Workers’ Strike at Wazirpur Industrial Area: A PUDR Report

At the Wazirpur Industrial Area in Delhi, labour laws are being violated openly. While factory owners continue to shy away from negotiations, labourers’ strike completes 2 weeks.

At least 1000 workers of the 23 hot roller plants in Wazirpur Industrial area in Delhi have struck work since 6 June 2014. They are demanding only what has been laid down in the law. Their demands include enforcement of minimum wages, payment of overtime at double rate, provision of appointment letters, worker identity cards, salary slips, Employee’s State Insurance (ESI), Provident Fund, prescribed bonus amount, safety measures at workplace, provision of government holidays, and payment of salary in the first week of every month. The workers have formed a committee by the name of Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti which is representing them in putting forth their demands. Wazirpur-strike-day

This is not the first time that the workers of this area have struck work. In the year 2012 as well as in 2013 workers went on a strike demanding guarantee of basic rights. The previous struggles have fetched them victories in the form of a weekly off on every Wednesday and a wage hike of Rs. 1500 to all workers. But a large portion of their demands remain unfulfilled even now. The present strike is symbolic of the impatience of the workers who have been forced to work under inhuman conditions and at wage levels less than minimum.

People’s Union for Democratic Rights extends its support to the workers of this area. It condemns the manner in which labour laws are being openly flouted here. Despite there being a labour court in the adjoining Nimri colony, there is an evident callousness with regard to workers’ rights. Factory owners and labour department authorities have colluded to prevent workers from having their basic minimum rights enforced. All of this, in the ultimate interest of factory owners’ drive for profits.

Violation of Labour laws in the Wazirpur Industrial Area

In the Wazirpur Industrial area, individual and ancillary processes related to steel manufacturing take place in about 600 small factories. Broadly, these processes involve unloading-loading through rickshaw, grinding, cutting, shearing, hot rolling, acid washing, cold rolling, furnishing, machine pressing, corner scrubbing, polishing and packing. For most of the factories, the final product takes the shape of kitchen utensils depending upon the orders placed.

In this area, labour laws are being violated openly. Interviews with workers give an insight into the conditions existing in the area.

Most of the workers of the hot roller plants who are currently sitting on strike, have been working at their respective factories for at least 10 to 15 years. But none of them have a single document that certifies the fact of their employment. All of them deal with contractors instead of factory owners. The only documentation they are exposed to is their monthly attendance cards which they sign every day as they report to work and which is renewed every month by the contractor. In the first place, S 10 of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 prohibits employment of contract labour when the process or operation is necessary and not incidental to the industry, or when the work is of a perennial nature. But these workers continue to work for more than 10 years under a contractual arrangement. Secondly, S 29 of the Act along with Chapter VII of the Delhi Contract Labour Rules, 1972 makes it mandatory for the principal employer(in this case the factory owners) and contractors to maintain records of employment of every worker. The contractor is required to issue employment cards within three days of the employment of the worker. But, there is no proof of employment with any of the workers here. An inspection of a few factories by the office of the labour commissioner on 16 and 17 June also revealed impropriety in records of factory owners.

According to Chapter VI of the Factories Act, 1948 an adult worker cannot be made to work for more than 48 hours in a week. In a day, the maximum work hour cannot exceed 9 hours. The worker should not be made to work for more than 5 hours at a stretch with an interval of atleast half an hour in between. Again, the daily spread of work hours should not be more than 10 and half hours including rest intervals. Here at Wazirpur, in clear violation of the law, work takes place in two shifts of 12 hours each beginning from 9am to 9pm followed by 9pm to 9am. Workers are given a 30-minutes lunch break and a 15-minutes tea break once in a work-shift. After a long struggle, the workers have availed to themselves a weekly off on every Wednesday. But even now there are a few factory owners who keep the factories open on Wednesdays and get work done.

The workers are paid less than the minimum wages as prescribed by the latest order dated 28 March 2014 of the Labour department of the Government of NCT of Delhi. Rs. 8,000 is paid to the unskilled labourers for a 12 hour work shift as against the prescribed wage of Rs. 8554 for an 8-9 hour daily work shift excluding rest intervals. Rs. 9,000 is paid to the semi-skilled workers as against the prescribed minimum of Rs.9438. Similarly Rs. 10,000 is paid to the skilled labourers for a 12 hour work shift as against the prescribed minimum of Rs. 10,374 for an 8-9 hour daily work shift. It should be noted that the cost saving for the factory owner occurs not just in the forms of absolute difference between prescribed minimum and actual wages paid. It also occurs in the form of the extra or unpaid work hours that are put in by the worker. Again, whether the minimum wage itself is an adequate measure for a dignified standard of living is also another question that needs to be probed.

Inside the factories, prescribed facilities for safety, health and welfare are minimal or absent. A plain reading of Chapters III, IV and V of the Factories Act, 1948 and Chapter V of the Delhi Contract Labour Rules, 1972 juxtaposed with the images of the area will reveal the difference between law and the reality. Workers are not provided with any uniforms, head gears or shoes. The workers use their own clothes and towels to cover their faces while they work at machines operating at a temperature of 800 degree Celsius or even more. The only provision by the employers are hand gloves. The gloves are also not fresh but used ones which are washed and resold to the factory owners by ragpickers. Though there is provision for drinking water in the factory premises, there are no toilets. All workers defecate or pass urine out in the open. There are a few standing fans which offer little relief in the hot weather and there are no seating arrangements in the premises. In some cases, a bench is kept outside the factories for the workers to rest. There is no provision of first aid in the factories. In case of an emergency, workers rush to a private nursing home near the area. There are no waste disposal mechanisms as is evident from the black puddles of waste gathered outside every factory.

In general, the possibility of serious accidents remains high in all factories of this area due to the nature of work. It is common for workers to have their hands or fingers burnt, bruised or cut. But the most accident prone factories of all are those where functions of cold rolling and machine pressing take place. In the machine pressing factories where steel plates are pressed with heavy machines that fall from a height, many workers have lost their fingers in the past. The other high risk function is that of cold rolling or fodai (as is called in hindi). In this process, beating of steel takes place during which there is possibility of small pieces of steel being thrown up in the air and piercing workers’ bodies. The pieces then remain in their bodies until removed with a doctor’s help. There have been examples in the past of workers being fatally injured in this manner.

Though these are problems revealed by workers of the hot roller plants, there is not much difference between conditions of workers of other ancillary plants of the industrial area. There are also women labourers working in the polishing and packing units. There is no provision of separate toilets for men and women let alone other facilities. There are children workers as well. For young boys to join work at the age of 15 years is quite common.

Factory owners fail to turn up for negotiations

The Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti had submitted its demands to the factory owners on 6 June 2014 but did not hear from them even after six days of strike. Meanwhile, during these six days, the owners tried to seek help from the police. The factory owners threatened to file an FIR against the workers which obviously didn’t materialise due to lack of grounds. The workers have till now carried out a peaceful rally and daily sit -in protests at Raja Park in the area. On the other hand, the police have only tried to suppress the strike by trying to disrupt workers’ rally on 10 June 2014. They have been on guard in the park since the first day.

Finally, on 12 June 2014 the Samiti submitted a letter to the Labour Inspector at the District Labour Court, detailing the state of affairs and their demands. They also stated that if any action is not taken until 16 June 2014, some drastic actions will be taken by them. The letter was copied to the Labour Commissioner, Labour Minister and Chief Minister of Delhi. It is only after such a request that the Deputy Labour Commissioner(DLC) had called for a meeting of the factory owners’ association and the Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti on 14 June. None of the factory owners turned up for the meeting. Only one manager from one of the companies turned up on behalf of his factory owner. But since he did not have any authority letter from his or any of the owners, his participation wasn’t considered valid. It was decided in the meeting that a team will be sent to a few factories to check the records being maintained by the factory owners regarding workers. These records will be matched with the list of actual workers and details provided by the workers.

On 16 and 17 June, the inspection team constituting a labour official, a health officer, and a factory inspector was sent for the same. Many factory owners did not show up and kept their factories locked. At the few factories where inspection took place, seizure of records was done due to impropriety. The effect of this was that the factory owners’ association for the first time called upon the workers for a negotiation. But the workers refused to have any negotiations outside the office of the labour commissioner. The DLC then called for a meeting of the factory owners’ association and the workers’ representatives on 19 June to take the matter forward.

On 19 June also, none of the factory owners turned up for the meeting. After an hour of the scheduled time of the meeting, a lawyer on behalf of a 18 out of the 23 factories owners turned up. But he too had no documentary evidence that he has authority to represent the factory owners for negotiations. The DLC has therefore issued challahs in the name of the 23 factories. Another meeting will now be called in a few days.

Conclusion and Demands

It is to yet to be seen as to how many demands of the workers will be met this time and how long the struggle will have to continue. It is unfortunate that in order to get their basic rights enforced workers have had to come on the streets yet again. It needs to be noted that the workers are demanding nothing more than what has been guaranteed to them under the labour laws of the country. What they are demanding are not any favours or privileges but what is rightfully theirs.

The governments have only encouraged the factory owners to continue to violate laws. Now, with Vasaundhara Raje’s(Chief Minister of Rajasthan) trendsetting move to amend labour laws to the benefit of industrialists and factory owners, the exploitation seems to be growing further worse.

It is in this context that PUDR demands, that at the very least, workers’ rights as guaranteed under the labour laws of this country be enforced and a minimum standard of workplace condition be ensured immediately.

Released on 19th June 14, by Asish Gupta and D. Manjit (Secretaries, PUDR)