Brittle existence

Published : Nov 04, 2005 00:00 IST

Two lakh unorganised workers help the bangle and glassware industry in Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, make several crores of rupees as turnover every year. The Kanch Udyog Krantikaari Mazdoor Sangh, which they have formed, is their best hope for protection from exploitation.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Firozabad

"YOU won't find anyone here. They have all gone to the rally," grumbled an overseer at one of the many bangle and glassware factories in Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, on September 4. Some of the units were empty, while in many the workers hurried to finish their shift so that they could join their colleagues. It seemed to be the moment of reckoning for the workers as more than 3,000 of them defied their employers to gather for the rally to mark the culmination of the second national convention of workers in the unorganised sector, held under the aegis of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

The workers belong to the Kanch Udyog Krantikaari Mazdoor Sangh, a union formed two years ago after several years of struggle. It means a lot to them and they showed it by their presence in the rally, an event that would have been impossible to hold until two years ago. Firozabad is synonymous with glass bangles, produced in the 500-odd factories, which employ around two lakh workers whose names are not on any muster roll. The bangles and glassware - fancy lights, lamps, wine glasses and chandeliers - they make are widely acclaimed as the best in the country. The combined turnover of the factories runs into several crores of rupees every year.

It is a century-old industry and no labour laws apply here. While 70,000 workers are employed "directly" in the factories, the rest do home-based tasks or are involved in transporting bangles from one point to another. It is estimated that each bangle passes through at least 60 persons - most of them low-paid workers - before it is put up for sale. While the main work is done in the factory, the decoration, the soldering of joints and the straightening and bending are done in homes by girls not yet in their teens. They do it to supplement their family incomes.

Earlier the factories used to be spread out on the outskirts of Firozabad, but now they claim to be part of an industrial estate. The town is located some 30 kilometres from Agra and the only reason to stop there would be to shop at the wholesale outlets. Of the seven-lakh population of the town, it is said that, barring the factory owners, everyone else belongs to the working class. But that does not guarantee employment, particularly now.

The factories are a picture of squalor and wretchedness. The living quarters are no different. Devnagar, a congested colony whose lanes are barely wide enough for a cyclerickshaw to pass, is home to sisters Chinki and Neetu. They, and several hundred girls like them, do jalai or soldering of bangles in dark and dingy rooms lining the lanes. The two girls, along with four others, solder around 12,000 bangles a day, working for five to eight hours, and earn between Rs.20 and Rs.35. They do this after school to meet their education expenses, says their mother.

A lot of children are also employed in packing and sorting work, says Puthu Singh Rathore, vice-president of the Kanch Udyog Krantikaari Mazdoor Sangh.

Interventions by the Labour Department seldom bear results. In one instance, an Assistant Labour Commissioner who had gone to a factory for inspection following a complaint of child labour was beaten up in front of workers.

The union president, Rajjo Devi, 55, who comes from a landed family, has also been targeted. Her son, Mukesh Yadav, has been in jail for a year after he was picked up under the Goondas Act in a case filed by factory owners. He took an active interest in mobilising workers for an agitation in Lucknow in October last year to demand an eight-hour day as against the 12 hours or more they did. Nearly 20,000 workers went to Lucknow at the call of the CITU.

When they returned, 125 of them found themselves facing cases, including many under the Goondas Act.

In the 1970s, the workers were organised under the Lal Jhanda Mazdoor Sabha, but the Syndicate, as the association of employers is called, turned out to be better organised. The union collapsed.

The workers are mainly Dalit - Jatavs or Shankmaans. Now they have, with the help of the Kanch Udyog Krantikaari Mazdoor Sangh, got their working hours fixed at eight. "Until two years ago we worked for 12 hours. Now, for the same wage we work for eight hours," said Bobby Gupta and Neeraj Kumar. However, they still do not have a lunch break and cannot ease themselves when they want to. "The employers do not let us even wash our hands. Two years ago, we used to keep our lunch in our shirt pockets and eat it whenever we could. That has changed, but even now they do not let us go to the toilet because they see it as time lost as the furnace keeps burning," said Kamal Kumar.

The workers look pale and their eyes are deep yellow in colour. Their palms are yellowed and at some places the skin is hard and a pallid green from holding the skewer to take out the molten glass. "There is no pain but our palms are unfit to fondle the cheeks of a child," says Dharam Bir, as he and Rakesh Kumar show their scarred palms.

For women it is worse - their jobs are at the mercy of the superviser. They clear the molten glass that falls around the furnaces and remove it in 20-kg lots to a designated place. "They are supposed to give us protection, but there is nothing," said Geeta Kashyap, who used to work at Paras Glass Works. She participated in the agitation last year in which her arm was broken by a policeman's lathi blow. Originally from Burdwan district in West Bengal, Geeta has been in Firozabad for 20 years. No one wants to employ her as she is vocal about the working conditions and is closely identified with the union.

At Firozabad Ceramics Private Limited, Frontline found that those working on the shop floor had no protection for their eyes and hands. The unit runs three shifts of 300 workers each. A few feet away from the furnaces are rooms, each "home" to five or six workers. A notice in the manager's air-conditioned office lists the key "Quality Objectives" of the company. They are: to increase turnover by 10 per cent from that of the last financial year; to increase customer satisfaction by 25 per cent; and to reduce rejection by 15 per cent during production in the next six months. But there is nothing outlined for the welfare of the workers. The company's spokesperson, Rakesh Kumar Jain, says they produce a total of 10,000 glass items a day, including drinking glasses of all types, perfume bottles and flask containers.

Frontline was denied entry at a unit that called itself "Electronics Glass Industries". The superviser initially agreed but refused after "consulting" the floor manager. He said no work was being done and there was little point in entering the premises. But that was apparently not the case. The chimneys were smoking, pointed out a worker outside the factory gate. "They are afraid you might observe something and get them into trouble," he said.

ACCORDING to the National Sample Survey Organisation report of 1999-2000, workers in the unorganised sector total 36.9 crores as against only 2.8 crores in the organised sector. Of the unorganised workers, 23.7 crores are employed in agricultural work; 1.7 crores in construction; 4.1 crores in manufacturing activities; and 3.7 crores each in trade and transport, communication and services.

The features that characterise unorganised work include lack of regulation of employment, seasonality of employment, denial of benefits under the labour laws, lack of social security protection and the absence of an employer-employee relationship.

Technology makes possible the fragmentation of work, in that each activity is carried out in different places, and reduces the necessity of using skilled labour as each task comprises simple operations that can be performed by non-regular workers, often women and children. The fact that over 50 per cent of the work in making bangles is done in homes indicates the cost advantages to the employer in terms of hiring an establishment and employing regular labour.

In Firozabad, workers work for free until they acquire the necessary skills, as there is no formal recruitment or training. Workers told Frontline that earlier a lot of the furnace-related activities used to be done manually, now motors ensure that in eight hours a worker produces more than what he did in 12 hours. Has the work become easier? The reply is an emphatic no.

Unorganised work is euphemistically called "informal" compared with organised, formal and regular employment. Unions such as the CITU have observed that a large section of workers in the unorganised sector are women and children and the large majority of them belong to Dalit and oppressed sections. It is estimated that 98 per cent of all working women are in this sector. They are not paid wages on a par with men, are denied maternity benefits and are sexually harassed.

Much of the unorganised workforce remains under constant threat of loss of job. There are no appointment letters, wage slips or identity cards. The workers are paid daily wages, which are much less than the statutory minimum wage applicable in the regions where they work. Social security benefits such as Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance (ESI) are not implemented. Of the 350 million workers in both organised and unorganised sectors, only 22 million are covered by the Employees Provident Fund scheme, nine million under the ESI scheme, 4.5 million under the Workmen's Compensation Act and only 0.5 million under the Maternity Benefit Act.

A comprehensive piece of legislation to cover workers in the unorganised sector has been a long-standing demand of the trade unions but little has emerged so far. The second National Labour Commission constituted by the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did not come out with any concrete provisions for employment regulation or a guaranteed minimum wage or social security. In fact, almost on the eve of the general elections in 2004, the NDA government floated a social security scheme. It was shelved as it was found wanting in terms of coverage and other features of a comprehensive piece of legislation.

The present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government introduced, without consultations with trade unions, the Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, 2005. The Bill seeks to exempt employers from filing various returns, registers and statements, mostly pertaining to employees and the employment conditions. Trade unions have opposed it.

The legislation for the unorganised sector is in the draft stage and is far from comprehensive. The trade unions have sent in their suggestions, but it seems that they may have to wait for the next tripartite forum, that is, the 40th session of the Indian Labour Conference to be held in December, to make themselves heard.

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