A risky trade

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

Metalworkers of the Okhla Industrial Area in Delhi, like their counterparts elsewhere in the country, are at the mercy of both their machines and the factory management.

AMAN SETHI in New Delhi

THE truck slowly plots its way through the grid that is the Okhla Industrial Area, its wheels throwing up dense clouds of dust. The broad, unpaved roads have been pounded flat by the constant passing of trucks like this one; the air is thick with the rhythmic clatter of metal on metal and the low throbbing of engines. The Industrial Area is a surreal space - an operating theatre where men and machines are fused into hyper-efficient cyborgs specifically designed to wrench unyielding metal into sleek, functional forms. Sharp-edged cutters scythe through sheets of steel, high-speed grinders and buffers transform dull kora maal (raw material) into shiny "final pieces".

This journey from kora maal to final pieces is fraught with danger. Apart from the ever-present danger posed by the machinery and chemicals, the shop floor is enveloped in a thick haze of metal dust that finds its way into the eyes, lungs and digestive tracts of the workers. "Working with metal is like negotiating a truce," explains Amalkant, a metal polisher. "If you are not careful, the same machine that gets you your daily wage will chop off your hand in a second." As a polisher for Michael Aram Exports Pvt. Ltd., Amalkant is charged with making rough-cut, dull metal items sourced form local manufacturers into glowing art works designed for homes and offices across the world.

The first step is katai, or cutting. The raw piece is treated with safed masala (white polish) and the rough edges and tarnish are smoothed out using an emery paper buffer mounted on a fast-spinning mechanical axle. Katai is followed by ghotai, where the piece is first scrubbed with yellow emery paper and white polish, followed by a fibre brush and red polish. While katai is supposed to remove any unevenness, it is not a very precise process and leaves broad scratches on the metal surface. Ghotai, by contrast, is an extremely precise process that removes any marks or blemishes on the surface to be polished. The actual polishing, or chamkai, comes only after the ghotai is complete. Chamkai is carried out using green polish and a soft green buffer. This process provides the base of the shine, which is then made into a deep lustre by dhulai (washing the piece with kerosene) and a final buffing using white polish and a soft buff. The entire process takes about half an hour apiece, and workers polish about 20 pieces in a 10-hour day.

In his conference paper titled Masculinity, respect and the tragic: Scenes of proletarian humour in contemporary industrial Delhi, Shanker Ramaswami points out that the production process has become a vital part of worker vocabulary. Chamkai, ghotai and dhulai have become metaphors for day-to-day worker life. "Management toh hamari dhulai karti hi karti hai," remarks Amalkant, in a reference to the long hours and strenuous work. Another essential part of worker vocabulary is hisaab". "While hisaab essentially means settlement, it implies a whole lot more," explains Surinder Singh. "Hisaab se kaam karna could mean to work properly and correctly, without cutting corners or skipping steps. To engage with the task at hand." Hisaab se kaam could also be used in contexts where the work is dangerous or demanding - so here hisaab would imply caution. However, the most common, yet complex, meaning of hisaab se kaam is to work at a predetermined pace collectively negotiated by the workers.

This particular meaning of hisaab is indicative of the atmosphere on the shop floor. Contrary to popular imagination, the shop floor is not the epitome of collective worker action against the management. While a significant degree of solidarity does exist, the production rate is a complex negotiation of autonomous speed-ups, slowdowns, obstruction and facilitation. Workers classify themselves on the basis of individual relations with the management - chamchas (management stooges), unionwallahs, mehnatwallahs (hard workers) and kaamchors (shirkers) come together to produce a fixed number of pieces each day. Working at a negotiated pace allows all workers the freedom to devote adequate time and attention to their work and safety. Chamchas, who over-produce for individual gain, force all workers to increase their production levels without incentives for overtime. Kaamchors, who under-produce, give the entire team a bad name and reduce the bargaining power of workers with the management. A good worker is one who works in accordance with the many tenets of hisaab.

For metal polishers with permanent employee status, salaries range between Rs.2,500 and Rs.3,500 a month. Some factories offer up to Rs.4,000 a month, depending on the nature of the work. The salary is considered to be on the higher side in the industrial area, but the inherent risks and health hazards discourage the workers from polishing work.

Most workers at Michael Aram are from nearby villages in Uttar Pradesh and have families back home. Some stay at nearby jhuggis (hutments), while others commute from townships such as Faridabad and Badarpur. Twin rooms cost about Rs.500 a month between two persons. Rampal claims that at times workers save up to Rs.1,500 a month, which they send back home.

"Of course, we could use more money," remarks Rampal laconically, "But, when I first started work in the 1980s as a helper, I earned Rs.250 a month. What is more important is that the salary comes regularly and on time."

But wage payments are proving to be a problem at Michael Aram. In fact, the workers have not been paid since September and the plant has been idle since March. Michael Aram Exports, the Indian unit for a United States - based designer, sources raw, unpolished pieces from local manufacturers, polishes them at its Delhi plant and exports them to international markets. In early 2005, an intra-management dispute between Aram and his Indian director (and 30 per cent shareholder) Francis Joseph, resulted in the closure of two units. Production ceased and the management declared that workers would get all their dues once accounts are reopened. But the workers are getting restive.

Alleging non-payment of wages, the workers have filed a complaint with the Labour Department. The Delhi State Kamdar Union, affiliated to the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, has offered its assistance and is helping with the case. The workers have also embarked on a series of marches. But, in the meantime, the management has opened a new factory and offered some workers employment. Workers allege that work was offered only to certain management chamchas but the manager of production and shipping S. Jacobs, says that all workers were offered jobs at the new plant. Whatever the truth may be, the management has successfully fractured worker unity.

While the unions are gearing up for a prolonged dispute, workers are conscious that the Labour Department might not rule in their favour. Unfortunately, workers are simply seen as facilitators of the production process - to be hired when the need arises, and fired when possible. "Over the years, the management has become very smart," says Rampal, a metal polisher who has not found work at the new plant. "The traditional strategies of strikes, julus, and protest are no longer effective. The moment you go on strike, the management simply effects a lockout and hires contract workers at half the salary." Workers allege that lower management often goads them into adopting violent protests that are then used, by the higher management, as grounds to dismiss them.

Sometimes unions actually weaken worker resistance by centralising protest strategies. "Often, union leaders arrive at compromises with the management in order to protect their own positions," says Laxman Singh, a factory worker in Okhla. "Instead, without a formal union, the management has no one to negotiate with, and so invariably cracks under pressure. The management prefers to deal with unions as it is easier to convince, bribe or intimidate one man."

Amidst of the carefully controlled chaos of Phase I, B-156, the polishing unit of Michael Aram Exports Pvt. Ltd. is silent; an aberration along the machine-man continuum. Workers sit in small groups, chatting softly amongst themselves, pulling on their beedis and gesturing at a solitary watchman who sits with an attendance register. "His job is to make sure that we turn up at the factory every day," explains Naresh Singh, a metal polisher and employee of the plant, "Production at the plant has stopped, but attendance is still marked. We show up every day, waiting for the plant to open."

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