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Silent machines

Print edition : Jul 30, 2010 T+T-

Industrial workers are fighting to keep their jobs and make ends meet as prices rise in the neoliberal set-up.

in Mumbaiin Chennai

FOR the past six months, 32-year-old Bharat Kanse has been unemployed. He lost his job when the pharmaceutical company he was working for shut down. Since then he has been fighting for adequate compensation. He supports his wife and two children. Kanse is among hundreds of industrial workers in Mumbai who were rendered jobless when the companies sold their property for commercial or residential development a far more lucrative option than manufacturing products.

Kanse was not earning a high income. He took home an average monthly salary of Rs.4,000, but at least it was something. Fortunately for him, his father, a Railways pensioner, supports the family. There are so many others who are either living on hand loans or have returned to their native villages because they have no money, he says.

We need at least Rs.15,000 a month to lead a fairly decent life in Mumbai. Our minimum expenses include rent, school fees, medical bills, transport and, most importantly, food. If I don't get a job soon we are going to be eating only one meal a day and will end up on the streets, says Kanse. Every month now I ask myself, where I will find the money to pay the rent and feed the family? Mumbai has repeatedly been certified by researchers as one of the world's most expensive cities. A recent survey by Mercer, a global consulting agency, ranks Mumbai 48 among 143 costliest cities in the world. The survey points out that Mumbai has moved up four notches since 2009, which makes it even more expensive than cities such as Singapore, which are traditionally high on the cost of living index. With prices of every essential item skyrocketing, how do the poor people and those in the lower- and middle-income groups manage? Not very well, says Vivek Monteiro of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The working class has really had to cut down on daily expenses. While prices have gone up substantially over the past three years, salaries have not.

Yet, while we might think that remuneration is crucial, the working man's struggle is actually to hold on to his job. Job security is a priority now for unions to work on. The industrial worker has been hit hard in this economy he has to fight for his job and then hope to make ends meet with his meagre earnings.

Historically, Mumbai has been home to thousands of industrial workers. As the hub of manufacturing industries such as chemicals, textiles, pharmaceuticals and engineering, it has been a city of opportunity for the working class. In fact, several city historians of Mumbai say the city was built on the sweat of industrial workers. They unhesitatingly attribute the city's growth, prosperity and popularity to this section of the populace.

Unfortunately, during the past two decades and post liberalisation, the industrial worker in Mumbai has received several hard knocks. The best known story is that of the textile mills that shut down due to industrial strikes in the 1980s. With some tweaking in the development rules and lobbying by builders, the mills never reopened and their land was sold for residential and commercial development. It is said that in the 1950s and 1960s, two out of every three industrial workers were employed by the mills. Thousands of people lost their livelihoods during the strike. The chawls (workers' tenements) in Central Mumbai are crammed with former mill workers' families who, a generation later, have come to terms with their predicament.

The future for many of them continues to look bleak. Since they did not have the resources to spend on their children's education, many in the next generation are not qualified for white-collar employment that is part of the new economy (sectors such as banking, telecom, hospitality and call centres). Furthermore, these sectors are less labour-intensive and so offer fewer opportunities.

Chandrakant Gotal lost two fingers while operating a machine. He works in an auxiliary unit that makes wipers for every major Indian automobile brand. He has not been paid any compensation, nor has he been transferred to a section which is less dangerous. Gotal says the machine was over 40 years old, and he knows 16 people who have lost either one or two fingers to the outdated machine.

He has taken the company to court over the accident. But he could risk losing his job. At 51, Gotal cannot take any chances. Nobody gets a company job these days. At least I have some security. Where will I get work at my age? He says his involvement with the union has infuriated the management, and it refuses to change his job profile, saying, Either he can work where he is told to, or leave.

Gotal has been working for 20 years. His take-home salary, after deductions, comes to Rs.5,000. Hardly enough to look after my family, he says. He spends Rs.20 every day to commute to work. The only silver lining is that he owns his 10 feet by 10 feet house in a low-income workers' colony in north-western Mumbai.

The family consumes at least 22 kilogrammes of rice and at least 4 kg of sugar. The price of rice has gone up from Rs.20 a kg to Rs.35 and sugar, which was Rs.18 a kg just a year ago, now costs Rs.34. Ration shops never have supplies, so the family is at the mercy of retail stores. We are finding it difficult but I cannot find work anywhere else. At my age and with two fingers missing, who will hire me?

Yet Gotal says his life is better than a colleague's who was forced to retire at 57. They gave him a settlement of Rs.85,000 and told him to leave. He had worked for 21 years. That money will not even last one year given the price level today.

There are hundreds of industrial workers who are working at supposed minimum wages but really take home a pittance, says Vinod Shetty, a lawyer and labour rights activist. The automobile industry is a rapidly growing sector, having already registered a 12 per cent growth this year. It is a shame that companies, in spite of doing so well, cannot look after the very people who prop them up, says Shetty. These are big, well-known profitable brands. There should be some fairness for people like Gotal.

Narendra Chandane's muscles in the left arm have begun to deteriorate. He was a driver with the pharmaceutical company in which Bharat Kanse worked. When his arm started giving him trouble, Chandane requested to be shifted to the security department. Within a few months the company closed shop. Chandane was left without a salary and, therefore, had no money to pay his medical bills. He was earning Rs.3,000 a month.

In spite of working in the company for 20 years they never made an ESI [Employees State Insurance Corporation] card for me. So I could never get my medical bills paid. I had an ESI number but the hospital told me that unless I had a card they could not treat me. I spent all my savings on my treatment at private hospitals, says Chandane.

Chandane has suffered from malaria, jaundice (twice) and water accumulation in his lungs during the past two years. Other minor ailments continue to plague him. He is 52, physically very weak, and will probably never work again. He says he earns Rs.2,200 as interest from some money he has saved. This takes care of some of the family's monthly expenses. His provident fund has been released and he hopes to save it so that the interest accrued will add to his income. For now, his wife's family pitches in when it can. Soon his daughter will pass out of school and he will have to find the means to send her to college. They must study. That is the only way out of their misery, he says.

Kanse and Chandane are among 155 employees of the pharmaceutical company who were laid off. Our dearness allowance was called Textile DA so we were paid according to the mill wages and we followed mill rules. Therefore, we are entitled to the same benefits/formula being given to mill workers, says Kanse. The one-third formula essentially ensures that one-third of the mill land is given for providing housing to workers. Additionally, any commercial enterprise that comes up on the land should provide employment to the displaced workers.

Even if they earn Rs.10,000 a month it is not a good salary today, says P.M. Wartak, a union leader with and a member of the CITU. You need much more to buy good food. They are constantly compromising. That isn't fair to hard-working salaried workers.

Wartak is fighting companies in the printing business to increase the minimum wage and pay a decent increment. He says industrial workers are affected in many ways. Companies are constantly downsizing and so job security is an issue. The salaries are hardly enough, what with the price rise in the last three years. They take loans and live the rest of their lives repaying them.

We live because we have to. This is no life to lead, says Avinash Kamble, a printing industry worker whose services were terminated a few months ago. The only problem with going into contract labour or the unorganised sectors is that there is no social security. In a company job there is at least some assurance of that.

Wartak says this is what attracts people to the so-called company jobs. Although the unorganised sector pays more, social security is very important. A maid or a driver in upmarket Malabar Hill earns more than an industrial worker these days, he says. That is what things have come to.

In 1960, 51 per cent of the jobs in Mumbai were in the organised sector, where workers had permanent employment and benefits such as provident fund. In the early 2000s, the CITU says, 65 per cent of the city's workers were in the unorganised sector. Now, thousands of migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, willing to work for lower wages and for longer hours on a temporary basis, are replacing the permanent industrial worker, Wartak says.

Solutions are few. The industrial worker is clearly a dying breed in Mumbai. They can be saved if those who employ them and the law-makers recognise the fact that without the worker there will be no product and so no profit.

Bearing the brunt of inflation

My association with these fabricating tools dates back to 1990. Even after almost 20 years of service in different small and tiny units, I draw only Rs.5,700 a month. The spiralling prices of essential articles have made my life more miserable, laments C. Sampath, a worker at a small-scale unit in Ambattur, the industrial hub of Chennai.

Though Sampath is only 43, his wrinkled face and eyes, filled with despair, make him look much older. The only breadwinner of the family of four is fortunate enough to have his own shelter at Kallikuppam, around 5 km from the work spot.

He says his family has been leading a hand-to-mouth existence. In recent months, things have taken a turn for the worse. We find it difficult to meet the routine expenses. Though his family receives 20 kg of rice at Re.1 a kg from the ration shops, it has to purchase extra rice from the market at Rs.30 a kg. The steep hike in the price of cooking gas has added to our misery, he says.

The story of C. Meyyappan, a 58-year-old sawmill worker in the same area, is pathetic. A native of Karaikudi, he came to Chennai four decades ago. With a wage of Rs.7,000, he has to take care of his wife and four underemployed sons. He finds it difficult to clear ever-increasing salary advances. Owing to deductions and his personal expenses, he is able to give only Rs.1,500 to his family. He pays a monthly rent of Rs.2,500 for the house. As he is unable to afford cooking gas, his family uses firewood.

Radha, 53, a helper at a gas stove company, earns Rs.2,500 a month. Her husband, a lathe worker, gets around Rs.5,000. They have to take care of their daughter who is recuperating after a heart surgery and a school-going granddaughter.

These are not isolated cases. There are several lakhs of small-scale and tiny sector workers who are hit hard by inflation and its cascading effect.

According to informed sources, there are around 7.5 lakh registered small-scale industries and 6.5 lakh unregistered ones in the State. With the introduction of the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Act, 2006, even service enterprises with an investment of Rs.2 crore and below have been brought under the small-scale sector.

Official sources stated that there were 5.57 lakh micro, small and medium registered enterprises in the State in 2007-2008, employing 39.46 lakh persons. The workers in the unregistered sector are more or less equal in number to those employed by the registered units, trade union sources say.

Though these workers are by and large defenceless against the onslaught of the price spiral, the Central and State governments have ignored their plight, trade unions allege.

Workers cannot even imagine purchasing certain essential articles in the open market in view of the steep price increases, I. Rani, wife of a worker in the small sector at Mogappair, close to the Ambattur Industrial Estate, said. Citing examples, she said the price of sugar had jumped to Rs.40 a kg from last year's price of Rs.17, and pigeon pea was sold at Rs.88 a kg now, while it was Rs.50 last year.

Another issue that continues to haunt the SSIs and tiny units is the declared and undeclared power cuts.

Close on the heels of the Bharat Bandh called by several opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on July 6 claimed that the people of Tamil Nadu, unlike those in the other States, were not hit by price rise.

He also said that his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government had been safeguarding the interest of the people from the spiralling prices. He cited several measures it had taken, including the distribution of rice at Re.1 a kg and certain grocery items at concessional rates and the embargo on bus fare hikes.

However, the Left parties and the trade unions have criticised the government for the way it handled the bandh. They have also disputed the government's claims about tackling the situation arising out of the increase in the prices of essential articles.

A.K. Padmanabhan, State CITU president, told Frontline that when the prices of essential commodities went up, only a very small section of workers and employees belonging to government departments, public sector establishments and larger units in the private sector was compensated by increased dearness allowance. A vast majority of workers in the unorganised, small and tiny and medium sectors did not get any component of wages that would neutralise the pressure of inflation on their day-to-day life. This was precisely because they drew fixed wages, and once a year or once in two years they might get a small increase, he pointed out.

Referring to reports that the price of primary food articles had increased by 16.5 per cent since May last year, he said the workers in these sectors found it difficult to cope with the pressure. We should not forget that the data on increase in the prices of food articles is based on the wholesale price index, he said, adding that if the prices were calculated on the basis of data from the retail market, the hike would be much higher.

Even a small or micro family of the worker struggled with a deficit budget owing to the incredible increase in medical bills, school fees and house rents, Padmanabhan said.

The Central and State governments had done nothing tangible to arrest the deterioration of the quality of life of these ordinary workers, he said.