By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Around 40 workers, mostly in their 20s, employed at the mobile charger power bank manufacturing SB Industries in North-West Delhi’s Wazirpur Industrial Area, have claimed a ‘temporary’ victory against the management of the factory. Denied the government mandated minimum wage, double of the regular rate for overtime, and leaves on gazetted holidays, as also the back wages for the period they had been paid less, they had been on a continuous strike since May 21.
According to an agreement between the two parties, the management has now agreed to pay at least the minimum wages for the unskilled category to all workers. However, the workers termed the victory temporary as they would like to wait for their next pay cheques before confirming the same.
A typical worker at this factory- which employs some 130 of them – has gone through some kind of technical education, paying for the same with the unstable and meagre income of their parents. Some of them are simultaneously pursuing undergraduate courses through open schools to move on to a better job. Others don’t have the money to study further as their entire income is spent in supporting their family.
The minimum wage for an unskilled worker mandated by the Delhi Government, with effect from April this year, is Rs 9568 per month, while that for a semi-skilled and skilled worker is Rs. 10,582 and Rs. 11,622 respectively. The workers were instead being paid salaries between (approximately) Rs. 6500 to Rs. 9000 (exclusive of PF and ESI deductions) ever since the factory started operations around two years ago. YKA reviewed the credit entries against ‘SALARY’ in the pass-books of some of these workers (their identity card being proof that they had indeed been working at SB Industries in the said period) and verified the allegation. They were being paid less than what an unskilled worker is to be paid whereas the work that most of them do is of either skilled or semi-skilled nature.
Manish, who works on the punching line- where the parts of the power bank are punched together- and is proud of being a key worker there, tells YKA that the discontent among workers had been brewing since Diwali. ‘They said ‘You give us (an increase in) production, we’ll give you a bonus and a 20 percent increase in salary’. By Diwali they got the (increase in) production but the bonus wasn’t given (to us),” Manish told YKA.
Still the workers kept on with the work. Two months after Diwali, they were again asked to increase production, according to Manish. The workers complied and increased the production from around 2000 units on a line each day to around 3000 to 4000 units a day. The factory was now producing over 9000 power banks in total each day on the 3 production lines it has when the workers went on strike.
While the factory gained an increase in production ranging between 50-100 percent, the salaries of the workers were increased only by Rs. 400 to 500. “By the time they were to give us the salary, they again started making excuses- ‘faulty pieces are being made’, ‘the company is in loss’, etc,” Manish told YKA.
Manish also alleged that early in May this year the management met the workers but asked them to remain content with the salaries. During one such meeting on May 14, the management sought a week’s time from the workers, which the workers granted. “We also told him to not throw any workers out. But in the following week, some workers were fired. Some were suspended for a week or two, without any reason,” alleged Manish.
On May 21, when the workers sought a clear communication from the management about the increment, the management told them to leave in case they wanted a raise. Some 40 workers left the factory and started protesting outside. The factory did not let them in thereafter.
It was on May 29 that the workers were called in for a negotiation. However, the management, according to workers, refused to negotiate as long as women were part of the six-member delegation. The reason the management offered was that they did not have any women on their side to talk to the workers. The workers, therefore, in solidarity with their women co-workers boycotted the negotiation. A resolution on the same by the management was deferred till June 1.
“Also, other than slogans of ‘mazdoor ekta zindabad’, could be heard ‘baniya-raj nahi chalegi’ and ‘jatiwad murdabad’ as expressions of awareness of caste-specific oppression welded seamlessly into the regime of exploitation. Three police vans meanwhile came on quick at the call of the owners (again) whipping their dandas even as the ACP himself comes to give some unsolicited gyaan on how the workers should not rely on ‘outside elements’, meaning activists like us. The defiant workers quietly but firmly rejected these manipulations then and later, reaffirming solidarity of the struggling against the raj of company-police-ruling class ideology,” Nayan Jyoti, an activist with Krantikari Naujawan Sabha who was present at the protest demonstrations, wrote in a Facebook post later that day.
Naveen Chander, a researcher and a member of the New Socialist Initiative who was involved with the striking workers, sheds light on another aspect of these protests, “It’s important and different in the sense that being in their first job, being very young, having no experience of collective bargaining earlier, having no experience of working with unions or others, what they (the workers) did is something different. This is not usual. Not to say that workers, because of their work conditions and other reasons, do not organise themselves on their own without any other support,” he said. He added that since these kinds of strikes and eruptions are common in Wazirpur, they could have had access to what is now common knowledge in Wazirpur.
Manish too had told me this earlier. “There were some local people who used to work with us. Through them we came to know. We also took help of some union people,” he had said when asked how they had come to meet the activists. But since these union people were unable to bring the management to the discussion table, they decided to take help from Raghu Raj instead, who is a local social activist.
However, what’s to be noted here is that even before the activists had been called in, the workers had already adopted a collective strategy to counter the management, subversively. They would sometimes slow down production on the shop floor itself. Dharmendra, another worker at the factory, told YKA that this was in response to the “kind of oppression” where they made them increase production by offering an increment and reneged on the promise, sending different people from the management to talk to them each time they made such promises.
It was only after trying out all these tactics that the workers approached a Labour Board member of the Aam Aadmi Party, the current ruling party in Delhi, at the offices of the Shalimar Bagh MLA Bandana Kumari, on May 30.
“Bouncers are being hired and they are being given money to stop us (from entering the factory). They (the management) are not ready to listen to us at all. For the last three weeks, we are protesting in this heat,” Suraj, who works in the packing department, told me as I waited outside the offices of the MLA along with the workers. He added that the 40 workers who had been tactfully retrenched were being told that even if they rejoined, they would be paid the wages they were earning when they joined the factory. This was as if to impress upon the workers the futility and dangers involved with such protests as the wages of most workers had been increased by Rs. 500 to 1000 from the initial Rs. 6,500 or 7000 at which they had joined.
Suraj also tells me that he had to quit studying to support his family. His mother, who works as a domestic help, is the only other breadwinner in the family. Yet he did not accept this offer or other inducements offered by the management to those willing to end the strike. Suraj alleged that the management had been trying to get individual workers back in the factory with the promise that if they returned, they would be given a raise.
Inside the MLA’s office, the workers along with Raghu Raj and Naveen urged the labour board member to initiate some action. One of the striking workers, Vikas, 23, wrote an application for the same, although he had no previous experience of such negotiations.
Vikas too, like Suraj, helps his family pay the rent and supports the education of his sisters. The education of his sisters costs between Rs. 20,000 to 24,000 every year. Vikas also ends up spending Rs. 3000 every month to travel to Wazirpur from Ghaziabad, where he lives with his parents.
The workers’ documentation and their unity meant that they were assured of a visit by the Labour Inspector on the following day after a brief discussion at the MLA’s office.
Interestingly, instead of taking to protests, the workers could have actually filed a complaint with the Labour Department, given how their employers were clearly violating the Minimum Wages Act. The workers had necessary documents to prove the same and they could even get the owners penalised.
The excuse of the owners that defective pieces were being made would also be unlikely to stand as a reason for deduction of wages. The Payment of Wages Act shows that the employers would need to first ask the workers to show cause. But the wages had been below minimum right from the beginning. Similarly, sections 59 and 79 of the Factories Act were ammunition enough for the workers to get sanction for a complaint and subsequent prosecution of their employers for non-payment of extra wages for overtime and for the trouble the employers gave the workers when they sought leave. Such violations would, according to the Act, invite a fine for Rs 2 lakh or imprisonment up to 2 years or both.
On top of all of this, the workers had not been getting leave for even all the gazetted holidays. Even May Day was working for them. Moreover, unlike some contractual workers at Wazirpur, who have had to struggle in the past to get even an identity card proving that they work at the factory, these workers had sufficient documentation to prove most of their allegations. The owners were in blatant violation of law, there was sufficient evidence against these violations, and yet the workers did not make a formal complaint.
I did ask Nayan why the workers did not resort to legal means available at their disposal. He explained that this was because, the cases, as is common with most cases of a civil nature, would drag on for long and it would be hard for workers to be out of work for such long periods.
Moreover, in Wazirpur, labour laws continue to be violated. In 2014, for instance, an association of over 1000 workers from 23 hot roller plants had struck work, organised under the banner of Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti and yet the owners had remained defiant of the Labour Department’s instructions. Contrary to the expectation of state acting as an impartial arbiter, the law it seems gets enforced only through collective bargaining, as in a 2012 protest that won the workers of Wazirpur ESI cards and a weekly holiday on Wednesdays.
A representative estimate of how helpful the state machinery is in resolving labour disputes can be made from official figures available for state of Delhi between 1984 and 2001. The percentage of disputes resolved is abysmally low while the number of workers affected is huge. It is for this reason, Nayan told me, that alternative measures have to be taken to put pressure on the management.
On May 31- after about two years of alleged violations – the Labour Inspector finally arrived along with Shalimar Bagh MLA Bandana Kumari and Wazirpur MLA Rajesh Gupta and a delegation of workers and activists went in for a negotiation.
A written agreement- excluding the claim for arrears due for the period the workers were not paid minimum wage – was signed by the management on that day in the presence of the Labour Inspector. However, they created further hurdles in the reinstatement of the workers by demanding several documents later.
After several back and forth discussions, the workers and activists reached a settlement with the management on June 4, which has finally led to their reinstatement from June 6. The management has, however, as mentioned before, only promised to pay the minimum wage of the unskilled category to all workers. Some of them might get a higher salary than that but that cannot be confirmed just yet.
It appears that it was the prospect of paying the arrears, which could amount to a payment of up to Rs. 30 lakhs and the threat of a long-drawn legal battle along with picketing of the factory that made the management re-adjust the calculations that it had made in retrenching the workers.
Although as of now a union does not exist in this factory, the workers have already assumed roles in organising themselves. Apart from Manish and Vikas, Anjali, one of the two women workers who are part of the 40, also participated in the negotiations. The other is Rajni whose parents were unhappy with her salary and wanted her to find a different job. Surya Prakash, who documented the protests and negotiations on his phone, has been working part-time since he was in school, first at a steel line and then in hotels. He is now enrolled in a B.A. programme with the School of Open Learning at DU so that he can get a better job than what he has at the SB factory currently.
But all these emerging leaders too drew their strength- which one could tell from what was sought at different points at the negotiation table- from the workers who stood by them despite their own problems.
Soon after the management had signed the first agreement on May 31 and sweets were being distributed, Suraj asked this reporter, “Inquilab ka matlab kya hota hai (What does Revolution mean)?” I offered him two translations in quick succession, knowing quite well that he understood the essence of Inquilab far better than I ever could.