The Wazirpur Industrial Estate workers claim they have been exploited

For several years, nearly 1,000 workers at 24 hot-rolling steel plants in the Wazirpur Industrial Estate worked 12-hour shifts under inhuman conditions. They toiled day-in and day-out, without a single day off. But then in February last year they went on strike and forced the factory owners to concede to a weekly holiday on Wednesdays.

Since then, the workers have been demanding minimum wages, job cards certifying them as bona fide employees and enrolment in the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) scheme which will provide them a measure of health care coverage.

After their demands evinced no response, these workers banded together again this past Wednesday and struck work.

With furnaces not firing at these hot-rolling factories – where iron blocks are converted into steel – hundreds of other factories in the area are also in danger of shutting down. The steel from the ancillary hot-rolling plants is the raw material used to manufacture steel utensils and other appliances. And the striking workers claim that stocks of raw steel are rapidly dwindling.

Rajeshwar Singh, a mason, has worked in the hot-rolling plants for 10 years now. “While masons get Rs.8,500 monthly, helpers are paid Rs.6,000. We work 12 hours daily, but don’t get overtime wages. Yesterday, the proprietors tried to mollify us with a Rs.1,500 hike but that is still not at par with the minimum wages. When we take leave, we forego our pay,” rues Rajeshwar.

The extreme heat spawned by the furnaces forces the workers to take half-hour breaks and makes them sickness-prone. “For every half-hour we work, we have to rest for 30-minutes to recoup our strength. Every worker drinks one bottle of water every hour. In the summer, it gets even worse,” says Babloo Prasad.

On Monday, the workers staged a protest outside Deputy Labour Commissioner S. C. Yadav’s office at Nimri Colony in Ashok Vihar. Mr. Yadav has marked the workers’ complaints to a Labour Inspector to investigate. On Wednesday, labour officials will meet both workers and proprietors to chalk out a compromise.

Mr. Yadav told the workers that his office can only take up their denial of minimum wage grievance. “For the absence of your name on muster rolls, you will have to complain to the Factory Inspectorate at 5 Shamnath Marg. For the failure to be enrolled in the ESI scheme, the complaint rests with the Central Government under which the ESI Corporation comes,” he told them.

The protesters claim that each hot-rolling plant has between 30 and 40 workers. The Factories Act defines a factory as a unit which has 10 employees working with the aid of power, or 20 employees working without the aid of power.

Community organiser Raghuraj and the workers he has helped band together have a tough choice to make in the days ahead – the lengthy bureaucratic process of filing complaints, waiting for an inquiry and official action, or the difficult and uncertain path of pressuring owners to concede to their demands by continuing the strike.

With the shadow of police action hovering over them, Rajeshwar says: “We are not scared of anyone anymore. We have been exploited for far too long.”

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