Labour Movement (to 1947) Prior to 1947, there were only a few industrial concerns in the eastern part of Bengal (Present day Bangladesh). These included about 25 tea gardens in Chittagong and Sylhet employing about 12,000 labourers, 6 cotton textile mills (four in Dhaka and one each in Kushtia and Khulna) employing about 10,000 workers. There were also some workers in Chittagong port. The tea-estate labourers were mainly recruited from aboriginal tribes of Chhotanagpur region. Others were mostly local people from both Hindu and Muslim communities.
The first signs of labour unrest were seen during the days of the khilafat and non-cooperation movements (1920-22). The striking tea-garden workers from Chargola Valley in Sylhet (Assam) left the gardens in an exodus. Men of the East Bengal Railways and Chandpur Steamer Services started sympathetic strikes in May 1921. Striking coolies, stranded at Chandpur, faced great hardships. But it was politically regarded as a great victory of the Bengal Non-cooperators. Finally in August 1921, at Gandhi’s request, the strike was called off. The unrest in Chittagong by Burma Oil Co workers in April-May 1921 under the leadership of JM Sengupta created quite a stir.
In 1927, the Dhakeswari Cotton Mills Workers’ Union was founded. But the union was weakened by a series of strikes called within four months of its formation. Due to the Great Depression the labour movement, however, slowed down. The communist activists were mainly behind the movement but the non-communists like the official Congress and anushilan samiti, backed by the management opposed the communists’ tactics of militancy and thus acted as a constraint on any long-drawn movement. The cotton workers’ strikes in 1937-40 may be regarded as the turning point of the movement both in frequency and intensity. Mention may be made of four strikes in Mohini Mills, Kusthia (Feb-May, 1937; July-September, 1937; August-October 1939 and February-April, 1940) and the strikes in the Dhakeswari Mills (July 1939 and January-February, 1940). The movement failed to generate steam. Naturally it had a demoralising effect on the Communist-dominated Workers’ Union and no further movement was on record up to 1947. The Wartime was a period of ‘uneasy calm’ in Dhaka. The immediate post-war years witnessed the revival of militant labour agitation leading to strikes in Acharya Prafulla Chandra Mill, Khulna (December 1945 – January 1946) and the four mills in Dhaka (February-May 1946).
Since 1942 the Chittagong tea garden workers were connected with the activities of the local communist party. They organised a few strikes around specific economic issues in the post-World War II period, with little success. With the partition, the communist organisers, mostly Hindus, left for India. The immigrant tea-labourers of Chhotanagpur had no desire to go back to their place of origin. Left without leaders, the labour organisation became very weak. The workers of EB Railways were best organised and politically most conscious. But they were divided between nationalist and communist dominated unions. [N Basu]