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India: Do the workers vanish into the blue?

by Nagarik Mancha, 2 April 2005

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Nagarik Mancha

April 2, 2005

When a factory is locked out, the workers agitate. Soon the Government apparatus swings into action. A police picket appears in the vicinity. Maintenance of law and order seems to be the top priority. Weeks merge into months and by then the threat to law and order presumably subsides. Less and less of workers gather in front of the padlocked factory gates till only a handful are left behind. Things are back to ’normal’.

Indeed the workers do not vanish into the blue. They factually cease to remain en-bloc and disperse into the ’inter-cellular’ spaces of our society. The skilled and the experienced workers struggling away as a vendor or tea stall help or head loader or one of the many un-organised activities earning a pittance for a living. You can meet hundreds of these Rams and Rahims and the overall picture almost always remains the same.

However the workers DO vanish into the blue as far as the civil society memory is concerned. Whether we like it or not, one can smoothly wish away the very existence of these workers once they disperse in search of their daily bread. And in most cases it is one less pain in the neck to bear.

To study the plight of the workers in the locked out factories for preparing a research oriented presentation is indeed important. Yet weeks of interaction with these ’citizens’ at different locations revealed that a study concerning them could very well proceed in tandem with mobilising support for them from the various strata of the civil society. It was indeed deemed important that these ’disassociated individuals’ within the civil society could very well do with a lot of solidarity activity and lobbying in their favour. A fraternally placed support group drawing participation from the various sections of the civil society seemed to be the need of the hour.

On 5th March 2005, a well attended Citizen’s Convention was held at College Street, Kolkata after a month-and-a-half long campaign which was kick-started at a Press Conference held on 20 January, 2005 at the Press Club at Kolkata. During the intervening phase, ten thousand leaflets were distributed, a thousand posters were hung up, scores of news items appeared in the print and electronic media and dozens of participatory meetings with workers were organised. A broad issued-based platform dealing exclusively with the demands of the workers from locked out industries have taken shape, being referred to as Daabi Manch.

The primary demands are:

1.Till all outstanding dues of the workers are settled, the monthly financial assistance of Rs. 500 should not be terminated.

2.If the State Government resumes the land of any locked out industry, the outstanding labour dues has to be settled by the Government.

3.Workers of locked out industries/establishments should be provided with a minimum of 100 days of work per year by the State Government.

4.Workers of locked out industries/establishments have to be provided food at an affordable price as per the orders of the Supreme Court already implemented in some parts of UP and Rajasthan and some tea plantations in West Bengal.

5. These demands in favour of workers of locked out industries/establishments will remain valid not only for those covered by the ’Factory Act’ and the ’Plantation Labour Act’, but also for those covered by ’Shop and Establishment Act’ and there should be no attempt to fragment the workers on any basis.

6. The children of workers of locked out industries/establishments should be freed from all direct and indirect charges involved with their education.

7.Just like any worker covered by the ESI Scheme who can avail the Medical Benefits offered by the ESIS after superannuating, as per rule 61 of ESI scheme, the workers of locked out industries/establishments should be allowed to avail the Medical Benefits of ESIS and the State Government should bear the requisite annual subscription of Rs. 120 on behalf of these workers.

8. Till such time that the relevant Rules of the ’West Bengal Factory Dismantling Act, 1953’ is finally framed, the District Magistrates or Collectors should be empowered to realise all the outstanding dues of workers on their behalf , whenever and wherever a closed factory is caused to be dismantled.

9. As per ’Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972’, the workers will have to apply for their gratuity dues within 30 days from the date of the closure of their factories. This 30-day bar has to be suitably removed.

10. The employers who flout their statutory obligations of paying the
outstanding dues of the workers should be punished as per the laws of the land.

11. Suitable budgetary allocations should be made henceforth for the construction of industrial housing for workers.

During the month of April, 2005 an intense campaign will be launched. Fifty thousand leaflets, five thousand demand posters will be used and scores of street corners would be organised both locally and centrally. There will be a series of sit-ins, representations to the Chief Minister, press briefings and a Press Conference during the last week of April. All this will culminate in a ’Bhookhaa Michhil’ – a rally of the hunger-stricken with participation from the civil society – on May Day 2005.

This, in nutshell, is the second posting of the study Nagarik Mancha has taken up with support from Sarai/CSDS Independent Fellowship, 2005. Nagarik Mancha (meaning citizen’s forum), way back in 1989, started to function as a solidarity and support group for workers in closed and sick industries in and around Kolkata. It is a non-funded, non-party citizen’s initiative and is presently active in the field of labour, industry and environment.

The second lap:

1.Two teams of activists have started shooting at various locations where factories have given way to multi-storey apartments and those factories which are awaiting the same fate.

2. Our activists have taken scores of interviews of workers still living in the vicinity of their erstwhile factories.

3. Efforts are on to try and collect old photographs of these locations which have undergone a sea of change after factories have given way to
residential apartments.

4. Efforts are on to identify around 25 factories which have ceased to exist and has contributed to the change in the urban space at the cost of worker’s.

Let us conclude with the resolve that during the next few months we will conclusively show that the workers do not vanish into the blue and the civil society owes it to them to try and fight for their usurped rights. Maybe we can even win a few battles in the process!