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16 Jul 2014

A month ago, on 6 June 2014, more than a thousand workers of 23 hot roller plants in Wazirpur Industrial area in Delhi had struck work. Their demands included only what has been laid down in the law. The demands were 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 formed a committee by the name of Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti to represent them in putting forth their demands. Today, more than a month later, the workers continue to struggle for basic work conditions. In complete defiance of labour department's instructions and outright violation of all norms, the factory owners have shown complete indifference to workers' demands. They have also been unresponsive to the labour officials' call for interventions. As a result, the workers are still struggling to reclaim their rights.

To recall the sequence of events, 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. 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. The Deputy Labour Commissioner(DLC) 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. On 16 and 17 June, an inspection team constituting a labour official, a health officer, and a factory inspector raided all the 23 factories to check the records being maintained by the factory owners regarding workers to match them with the list of actual workers and details provided by the workers. Many factory owners did not show up and kept their factories locked. Seizure of records was done at some of the factories 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 18 out of the 23 factories owners turned up. But he too had no documentary evidence that he was authorized to represent the factory owners for negotiations. The DLC therefore issued notices of legal action against in the name of the 23 factories.

Finally, on 27 June, a compromise was reached between the workers and factory owners of 19 factories. In a written agreement that followed, the factory owners promised to ensure all the minimum benefits as laid down by the law. They also promised to pay wages for the month of May to be given on 28 June once the workers join work. An Ex-gratia payment of Rs. 2000 was also assured along with the wages of June if conduct of workers remained fine. They also promised to reinstate all workers as they were on 5 June. But on 28 June when the workers returned for work, the factory owners refused to take them back to work. They refused to abide by the written compromise. This is moment when the workers decided to sit on a Satyagrah outside their factory gates. The labour department also issued a show cause notice to the owners. With no positive response, 4 July onwards the workers sat on a relay hunger strike. Three days later on 7 July, the advocate on behalf of the factory owners' association promised to honour the agreement.

Today, in 6 factories the 9 hour work shift has begun, but in others, it is yet to be followed. In 5 factories, the workers have been asked to leave. It is noteworthy how the factory owners have been able to successfully and confidently evade the law. For years they have illegally forced the workers to work in inhuman conditions. When the workers stood up against them, they first refused to take cognizance of their demands. Then they ignored calls for negotiation by the labour department. Finally, when they did agree to negotiate, they refused to honour the written commitment made by them. This shows how brazen the factory owners have become in denying the workers their lawful rights. It is also indicative of how ineffective the State has become in preventing violators of law from doing so.

PUDR condemns the attitude of the factory owners and demands that they honour the agreement arrived between them and the workers. The State should take strict action against the errant factory owners and ensure that the workers are guaranteed minimum benefits as laid down by the law.

 Ashish Gupta and D. Manjit.