Gross violation of minimum wages, accidents, denial of compensation, lack of medical care, etc. among the ills plaguing them

Migration of big industries to other centres and proliferation of small and medium-scale industries in Delhi coupled with scant regard for the existing 42 labour laws that govern the country has left the vast majority of industrial workers at the mercy of company owners with trade unions or the State Labour Department being able to do precious little for them. Trade unionists, who are facing an uphill task organising small-scale units, and workers complain of gross violation of minimum wages, industrial accidents, denial of compensation, lack of medical care, absence of safety gear, unhygienic conditions, and coercion and assault of workers who threaten to revolt.

A survey conducted by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) at the Patparganj Industrial Estate in East Delhi revealed that 85 per cent of the companies there did not pay minimum wages to the workers and that the average wages vary between Rs.4,000 and Rs.6,000. Even the Employees State Insurance (ESI) card which is a lifeline for workers in the face of illnesses is made available according to the survey to just 25 per cent of the workers.

Anurag Saxena, secretary of the Delhi unit of CITU, who unionises workers in the Patparganj area, said only 20 to 30 per cent of the workers are permanent workers while the rest are contract or casual labour. He alleged that the Labour Department was “hand-in-glove” with the factory owners. “They come for inspection when we make a complaint and file a challan. But the fine for violation of minimum wages is only Rs.500 which was fixed way back in 1948 and is a practical joke on a worker if it is considered as a penalty on the owner,” Mr. Saxena said.

At the Wazirpur Industrial Area, Raghuraj, a community organiser, who successfully banded together workers of 27 hot-rolling steel plants in February this year and won for them their first weekly off-day in ten years, has a similar story to say. “When the owners agreed to the weekly-offs, they also promised to distribute ESI cards to the workers but now have gone back on their word. We also pressed for issuing job cards to all the workers, first-aid boxes and safety gear like gloves and masks but are facing resistance from the owners,” Raghuraj rued.

Former chairman of the Delhi Labour Welfare Board and president of the Rashtriya Shramik Congress Sukhbir Sharma said the non-compliance of labour laws across the country was being reflected in the Capital too and that the Labour Department was looking the other way. “Every day, at the Badli Industrial Area so many workers get injured in workplace accidents. But not all the workers have ESI cards. They are taken to private hospitals, given some treatment, and the doctors instead of calling the police collude with factory owners and discharge the injured persons. Labour Inspectors do not make suo motu visits to factories any more. They have been banned from doing so by the Labour Department. In the absence of unions, workers have no one to question these accidents and secure compensation,” Mr. Sharma said.

However, a Labour Department official said the inspectors were banned from suo motu visits because it generated corruption. “An inspection raj was fostered and complaints were received from factory owners that inspectors were extorting money,” the official said.

However, the case of two workers at the Badli Industrial Area whose hands were severed while at work illustrates the difficulty in securing justice. Lal Bahadur and Ajit Pandey lost their right hands while at work. Both were admitted to private hospitals with the owners warning them not to file complaints. They were issued temporary ESI cards only after a trade union spoke up for them. Still undergoing treatment, Lal Bahadur, maimed in April, has lost hope of getting compensation. Ajit Pandey, maimed in June, however, was offered a paltry Rs.10,000 as compensation only after 200 workers in the area protested outside his 25-worker factory. Both their families, having lost their sole breadwinners, face a grim fight against poverty. They plan to approach the courts for compensation once the treatment is over. “Ajit’s case shows how workers get some level of relief only when they unite,” said Mr. Sharma.

At the Anand Parbhat Industrial Area, Alok Kumar, a trade union organiser, said that with industrial units becoming smaller in size it has become difficult to organise the workers and harder still for workers to retain their jobs. “Several owners here instead of running one unit with say, 30 workers, run five or six units with five workers each to evade the Factory Act which on paper provides a degree of protection to workers of units which employ ten workers. Workers are warned to stay away from union activities. The police also actively collude with owners.”

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