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An endangered class

Print edition : Nov 07, 2003 T+T-

With the major industries shifting out of Mumbai and the `new economy' sector shutting its doors on them, skilled industrial workers of the city are increasingly haunted by unemployment and poverty.

in Mumbai

AKTAR KHAN had had enough. It had been seven years since he lost his job in Tata Power Company. Since then, he had not found work. All he could do was odd jobs - construction work, painting and so on. The income was not enough to support his wife and five daughters. He had no money to pay the rent and the family had to vacate the next day. There was nowhere to go.

But Aktar continued to struggle. On October 3, he went with his old colleagues for yet another protest outside Bombay House, the company headquarters in the heart of Mumbai demanding that the company re-employ them. The management and the union were supposed to sign an agreement on that day. Aktar and his colleagues went there to insist that their demands be part of the pact. But they were told that the meeting had been re-located elsewhere.

While other workers were wondering what to do next, Aktar and his colleague Anant Dalvi were not. They had made up their minds to set themselves on fire just opposite the office doors of the most respected industrial house in India.

No one from the management or the union came forward to help. "We were on the street crying for help, trying to extinguish the flames. They shut the doors of Bombay House. The least they could have done is give us some water or a fire extinguisher," said a co-worker. "Neither the Tata management nor the union came to visit the workers in the hospital. An independent union offered to pay for Aktar's treatment. Tata Charities have such a big name. What have they done for their own workers?"

Anant died soon after. Aktar lingered for a few days before he died in hospital. "We are on the street now," said his wife Amina. "I have left my daughters with my mother. They have exams. I kept our belongings with neighbours."

The Tata Power Company, however, reiterated that it offered to take the workers to the hospital but the police told its officials to stay away. "We arranged for doctors in the hospital and even put in Rs.2 lakhs in the hospital, which the workers refused to accept," said a Tata spokesperson.

The company said that it was not responsible for the plight of Anant, Aktar and their 70 colleagues. "They are no longer Tata employees. They were employed on a project. Their services were not terminated. Their project came to an end," said the company spokesperson. Most workers said they had worked for more than 15 to 20 years on various projects until 1996 when their services were terminated, permanently.

In Parel, central Mumbai, life in a working class area. Such tenements exist adjacent to swanky corporate offices and shopping centres that have been constructed over the graveyards of mills.

ANANT and Aktar's self-immolation may sound as unbelievable as a Bollywood film. But the reality for Mumbai's workers is as grim and bizarre. Called `the city of dreams', Mumbai attracted migrants from all over the country. They came here assured of a decent living if only they were willing to work hard.

Today, hard work is not enough. Nor are skills or education. Employment in India's commercial capital is getting more unstable and hard to come by. Skilled factory workers roam the streets hoping to find work, even for a day. They have been reduced to working as hawkers, construction workers, painters, couriers, taxi drivers and security guards. Standards of living have fallen drastically. Malnutrition levels in Mumbai's slums are as bad as those in the drought-ridden tribal areas of Jawhar in Thane district, just two hours away, according to a study conducted by Neeraj Hathekar, economist at the University of Mumbai.

The dreams have faded. Over the past decade, manufacturing units have shifted out of the city, leaving thousands of workers jobless. Mumbai's main manufacturing industries - textiles, chemical, pharmaceutical and engineering - have moved to places where incentives are better and taxes are minimal. It is now the rise of the `new economy' - banking, finance, hospitality, call centres and housing. These industries are less labour-intensive. They hire more white-collar employees. The space for workers is shrinking. They are being pushed into contract or casual labour.

In the early 1960s, 51 per cent of jobs in Mumbai were in the organised manufacturing sector, where workers had permanent employment and assured benefits like leave and providend fund. The situation has changed. Around 65 per cent of workers are in the unorganised sector where there is no regulation of minimum wage, working hours or any social security. Even high profile white-collar employees hired on contract can be fired at the drop of a hat. While it is easier for executives to find work elsewhere, it is more difficult for workers. Between 1981 and 1996, the growth in formal sector employment has been sliding at a rate of -0.6 per cent, annually.

Once retrenched, most of them get only casual work on a daily basis. Aktar would find work for only a few days a month. He had to borrow heavily just to meet basic household expenses. His wife worked to pay the children's school fees.

Aktar's colleague Vijay Jadhav also threatens to kill himself. "I haven't been able to enrol my son in school. My younger daughter lost a year in school and my older daughter can't sit for her exams because I can't afford to pay their fees. I can't bear to see my family in this situation. It's better to kill myself," he said. After working as a skilled technician with Tatas, Jadhav now works at construction sites. He manages to find 10 days of work a month - if he is lucky.

Mumbai's mill workers have felt the worst blow. Their number shrank from 2.5 lakhs in 1981 to around 30,000 today, says Prof. Sharit Bhowmick, a sociologist at the University of Mumbai. Textile mills were once the backbone of Mumbai's economy. The city grew around them. Today, most mills have shut down without paying workers their dues. With real estate prices amongst the highest in the world, it is more lucrative for owners to sell the land than to run factories. Swank shopping centres, residential complexes and corporate offices have replaced textile factories. Workers are on the streets.

Suryakant Mahadik earns Rs.3,000 a month working as a taxi driver. When he worked in Khatau mill seven years ago, he earned Rs.6,000. His children work at home doing piece-work garment jobs to pay for their education. "After the factory shut down, I was unemployed for two years. Even this work as a taxi driver is very uncertain. I still have to borrow from friends," he said. The Mahadik family's lifestyle has suffered dramatically. "Our phone was cut off. We can't afford the bills. Ever since the factory shut down, we haven't celebrated Deepavali. I can't buy new clothes for the children. We used to travel to our village every year. But ever since the company shut down, I haven't visited my village," said Mahadik.

One of his co-workers, Chandrakant Gavde, committed suicide by jumping off a train about four years ago. "His wife was ill with cancer. He was working as a security guard. He couldn't attend work for two days. So he was sacked. That's when he jumped off the train," Mahadik narrated.

This is the new `flexible' economy, where workers are left high and dry, where irregular contract work and outsourcing is the norm. Traditional unions are still coming to grips with the changing situation. "Trade unions have only been representing workers in the formal sector. They haven't been able to organise the vast majority of workers in the unorganised sector," says Sharit Bhowmick. "Workers are being retrenched without any social security to fall back on. People have become desperate enough to kill themselves," says Neeraj Hathekar.

With land at such a premium, the spaces for the poor are shrinking in every way. Even self-employed workers like hawkers are being pushed out of work by `citizen's groups'. Skyscrapers have replaced chawls in central Mumbai's working class areas, pushing workers further to the margins.

The marginalisation is so acute that it pushes some workers over the edge. To the point where they would rather kill themselves. The economy has become so flexible that some have keeled over.