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WB: Coal Workers Fight for Better Wages, Deplore Labour Codes

The contract workers work 12 hours at meagre wages without any benefits/incentives. They are not eligible for CMPF (Coal Mines Provident Fund) or any statutory benefit.
coal workers

Representational use only.image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Kolkata: Krishna Acharjee, 40, is a contractual worker with Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) at the Bansra opencast project of Raniganj. After nearly 12 hours of duty as an unskilled labourer, he makes around Rs 400/day while his wage on paper is double. The father of a child, Acharjee, is always in pain to make ends meet, being the only earning member of the family.

"On paper, our wages are more than our contractor pays us. Interestingly, when they apply for a tender, they mention the wages-on-paper as workers' expenses; however, we are paid a meagre Rs 400 as unskilled workers in the collieries," he told NewsClick.

In recent years, the coal industry saw a decrease of around 50% in permanent workers. In the 1990s, ECL employed around 1,82,000 permanent workers, which has come down to 52,000.

To maintain the production capacity at 100%, ECL is now busy outsourcing its mining operation to outsourced partners. These partners employ contract workers to excavate coal from opencast projects. Contract workers currently carry out more than 70% of production.

The contract workers work 12 hours at meagre wages without any benefits/incentives. They are not eligible for CMPF (Coal Mines Provident Fund) or any statutory benefit. Areas where they are employed, are without any food outlet, toilet, water, or light.

In ECL, 33 outsourcing projects are currently at work where the conditions mentioned above are extremely common. Many workers who work in the collieries are migrant workers, leading to job scarcity for the local workers.

Birju Yadav of the Bansra area, who is also associated with Colliery Mazdoor Sabha (CMS), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), told NewsClick that the departmental workers are unionised and CMS CITU is is the largest union in the region. However, he explained, the contract workers are still exploited as they cannot even unionise without risking their jobs.

The permanent jobs in the underground jobs are only available for departmental workers. At the same time, jobs like roofing and transporting products are done through third-party outsourcing.

"There are three types of mines in the region. Firstly, there are mines wholly operated by ECL. Secondly, there are mines where outsourced partners work, and lastly are the captive mines where only outsourced parties work through contract workers and excavators," Yadav told NewsClick.

He further said that in Bansra and North Searsole Opencast projects, most of the coal workers are outsourced.

"According to Coal India, there are about 2.5 lakh coal workers while 75,000 contract coal workers work in the different coal fields of the country. Though Coal India puts the number at 75,000, the real number of contract workers may go up to 3-4 lakh," Yadav outlined.

After a prolonged battle by the trade unions, the Coal India authority constituted a high-powered committee in 2013 for all its subsidiaries, including ECL, which gave recommendations for wage augmentation of the contract workers of the collieries.

In 2018, the second high-powered committee was constituted, which recommended further enhancement of the wages of the contract coal workers of the subsidiaries of Coal India. However, no recommendation has been given credence. The contractors continue to pay meagre wages to four categories of workers in the collieries.

*Including VDA (variable dearness allowance) added in 2022

*Including VDA (variable dearness allowance) added in 2022

This gets even more ridiculous as contractors mention different wages on paper than what they pay the workers.

According to the new wage agreement, contract workers can be members of CMPF and are eligible for medical benefits.

"CITU-affiliated Khadan Thikedar Mazdoor sabha is building up a strong movement in the region with the aforesaid demands of providing just wages to the contract workers of the region," Yadav said.

NewsClick spoke with Gouranga Chatterjee, organising secretary of Colliery Mazdoor Sabha and presently the secretary of Burdwan West district committee of CPI(M). He pointed out the national monetisation pipeline against which the coal workers are organising themselves.

They are also proposing to shoo away prospective buyers from their vicinity. Additionally, they oppose measures aimed at withdrawing pro-worker legislation, such as the Minimum Wage Act 1942 and the Payment of Wage Act 1936. The four labour codes proposed by the Union government aim to replace these acts.

"Already the management has given four collieries to private parties on profit and loss sharing basis in lieu of that the ECL will get 4% of the profit if there is profit after starting full-fledged operation at those privatised collieries."

He also spoke against ECL's steps against land subsidence in the coal mine areas and the coal smuggling issues raking the state. Abhishek Banerjee, number two in Trinamool Congress (TMC), is allegedly involved in these cases.

Chatterjee also pointed out that in 2015, during the passage of the Coal Mines (Special Provision) Act 2015, TMC supported the bill aimed at privatising the coal mines.

"Another issue in the coal mining area is that the ECL gives the land on lease and not against complete land deeds during new land acquisition. A movement against it has already been fostered in the Rajmahal area of neighbourhood Jharkhand. Coal India and ECL have to supply low ash content coal to the power plants, where high ash content coal also works fine, leading to revenue loss for Coal India," he pointed out.

Kalimuddin Ansari, a coal worker and secretary of the Kunustoria area of CMS-CITU, candidly talked to NewsClick about how a new trade union of TMC is acting as a decoy for the ECL management. Additionally, he said that the TMC union is proving to be a hindrance to the united movement of the coal workers to get their demands met.

The demands include a just relief through the National Coal Wage Agreement (NCWA) and wage increment for departmental workers, among other things. The ECL management is dilly-dallying with the demands.

"We are currently fostering a movement in the region against ECL management," he informed.

Another demand is to cancel the national monetisation pipeline, which has marked 160 mines of Coal India to be handed over to private parties. The coal workers are also decrying the move to demerge the ECL, BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) and CMPDI (Central Mine Planning and Design Institute ) from Coal India and the 25% share sale of the Coal India subsidiaries.

"The workers have also protested against the deployment of contract workers named Coilabeer to excavate the mines. They are also demanding for immediate payment of 15 days arrear wages of the coal workers," Ansari told NewsClick.

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