Monday, July 13, 2009

Bye Bye Bengal, Hello France

The capital of militant and inflexible labour is France. The title that Bengal held in the 70s and 80s seems to have been taken over by France.

These are bad times everywhere in the world. France is not immune to the ill winds. Factory closures and job losses, are alas, everywhere. French workers have reacted to it, by contributing to a new word in the English language – "bossnapping”. Holding bosses hostage until their demands are met. What in India, is called ghereao.

Now there is a report of the workers at a failed auto supplier threatening to blow up the factory unless the supplier’s customers – Peugeot and Renault – pay € 30,000 to each worker. This is a rather unique demand. They aren’t asking their own employer, for they know that their employer does not have the money. They are asking their employer’s customers !

Losing jobs is one of the most demeaning things that can happen to anyone. The anger is understandable. But the reaction will harm France for a generation to come. That’s what happened to Bengal. Bengal has become associated with “difficult labour” because of what happened in the 70s and 80s. Its no longer true of course – the Bengali worker of today is as hardworking, committed, and non militant as any other , if not more. In the service industry today, Calcutta is a very attractive destination – wage levels are a tad lower, commitment is high and attrition rates are amongst the lowest. And yet the image of “difficult labour” has stayed, however unfair it may be. And it won’t go away that easily for a generation or more. Bengal, the pride of India, now lags behind economically.

This is the problem for France. However huge a country it may be, it cannot stand in isolation. It needs the rest of the world to come, invest, create jobs, etc etc. But that won’t happen if the French worker is considered synonymous with laziness and militancy. This is absolutely untrue. But the image is becoming one of that. And images, unfortunately, matter.