By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
In February last year, the Dharampal Satyapal Group (DS Group)- a multi-diversified conglomerate with brands such as Catch Spices, Rajnigandha, Pass Pass, etc- announced in a press release that it will be entering the Rs. 1800 crore hard-boiled-candy market. It also had presence in the confectionery business since 2012, when it launched ‘Pass Pass Chingles’- a mini chewing gum. It was now launching “an exciting new powder filled candy” called Pulse under the Pass Pass brand.
“The new candy is not a mere candy but an experience of flavours combined with the gesture of sharing,” the company said in the press release announcing the product launch in Jaipur. Within eight months of its launch, the Pulse market was worth Rs 100 crore, and the secret of the brand’s success spawned several reports. An aspect not yet reported about the candy is how any corporate enterprise makes profit: an aversion to sharing.
At a Noida-based factory of the group, the production of the candy started in January last year, a worker employed at the factory at that time told me. Even until then it had been outsourced to manufacturers in Hyderabad, Rudrapur, Ahmedabad, and Jamnagar.
At this factory, where the candy is manufactured, it is hard to spot a worker during the day, except when they come outside for half an hour during their lunch break. A typical work-day is 12-hour-long and stretches from eight in the morning till eight in the night. The Factories Act, which regulates the number of working hours in factories, mandates that weekly hours be not more than 48 hours. But workers allege that they work for 12 hours each day of the week. They are also asked to report on Sunday, despite it being an official weekly holiday.
“Utna nahi mil raha hai jitna mehnat lete hain (We don’t get [wages] commensurate with the work they make us do),” Manish*, a worker currently employed at the factory says. The workers at this facility earn wages at the rate of Rs 7,108 per month currently, as per the minimum wages set by the UP government. The payment rate for overtime work, however, is also at the same rate, which should lawfully be double the regular rate.
During a conversation with the workers I had during a lunch break, Manish tells his fellow workers that they should verify the different components of their salary when it is being disbursed before putting down their signature. He says that the contractor writes a higher amount in the documents than is paid to them. When he confronted the contractor, he was told that the balance amount was the contractor’s commission for getting him work.
When asked whether these practices could invite penal action, B. K. Rai, the Deputy Labour Commissioner for the district, told me that he cannot comment on the legality of such practices at a particular factory until there is a complaint. When there is a complaint, he explained, the labour department takes permission from the District Magistrate and inspects the factory. He cites, for instance, the recent strike at the Greater Noida based facility of LG Electronics, where both permanent and contract workers had stopped production to demand streamlined working hours, better wages, and cancellation of the transfer of union members.
Rai told me that there are about 5 lakh contract workers in Noida employed through around 900 to 1000 contractors. The New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA) too employs a majority of contract workers. Any worker that you see on the field, he said, is likely to be a worker employed through a contractor. Even in factories, nearly 50 percent workers are contractual, and the seasonal work of loading and unloading goods, maintenance, etc is done by them.
But workers can also be hired through contracts for perennial work such as sanitation. In the Pulse factory, where no pre-requisites were required from workers engaged as helpers but who are nonetheless made to do the majority of the work, even production units have workers employed through contractors. Depending on the amount of work available, they can also be transferred to a different factory.
This contractorisation of non-seasonal work presents a problem. Although workers can be working at a factory for years, if they make any demands of their employers, they are asked to leave. Gangeshwar Dutt Sharma, the Gautam Buddh Nagar district president of CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions), the CPM affiliated central trade union, also identifies this as the problem in organising contract workers. They inevitably get fired.
Moreover, Suresh*, a worker the Pulse factory, says that identification cards are not mandatorily made for everybody. “Even if we file a case, we face problems because they have no record,” Sharma says, explaining how contract workers get exploited.
Another worker at the Pulse factory does an impression of how contractors fire workers. “Aadhar card lao. PAN card lao. Ye number nahi mil raha hai. Chalo baahar (Bring your Aadhar card. Get your PAN card. This number doesn’t match. Get out),” he says with a derisive smile on his face. They expect that some workers will be terminated after Diwali, when the demand and hence the production drops.
These issues are not endemic to either the Pulse factory or the factories in Noida. The informalisation of the workforce has gone on for quite a while and all over. The percentage of contract workers in organised manufacturing sector in India increased from 13 percent in 1995 to 34 percent in 2011 and the growth of regular, protected jobs during this period was also slow.
“So this entire system has changed. The law has not changed yet. But in practical terms all things have changed,” Sharma says. There are indeed precedents in court judgments and laws that can give even the contract worker some protection. The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act requires mandatory registration of contract workers and their staffing agencies, a representative of the principal employer to be present while wages are being disbursed by the employer, etc. But the workers at the Pulse factory said that no such representative is present when they get their wages.
Moreover, the law themselves are set to change along the lines of a 2014 proposal submitted by the around 1500-member-strong Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. DS Group is also one of the 1200 associate members of this federation. Despite protests from trade unions, discussions started in September over the proposed ‘labour reforms’. Of the four proposed labour legislations, that are to replace 44 extant Acts of the central government, is also the Industrial Relations Bill, which will make it easier for factories to retrench even permanent workers. The bills are likely to be introduced in the next parliamentary session.
Amidst all this, the workers also sense the humiliating nature of their work. Throughout the conversation, the sentiment most repeated was that they were neither allowed to speak nor were they heard. As an agitated worker at the Pulse facility said to me, “These days there is nothing that can ensure that a worker stays at his job. There is nothing provided that says this is a workers’ matter; on this issue, the worker can say something of his own, can ask for something. There is nothing like that”. As a recent labour market update from the International Labour Organisation says, the “challenge continues to be to ensure that economic growth translates into better labour market conditions”. This is despite the fact that the GDP growth rate reached 7.6 percent in 2015-16, up from 5.6 percent in 2012-13.
With our fascination for Pulse, we can in this situation perhaps find a parallel in a scene from the American television series ‘The Wire’. At one point in the series, some characters argue about Chicken McNuggets. One of them is incredulous at the suggestion that the person who invented the chicken preparation probably does not get a share in the profits. “Naw, man, that ain’t right,” he says. He stands quickly corrected by an elder acquaintance. “It ain’t about right. It’s about money,” he is told.
Note: Dharampal Satyapal Group did not respond to a detailed questionnaire sent by YKA.
*Names of workers have been changed on request.