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Note on Labour in Jamshedpur

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

This article was written by J. L. Keenan and was published in the THE MODERN REVIEW FOR DECEMBER, 1935.

Before I speak about labour in Jamshedpur'. I think we should consider labour in general, and in India, in particular, in this year 1935.

We have always been too prone to sit back and feel contented. We have seen statistics showing that the labour in Jamshedpur are higher paid than anywhere else in India and that our Welfare work, including Hospitals and other amenities far surpass that paid -in any other part of India. As a general rule, we heave a sigh of relief and consider ourselves as having carried out, not only the Welfare work that we personally would like to see done, but we think that we are carrying out what that great Founder, J. N. Tata. intended us to do. It is my personal belief that we are falling very far short, and I think; in this note I will be able to prove that we are not doing what he aimed at doing. In this connection. I would like to give a few facts compiled by the American Iron and Steel Institute on January 30th of this year:- “AMERICAN STEEL WORKERS BEST PAID IN WORLD.

“The steel industry’s pay roll in this country last year totalled $457,842.517, according to a compilation by the American Iron and Steel Institute, which showed that an average of 409.349 persons were employed by the industry throughout the year."

At the same time the Institute made public a survey based on records of the department of labor and the League of Nations which showed that mill employees of the steel companies in this country earned an average of 120 to 650 per cent more in hourly wages than workers in foreign mills.

“American workers who are paid on an hourly piece work or tonnage basis earned an average of 64.7 cents an hour in November 1934, the latest month for which such information is available,” the Institute said, “This average hourly rate compares with the unweighted average of 20.6 cents in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Japan and Sweden according to latest available figures.

“The Japanese wage rate was 9.7 cents per hour and in India 8.6 cents per hour in 1933. Employees of Belgian mill averaged 17 cents per hour in 1933. While in Germany in 1934, the average hourly rate was 25.9 cents. French steel mills paid an average of 20 cents per hour in 1933. The 1933 average in Great Britain was 25.1 cents per hour. In Czechoslovakia the hourly wage rates for 1934 averaged 22.7 cents. Italian steel workers earned an average of 27.6 cents per hour in 1933.

These figures speak for themselves.

Some of your readers will remember the Great CARBINE who carried ten stone seven pound and worn the Melbourne Cup some forty-five years ago. Another horse, whose name I have forgotten, but who, I think, was named LIGHT ARTILLERY, ran second to him carrying seven stone seven pounds; and this horse came to India and won the Viceroy's Cup two years in succession, and had no trouble. I am speaking on “Racing” only to shew you that the difference between Tata and the general run of labour in India is nothing to brag about. At the present time, Tatas, can consider themselves as LIGHT ARTILLERY, foremost in India, but you will notice they are three stone behind CARBINE, and Mr. J. N. Tata never contemplated that Indians would require a handicap of three stones against outsiders. However, we are sitting down here: we think we are doing good work; we brag about our hospitals; we boast about our wages paid, but do we stop to think and make a comparison between India and Europe or America? I certainly can state that we do not.

When comparing the wages we pay now with the wages paid by other firms in India, we are not living up to the principals set down by our FOUNDER. We know that he studied the history of India, we know that he realised the poverty of India, we know that he decided that he would spend his life to raise India from the social status that he found it in when he was born, and tried to bring that up to the status of the West, and rightly so. He realised that India from the time of Manu was condemned to be a company of capitalists and slaves. He decided that he would try to change the old order that had gone on for some thousands of years.

HE BELIEVED IN THE DIGNITY OF LABOR. He knew that in India, before his time, the mere name of a labourer must be expressive of contempt, so that the labourer’s proper standing would be immediately known, and if you have any doubt about this, you have only to consult Manu, Chapter X, Section 120, in Jones' Vol. 3, page 401, and again this law was pointed out by Mill in his History of India. Vol: 1, page 195. We also know from reading the histories of India that a labourer was actually forbidden to accumulate wealth and though he was a slave, even if his master gave him freedom, he was still a slave; THAT GREAT LAW-GIVER, MANU, STATED: “FOR A STATE WHICH IS NATURAL TO HIM BY WHOM CAN HE BE DIVESTED”- Institute of Manu, Chapter 8, Section 414, Works of Sir William Jones Vol:3, page 333.

There is no instance on record of any tropical country in which wealth having been extensively accumulated, the labourer has escaped his fate; no instance in which the heat of the climate has not caused an abundance of food and the abundance of food caused inequality which made the rich man richer and the labourer poorer.

India has its Ganges valley: the rains bring an abundance of water with resulting crops. India has its physical aspects of nature, its earthquakes and various other features which inspire superstition and fear in the minds of the populace. J. N. Tata decided that the installation of industrial units in this country would relieve the minds of Indians and give them an opportunity to advance. The Tata Iron & Steel Company Limited, Jamshedpur, the Empress Mills at Nagpur, and the Tata Hydro-Electric Company on the Bombay side are the results of his dreams and energy. We have done a lot. but let us not compare the wages we pay our workmen with the wages that are paid to others nearby or afar off. We must compare the emoluments we pay our workmen with the wages that are paid in Europe. So much for that.


In thinking about labour today, in this year 1935, we must bear in mind two concrete facts: we have two kinds of labour; one, labour that works through “NECESSITY” and the other labour that works for “PROGRESS”. The sooner the countries of the World, not only India, but my own country, America, and Europe, realise these facts, the sooner the earth “shall slumber lapt in Universal Law.”

Say what we may, the World has slipped back and in most of the countries, men are labourers of “NECESSITY”. In looking over labour of necessity, we can go back a few thousand years and find the Jewish race in their Bible in GENESIS stating that God commanded Adam to go out and work and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow; that was the start of labour of NECESSITY. The world rolls on in the lathe of time and we find Homer describing Ullysis on the island of Ogygia, labouring and labouring for the same reason, the labour of NECESSITY. Later on, in the same book, we find Ullysis arriving in Ithaca, only to find his wife Penelope pursued by three hundred suiters; walking into the garden he finds his father, Laertes, tilling the soil. WHY? LABOUR OF NECESSITY. In olden times in Europe, we had only one form of labour; LABOUR OF NECESSITY; in olden times in India and up until the time of J. N. Tata, we had only one kind of labour in India; LABOUR OF NECESSITY. LABOUR OF NECESSITY seldom paid dividends. Men had to work by the sweat of their brow; it was necessary for them to work for the small wages given and they, in return, only gave the physical exertion required to earn these wages. In olden times, they were satisfied. Even though they were asked to build pyramids in Egypt on Starvation wages, they pretended that they were satisfied. The day of labour of PROGRESS had not as yet arrived.

Some seventy years B.C. there was born in Mantua the golden voiced Virgil. To my mind, he was noted for two things; one, he predicted in his fourth Ecologue the coming of a BOY who would end the reign of Saturn. His prediction came true half a century later in Bethlehem. Again, he devoted his time to writing his Bucolics, in which he taught the husbandman how to increase his production per acre, so that the man’s labour would not only be a LABOUR OF NECESSITY but, by following out his teachings, it would make his labour one of PROGRESS. He would not only be able to raise sufficient food to exist as Adam taught, but he would have a surplus which he could sell and purchase luxuries. For this surplus, he must be paid. He certainly would not exert the added toil to produce this surplus unless he expected a return. The day of labour of PROGRESS was then advertised to the World.

Again, the world rolled on and times were not too good. The world forgot about Virgil. Again, men ceased to labour for PROGRESS and we have, as a result, the Dark Ages and no dividends are being paid.

We have to wait until the THIRTEENTH, the greatest of centuries and the FOURTEENTH, until we find Europe overrun with wandering Friars. They came to England and one of their greatest songs was, without doubt, the cause of the French and the present Russian Revolution. They started to sing “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman.” The workmen of England began to realise that when this song was heard, anything that Adam gained from delving or Eve won by spinning, belonged to Adam and Eve, and it was not necessary to pay any fifty per cent tax to the Lord or the Maharajah. As a result of this song, we all know that Wat Tyler caused a rebellion in the month of May in the year 1381 and we can take this month and date as the real start of “LABOUR OF PROGRESS.”

It was possible for men to go from seventy B.C. until Wat Tyler’s rebellion in 1381 and forget “LABOUR OF PROGRESS.” At the present time, in my opinion, due to economic factors, the entire labour of the steel world, with the exception of the labour of the Tata Iron & Steel Company Limited, have forgotten that they are “LABOUR OF PROGRESS” and they are “LABOUR OF NECESSITY.” The United States of America is hunting and searching around for a method to end the depression. They have not found it yet, and what it took this little old World about 1400 years to do, cannot be cured in a few moments. The labour must again be taught to be “LABOUR OF PROGRESS.” There is nobody in the United States of America today, in my opinion, at least in the ranks of labour, who are attempting to get out of the category of LABOUR OF NECESSITY, and we have at the head of the country a President, assisted by a group of asinine Professors, Instructors in Economics, who never knew what it was to have a callus on the hands, attempting to tell Mr. Roosevelt how to get out of his difficulties. With “LABOUR OF NECESSITY” you are born, you exist and you die. With “LABOUR OF PROGRESS” you are born, you buy luxuries, and pass on some of your earnings to your offspring. When labour works in this manner, the country in which this labour works, undergoes, what is commonly called, a “BOOM.” When labour works the other way, papers, orators, writers and speakers talk of a depression, there is no doubt that each and every one of us realise that we have had a depression from 1928 until 1933 in India. The same depression exists in other countries. The Tata Iron & Steel Company, in my estimation, is the only Company in the steel trade which has advanced, and as far as making steel in India is concerned, that Company has ended depression in that trade and I think that Company should be proud of this fact.

If two men work for a rupee a day, and both men do the same amount of work, and only produce what they are paid for, a Company does not earn dividends. If, however, one of those men so works that he produces Rs.2 a day, while the other man only produces Re. one, he will demand pay for that extra exertion, and rightly so. When we employ workmen who only work for “NECESSITY”, we can take it that we will never pay dividends: on the other hand, if we employ workmen who are "LABOURERS OF PROGRESS”, you can take it that the Tata Iron & Steel Company will pay dividends.

In 1929 and in 1930, our entire staff were labourers of NECESSITY. From 1931 our entire monthly staff, with the exception of a few whom you could count on the fingers of two hands, were “LABOURERS OF PROGRESS.” The Steel Company earned dividends last year and this Steel Company, rightly, paid their “LABOURERS OF PROGRESS” a reward for that extra effort which they had put forth. The labourers had given their all during the lean years between1931 and 1934 and the Company rightly repaid them. Again, this year, with added incentive, partly due to that payment, our men have so worked and have so carried on that this Company should be proud to realise that the return which the men have given, places the Tata Iron & Steel Company as the Company which can shew the greatest percentage of returns in the Iron and Steel Industry in the world today. This, I think, is something to be proud of. This is something, I think, the FOUNDER would be proud of. You can take it that this hundred per cent body of workmen who are “LABOUBERS OF PROGRESS” must receive due consideration, and you can take it that these men deserve the same consideration which they received last year. They all feel that they are now sharing in the profits and this feeling must be encouraged.


I have already written a note on an extension to our Hospital to take care of our injured men. After talking this matter over with Mr. Bhide, our Town Engineer, I find that the expenditure will be four and a half lakhs. I know that this expenditure will be sympathetically received and I suggest that the two Wards in the proposal which I am putting up, should be called the SIR DORABJI TATA WARD and the R. D. TATA WARD.


A short time ago, I went on a trip to the Mines. We have saved a lot of money by letting out contracts on the tender system. In fact, the cost of mining ore at one of our Mines had dropped from annas fourteen to annas seven, but I might tell you that I have found out, on enquiry, that the average wages of labour at one of our Mines has dropped to three-quarter of an anna per day. The price of rice has dropped a good deal, I know. But at the same time I cannot say that THE WAGES THAT OUR CONTRACTORS ARE PAYING AT THE MINES IS ANY CREDIT TO THE TATA IRON & STEEL COMPANY, AND IT IS HIGH TIME THAT WE TOOK SOME DRASTIC ACTION TO ENSURE TO THE WORKMEN A WAGE SUFFICIENT TO KEEP THEIR BODIES AND SOULS TOGETHER. For the past three weeks, Mrs. Keenan has been impressing this fact on my mind, morning, noon and night. While we were at one of the Mines, a girl, who was about eighteen years of age, carrying a baby in her arms, who could not be over two months, stopped my wife’s trolley. The girl’s breasts were not only useless but they were sagging. Although my wife could not understand the Kohl language, even an amateur could gather that the woman was trying to show her that the child was starving, and, pointing to her belly that she was also lacking in food, and illustrated the child’s condition by lifting one of her breasts. Instead of the child being appeased, although it appeared to be receiving milk, it kept on crying, which only emphasised the fact that there was no milk in that breast.

We can cut down our costs in the Works. Let us by all means not imitate Mr. Woolworth and have all our goods on DISPLAY IN JAMSHEDPUR, but let us also think of the aboriginals who live back on the hills, many of whom live on top of the ore properties which we now own and whose ancestors have lived there for centuries. Let us realise this fact and ensure that these workmen get a living wage. Even if the cost of mining ore does go up, by a small amount, I think you can take it that our Show Window will reduce our costs by other methods—but I certainly believe that we have no right to so curtail our cost of ore at the expense of these poor people.

The labour employed by the Tata Iron & Steel Company are now “LABOURERS OF PROGRESS.” As such, they expect a return for their endeavours. Let us do nothing to attempt to drive these 19,750 labourers in our works back into the category of “LABOURERS OF NECESSITY.” We only have to read our Balance Sheets of the year 1934-35 when our labourers were “LABOURERS OF PROGRESS” and compare that Balance Sheet with one of 1930-31 and we have the answer.


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