factories Act is about as delightful a piece of legislative india-rubber as can well be imagined. A great many of its provisions can be modified by arrangement with the Factory Inspector, The mills are all wrought upon the shift system, but no individual woman or child works more hours per week than the corre­sponding class of worker does at home. The looms are all worked by men—one man one loom. When a weaver goes away to a meal his neighbour keeps on his loom until becomes back, and then the compliment is returned. The half-time age according to' the Act is from 9 to 14, but any one with half an eye can see that this is practically a dead letter.


At one large mill I asked one of the European assistants if he could tell the name of the Factory Inspector. He said he had not the remotest idea. He had been there some years and had never seen one. The Local Government has the power of appoint­ing these Inspectors, and the District Magistrate is ex officio the Factory Inspector of all the mills in his domain, but that over­worked official has enough to do with his own proper duties. Fancy asking Sheriff Campbell Smith to undertake the inspection of all the mills and factories in Dundee dis­trict, in addition to discharging the duties belonging to his office.
When working full time the mill engines go from daylight to dark during six days of the week. The Sunday is then occupied with cleaning and repairing machinery. This means practically a continuous seven days per week grind for the European staff. During the long days now approaching the engines go for 14 hours a day, or 84 hours a week. Over the year the average week is 72 hours, as against 56 in Dundee.


In all the conversations I have had with the Europeans connected with the practical working of the mills the almost unanimous opinion is that the working hours are far too long. If a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the working of the Indian Factories Act it would find amongst the Europeans a practically solid vote in favour of limiting the hours to 60 per week; and my own decided conviction is, judging from the profits made when the mills were only going four days a week, that a legisla­tive 60 hours' week for the Indian Jute Mills would be the proper thing. They would be more efficiently supervised, they would make more money than they now do, and the mills would be kept up to the mark, and be more valuable properties at the end of the year than they can possibly be under such wear and tear as they undergo at present.


 

Calcutta, June.

I have been at some pains to find out the rates of wages paid to the different classes of operatives in the mills, and the following be taken as a fair average for a week of 72 hours :—

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stg money at

 

 

 

 

 

 

1s 1d exch

Teasers

Rs

1-5

To

1-12

=

1s 5d

To

1s 11d

Breakers

Rs

1-6

 

 

=

1s 6d

 

 

Finishers

Rs

1-2-6

 

 

=

1s 3d

 

 

Drawers

Rs

1-4-6

 

 

=

1s 5d

 

 

Rovers

Rs

1-9

To

2-1

=

1s 8d

To

2s 3d

Cutters

Rs

2-4

To

2-8

=

2s 5d

To

2s 9d

Spinners

Rs

1-14

To

2-4

=

2s

To

2s 5d

Piecers

Rs

1-12

 

 

=

1s 11d

 

 

Shifters

Rs

15

Annas

 

=

1s

 

 

Sweepers

Rs

1-4

 

 

=

1s 4d

 

 

Sirdars (foremen)

Rs

3-8

To

5

=

3s 9d

To

5s 5d

Head Sirdar

Rs

6

 

 

=

6s 6d

 

 

Coolies (Labourers)

Rs

1-8

To

1-12

=

1s 7d

To

1s 11d

Weavers (av’ge)

Rs

3-13

 

 

=

4s 2d

 

 

Tenters

Rs

1-8 And 4 pies per cut = 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loom Mistries (mechanics)

Rs

3-12

To

6-12

=

4s 1d

To

7s 4d

 

Remember the above wages are for 72 hours. About 22 per cent, or nearly one-fourth, would require to be deducted from them if they are to be compared with 56 hours at home.


The workers are nimble and expert. It is quite a treat to see the spinning boys put-up an end, deftly seizing the spindle with hands and toes. The shifters are as merry a set of youngsters as one could wish to see, and not a whit behind their white brethren and sisters in Dundee in the time they take to shift a frame.


The wages seem low compared with home rates, but then high and low wages are only relative terms, and must be considered in connection with the cost of living. The Indian workers are very frugal as a rule. Their food consists of rice, fruit, vegetables, with fish occasionally, and sometimes the flesh of the goat which has been killed as a sacrifice. The Mahomedan workers are flesh eaters. Milk forms a great staple in diet with all classes. They are very fond of sweetmeats, and those made from milk, sugar, and cocoa-nut are not unpalatable, even to Europeans. The millworkers thrive and save money on their wages, at least 75 per cent, of them do. As in other countries, there is a residuum of the thriftless and dissolute.


The native toddy shop, licensed by Government, is a great evil in the neigh­bourhood of a jute mill. This native liquor is very intoxicating, and it is sold at two pice a glass, or 32 glasses for a rupee. When a native contracts a liking for this liquor, he has no idea of merely taking a glass or two in moderation. He likes to get into oblivion, and will drive a bargain with the seller as to how many pice he will take to put him into that state. When the bargain is struck the man ties the money into his waist-cloth, and the seller takes it out when his victim is helpless. The mill agents have again and again petitioned the Government against licensing these shops in the vicinity of the mills, but revenue con­siderations seem to override all others. Some of these huts pay a monthly license of Rs.300. I was told by one manager that he was so annoyed by his coolies getting drunk on the Sunday that he went personally with a hammer and smashed all the earthen­ware vessels containing liquor in a toddy shop one Sunday morning. The toddy-seller summoned him before the Magistrate.


The manager told the Bench the unvarnished truth, and pleaded guilty. He was fined five rupees, but the mill got a good start on the following Monday morning. Another manager similarly vexed bribed a couple of trustworthy natives to go and set fire to the annoyance in his neighbourhood. They did so at the dead of night and aroused the proprietor to flee for his life. The man thought his god had been angry at him, the hut was rebuilt, but he sells oil now.


The factory operative is well off for holi­days. It is true that the only statutory holi­day recognised in the elastic Factory Act is the Sunday, though even that may be abrogated by notification from the Governor-General in Council, but the great annual holidays are at the time of the Doorgah Poojah Festival, about the beginning of October, when the works are generally closed for a week. This, however, does not satisfy the Indian millworker. He thinks if he works nine or ten months in the year he works enough and deserves two or three months' rest, A very large proportion, of the operatives, especially the weavers, are men who have come from other leaving their families in their native village, and making domestic arrangements of a temporary kind while at their work men go home to their mullick (natal village) every year to see their relatives and to invest their savings in a bit of land or in the pur­chase of an extra cow for the family. After enjoying their lengthened holiday they return to the mills for another spell of work. The workers live in huts made of dried clay with roofs. At some of the mills the proprietors have erected long lines of these huts in parallel rows, taking every precaution possible regarding sanitation.


At Champdany Mill, for instance, a regular staff of mehters (scavengers) are employed to keep the lines clean. An abundant supply of good water is also given to the native village. This is by no means a solitary in­stance. The mill managers are all alive to the importance of efficient sanitation and good water.


The native fuel for cooking purposes is cow dung. This is carefully collected, made into cakes, and stuck upon the outside walls of their huts to dry, after which it makes very efficient "native peats," as I heard a lady describe them. The workers are quiet, peaceable, and docile beings. I walked round the native village in connection with the Kamarhatty Mill one Saturday evening, where John Lawrence is Governor-General, and was amazed at the perfect quiet which reigned, although it was a community of 2000 to 3000 A perfect contrast to a Saturday at home amongst a similar number of millworkers.


The Indians are immensely fond of their children, and the native village near a jute mill is like a human rabbit warren, the little merry creatures running about in swarms, clothed only with a string tied round their middle, to which a small key is attached for a charm. The, mothers suckle their children for two years at least, and take them to the mill with them. It is no uncommon thing in the prepar­ing department to see a lot of youngsters lying sleeping amongst the jute while their mothers are attending to the breakers and finishers. When the youngsters waken up they run and get a little refreshment from the maternal breasts, and then sit together and play with some broken bobbins they had captured.


The great facility with which little Hindoos and Mahomedans are produced, and the extremely small drain which their rearing makes on the paternal income, will tend to keep mill labour very cheap, and, what is of more importance to the jute industry, very abundant. Notwithstanding all this, they are in the main a contented lot. The bulk of them save up a fourth part of their wages, and not one of the 70,000 mill workers in Bengal ever heard of the Rev. Henry Williamson, of Dundee. The toddy shop nuisance, however, is one which deserves to be called attention to in the House of Commons. This is a far more practical object than the outcry against opium. Opium does very small harm here; toddy does. If Indian villages had local option there would be fewer liquor shops in existence.

 

 

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