(NewsClick travelled to various industrial areas of the national capital to know their working conditions and their opinion on politics and elections. This is part 1 of a series of reports.)
Left sleeve folded, surgery marks clear on amputated hand, Birender (40) is clueless about immediate future of his family after he lost his left hand in an accident in one of the plastic factories five years ago in Mayapuri Industrial Area in Delhi. Narrating his struggle of last five years, he exposes the vulnerabilities that an average worker goes through. Birender is one of around 15 lakh workers in Delhi, which is going to polls on May 12.
"I came to Delhi from Chhapra (Bihar) to earn my livelihood and look after my family. I used to work at a plastic moulding machine but I quit the job soon after I was asked to work in the night shift. My family did not permit it. Two years later, I was called again on the promise of increased salary. It was a huge but faulty machine to operate as it did not have any shield to protect the attendant from the main chamber and the chances of accidents remained high. Foreseeing the danger, I complained many times but the owner did not pay any heed to it. I even saved one woman who was about to enter the main chamber but did not know that I would be its next victim," Birender told NewsClick in a mix of Hindi and Bhojpuri.
Things become more gory when he narrates the response of the owner over the accident. He said, "Soon after the incident, the workers were threatened to not utter a single word about the whole episode. I was rushed to Manesar for treatment at an ESI (Employees’ State Insurance) hospital. Since I was not on the payroll of the company, my joining was shown ten days earlier. The information about the accident was revealed days later when my cousin kept questioning them. After the treatment, I was hired as supervisor. But I was given the night shifts to which I had objected earlier. I urged him to put me in day shifts. However, the owner was not pleased and showed me the door without any compensation or help. It's been five years since the accident but nothing seems to be changing. I am surviving living on the money lent by friends and relatives. They, too, are with hope that I will be able to return their due once my case gets settled."
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With the help of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), an umbrella organisation of trade unions affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Birender got two orders in his favour; one regarding the monthly pension of Rs 4,000 and another about reinstatement. Chhote Lal, a local CITU leader told NewsClick that Birender is entitled to salary from the day he was thrown out of job. The court will now decide if he wants one time settlement or should the matter be forwarded to High Court for resolution.
Minimum Wage Still a Distant Dream
Basant Lal alias Shailesh enjoyed a cordial relation with the factory administration until he raised the issue of minimum wage with them. He was working as a turner in a factory in Mayapuri, manufacturing chandeliers only to export them to European markets. Shailesh's complaint introduces one to the rampant practice of taking back the money credited as salary in their accounts.
Lal said that the permanent employees are paid a salary above the minimum wage only to be taken back later. With this, authorities not only ditch labours laws but workers, too, are deprived of their due share. He said, “I started my job on May 15, 2016. Although I am a skilled labourer, I was given Rs 14,420 whereas I am entitled to Rs 16,962 as per minimum wage rules. The owners also ensured that no leaves are granted while social security measures also remain out of reach. We constantly live under a threat to our lives owing to dangerous working conditions. When I along with my four colleagues raised the issues, the owner said that we can go wherever we please. What should I do now? This is the ultimate result that I got for raising voice for our rights. I have a family with three children to look after."
On being asked about his protest, Lal maintained that his action will enable and embolden other workers to raise their voice. He said, “I have no regrets about losing my job. How long can they sustain this situation?” Lal expects that his case with the labour law authorities will be sorted soon and he will receive his due amount.
Rajesh Kumar (30) lives in Sultan Puri, an area adjacent to Mangol Puri Industrial Area in Delhi. His primary duty is to impress the brand logo on shoe belts. The workers in this part of the city receive their pay on piece rate. Piece rate implies that the workers’ output is measured per pieces manufactured. To the question of payment, Rajesh told NewsClick that he receives 10 paise per piece. He said, “It's hard to tell how many pieces can I finish. It depends on how many hours I can devote. I work at two places plus I take the material to my home too where my wife can execute the remaining work."
He adds, “I earn Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 per month with help from my wife.” Pointing to his helper, who is also named Rajesh, he said that he earns Rs 5,500 for back-breaking work. “How will he look after his family if he continues to work at this rate. I cannot pay him more because I do not get work and money,” he asks. Rajesh also admits that he would like to work at a decent paying job with less hours of work.
‘Employment Remains the Biggest Factor’
In response to the question of why he is not getting more work, his anguish blasts towards the Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said, “I admit I had voted for Modi in 2014 with the expectation of better days. What I got was GST (Goods and Services Tax) and demonetisation. We have only lost jobs after demonetisation.”
This sentiment was also visible in a study conducted by Azim Premji University which stated at least 50 lakh jobs were lost after the decision was announced.
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Rajesh further said, “The factory where you are standing used to have three times more workers. They are now moved back to their villages or elsewhere. Wherever I go and seek work, I get the same reply 'No Work' because traders have lost their market. They simply say that the market was down after demonetisation but GST was a complete disaster that they could not cope with. I was able to buy my house within five years since I started working at the age of 16. But those days are gone now. How will an average worker survive on Rs 5,000 or 7000 or even 9,000?”
Talking about his hopes from the elections, he says that unemployment must go. He asks, “Why should we live in this condition because we have an ill-informed person heading the government?” When asked about the Aam Aadmi Party candidates, he said his area is in good shape with new roads, water connections and improved facilities. “This is the only respite we have got in the last few years. With water bills foregone and electricity expenses half, we had some space to breathe or else it would have been impossible to survive,” he added.
Basant Lal shares a similar story. He said, “If we lose our job, nobody is ready to hire us. I may shift to Udyog Vihar in Gurgaon but that will only mean that I pay rent at two places because my children are studying here.” On being asked about the quality of education at his children schools, Lal maintained that the standard has improved significantly, saying, “Our children receive note books and curriculum books. So I do not have to worry about their education. The improvement is discussed in Parents-Teachers’ Meetings. Even the condition of hospitals have improved. I went to Deen Dayal Hospital with my children. Earlier, they use to prescribe medicine but now they are providing them at the hospital itself.”
“However,” he added, “employment is still the biggest issue in these elections.”
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