The contractual workforce employed at one of the depots of a government-owned warehouse storage and handling service provider in the national capital found itself left in the lurch earlier this month after the substitution of their labour supplying agency.
They received succour through a Delhi High Court order recently, which came following a week filled with apprehension, courtesy – not surprisingly – a trade union.
On January 6, around 280 loading workers found the gates of an inland clearance depot (ICD) of the Central Warehousing Corporation (CWC) at East Delhi’s Patparganj closed to them. The corporation, under the administrative control of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, boasts of being a Schedule ‘A’-Mini Ratna enterprise.
With 415 warehouses and 25 ICDs across the country, it provides logistical support to the agriculture sector, including warehousing activities that have to do with the storage of foodgrains, or other notified commodities.
Timeline of Events
On the fateful day, the presence of police personnel, accompanying the security guards, already hinted the reasons behind the prohibition on their entrance in the depot. The loading workers were aware that the three year contract of the private agency that employed them had ended a day earlier. The workers were soon told by the guards that they were not required anymore.
The loaders, majority of whom are in their 40s and 50s, were left shaken as their source of income was snatched in a day – a condition that would strike a chord with all contractual workers, who are often subjected to economic precarity, thanks to the non-permanent nature of the job.
When Vikramjeet Singh, 45, one of the workers facing the axe, talked to NewsClick over phone on January 14, his anxiety could be clearly heard in his voice. Recounting the incident, he said, “We didn’t knew where to go; what to do. In a blink, all of us were left with no job in our hands.”
The workers, already unionised under the banner of the Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) – affiliated General Mazdoor Lal Jhanda Union, at first sought to approach the management of the public enterprise’s Patparganj depot, the principal employer, but to no avail. “The management didn’t help us much,” he said, adding, “This was despite the fact that most of us had completed 30-35 years in this company.” Singh himself had been engaged in loading-unloading activities at the said depot since 1992.
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Since his joining, he recalled, their private contracting agency was replaced with a new one nine times. However, the staff had never faced being substituted with a new set of workers, according to him. “Every time, we would negotiate with the new contractor. He would agree to previous terms of our contract – with some minor changes here and there,” Singh said.
It should be noted that for all these years the loaders continued to remain temporary, even as the existing labour laws demanded otherwise. Under the Contract Labour Act, 1970, the principal employer is said to be under obligation to grant permanent status to the worker who has completed 240 days as being on a contract for work that is of perennial nature.
This time, however, when “Rahul Roadways” replaced “Suman Forwarding Agency Private Limited” as the new private labour supplier, the loaders were left in for a shock. On December 28, according to the loaders NewsClick spoke to, officials – both, from the new agency and CWC – met the union leaders to discuss the transition.
“First they told us that none of us would be reinstated,” one of the workers, Barsati, 59, alleged. “They told us that since work has reduced (ostensibly due to the pandemic-caused disruptions in the supply chain), the new agency will reduce the manpower – cutting about 100 jobs,” he added. Moreover, the new labour supplier, according to Barsati, also wanted us to vacate positions for “his” workers.
Finding themselves in a tough spot to ‘choose’ the workers whose jobs would be reinstated and not for others, the union leaders protested against the proposal. The meeting ended with no “final decision,” Barsati told NewsClick.
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By the first week of this year, the workers found the management and the new private agency had opted for the first option.
Anurag Saxena, general secretary, CITU – Delhi NCR told NewsClick that the union thought of taking the matter into the court, as soon as they got to know about the potential “illegal retrenchment.” Subsequently, a petition was filed, in the name of 105 workers associated with the union, in the Delhi High Court on January 5.
Anuj Aggarwal, who represented the petitioners in the case, said on January 14 that the High Court in its interim order a day earlier – on January 13 – has directed the new contracting agency to “maintain the status quo” with respect to the jobs of the loaders. “The judge had made important observations while granting status quo in its judgement to the workers,” Aggarwal told NewsClick. The copy of the order, however, is yet to be published on the court’s website.
“Once the copy of the order is made available to all the parties, the new agency will be legally required to reinstate the jobs of the workers and the management will be required to ensure the same,” Aggarwal observed. The next date of hearing is on February 11, when all the parties in the case are asked to submit a status report.
Saxena hailed the court order as a “win” for the protesting trade union. “It is our win. The system of contractualisation is eating away the workers. It is only together that we can all fight against it – step by step,” he added.
The next step would be to ensure that the loaders get their permanent job status regarding which a case is already pending in the city-based Central Government Industrial Tribunal, he further said. “But since 2019, not even a single proceeding has taken place,” Aggarwal, representing the aggrieved workers in the tribunal as well, rued. This is, according to him, because the post of the judge is “vacant since the last two years.”
Saxena, who said he was present during the virtual High Court hearing, also stressed that even though a section of workers this time had approached the judiciary, the judgement will “ensure that the entire staff is reinstated.” The union will press for the same, he added.
When NewsClick approached Bhuvennshwar Kumar Dwivedi, manager (general operations) at CWC’s Patparganj’s ICD, on Friday regarding his take on the allegations, he declined to offer any comments. “The matter is currently sub-judice. Also I can’t comment since I am an operational fellow. This will be looked after by our legal department,” he said.
Multiple calls made to an official from the new labour supplying agency, Rahul Roadways, went unanswered.
Meanwhile, the loaders who have been protesting in groups of not more than three (due to COVID guidelines) outside the depot gate at Patparganj - from 10 in the morning up till 6 in the evening, everyday - are now hopeful of getting back their job sooner after the court judgement. “It’s already been more than a week now with no work,” Singh said, adding, “Each workday counts for us when it comes to keep the fire in the hearth burning.”
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