Thousands of workers working in the Almond Processing Industry in Karawal Nagar region of Delhi are on strike since Dec. 15, 2009.
These workers have rallied around some very basic issues which pertain to living wage and secure and humane working conditions. Additionally the workers also demand issuing of job and wage cards as well as the muster rolls which is a key proof of their employment under a certain person or firm.
PUDR team visited Prakash Vihar in Karawal Nagar region on Dec. 23, 2009 where the striking workers have set up a camp on the road side. Our interaction with the workers and the union members brought to fore inundating miseries and hardship that the workers of Almond Processing Industry are confronted with. There are roughly 40 Almond Processing Units run by the contractors in Karawal Nagar region alone. Each unit employs in between 40 to 100 workers. The works in these units are extremely casualised, in spite of the fact that they run throughout the year and several thousands of workers are employed in it. Currently the workers working in these units are neither covered under the Minimum Wages Act nor the Factory Act which regulates the working condition. The workers reported that the labour commissioner refused to intervene in a wage dispute matter last year saying that this was a domestic work and therefore does not come under his jurisdiction.
A large chunk of workers employed in this industry are women. The wage rate for processing each 23 kilo grams sack of almonds is Rs.50. It takes anywhere between 8 to 10 hours to process one sack of almond depending upon the skills and capacity of each worker. By current rate of payments, the workers in these Badam Processing Units are paid one third of the minimum wage of unskilled labour in Delhi, (or even less than that) which is Rs. 151 for eight hours of work. The mode of payments is quite erratic. As we gathered from the workers there is no fixed date for the payments and the wage payments of the workers are perpetually delayed by the contractors. This flows from extreme casualisation of work in this industry.
It was particularly appalling to notice the grotesque conditions under which the workers slog in these units. Most workers whom we met had wound marks on their hands and fingers. They got these wounds while breaking the almonds, which they do by bare hands. Another major concern pertained to the huge amount of dust generated in course of processing the almonds. This is quite hazardous to their and their children’s health as some of the young children go with their mothers to the processing units.
The current workers strike in the Badam Processing Unit of Karawal Nagar is therefore a manifestation of these longstanding grievances. The local administrations have rather been partisan in the entire conflict. While the labour department has been unresponsive to the grievances of the workers, the police have allegedly colluded with the contractors to connive against the union. During the strike, the workers were taking a peaceful procession in the area raising their demands. The demonstration was attacked by the contractors. The police intervened and arrested the union activists and two contractors. The contractors were let off that very day but the union people remained in jail for next three days. As if there was no letting up for the workers, on Dec. 25 the police forced them to remove the tent under which they were sitting on dharna and in collusion with the contractors pressurised the land owner of the dharna site to evict them from his land. Consequently the workers held their protest by sitting on the road under open sky in chilly Dec. night.
PUDR therefore demands:
1. that the Delhi government through a suitable amendment bring these almond processing units under scheduled industries to be covered by the Factory Act 1948 and the Minimum Wages Act 1948.
2. the wages of the workers working in these units be immediately streamlined and rationalized at par with the minimum wages of unskilled workers in delhi. Non compliance of the same by the contractors be treated as violation of fundamental right to life with dignity and actions as per law be initiated against them.
3. the labour department must intervene to ensure that the contractors get registered and the workers are covered under welfare and safety measures.
4. the contractors be directed to issue job cards, wage cards and maintain muster roll as these are bare minimum that the workers shall have as proof of employment hence generating some legal entitlements.
5. the police arrest those who were involved in the attack on the peaceful procession of the workers and withdraw all charges against the activists of Badam Majdoor Union.
Moshumi Basu and Gautam Navlakha