For nearly 1,100 workers at 27 hot-rolling steel plants in the Capital's Wazirpur Industrial Area, tomorrow, Wednesday, will be their first weekly off in a long, long time. Precisely ten years. All these years they worked without a single holiday – neither weekly, nor the State and national holidays that the rest of us can take for granted.
Then, on February 15 something snapped. On that day, in a spontaneous outburst of long pent-up grievances, many among them assembled outside their factories, stalled work, and demanded their due. It did not end up as a one-off display of workers' unity.
With their demands yet to be met, on February 20, these workers called a strike and stalled work again. The next day they returned to work, but factory owners in a display of bravado that, as later events indicated backfired, told the workers that their services were no longer required.
The workers resumed their strike, with more of their ilk joining in. When work at these hot-rolling factories stopped converting iron blocks into steel, the act had a domino effect. The processed steel produced here is the raw material for several hundred other factories in the area that manufacture steel vessels, implements and a host of other goods.
On February 24, the factory owners caved in. They agreed to two of the workers' core demands – holidays and providing ESI cards to the workers. The ESI card will go a long way in addressing their healthcare expenses and, indirectly show they are bona fide employees of these plants.
Several more of the workers' demands remain to be addressed: protective gear, first-aid kits at the plants, minimum wages, and a job card. But they say the owners have promised to address these after the Holi festival and elections to the association of factory owners in early March.
Community organiser Raghuraj, who lives among the workers and was instrumental in encouraging them to mobilise, says: “Until 2002, these workers enjoyed weekly holidays and eight-hour shifts. The introduction of the new hot-rolling plants and the influx of cheap migrant labour undermined their position. The furnaces in these plants take several hours to fire up, if shut down, and thus are run round-the-clock. Instead of eight-hour-shifts, the owners came up with a new work culture – 12-hour shifts and no more holidays.”
Amar Dev and Shiv Kumar, helpers to head masons at the factory, say that for every half-an-hour of work put in, the workers require half-an-hour of rest to regain their strength.
So they work in groups of two. “Every hour, each worker here needs to drink at least one litre of water, and this is in the winter. In summer, we trade places ever 15 minutes, because of the unbearable heat,” says Dev.
Because of the nature of their work and constant dehydration, they are frequently subjected to injuries and a number of ailments. The lone ESI dispensary in the industrial area will be theirs to visit, once the ESI cards are made. They earn between Rs.5,000 and Rs.8,500. But alcoholism, medical expenditure, and expenditure on basic needs have thrown them into a debt spiral, heavily depending on private lenders who charge an outrageously high 10 per cent monthly interest.
Ram Kumar, pradhan of the workers, and a veteran of several trade union struggles in this industrial hub says the struggle has only begun. An independent union for the workers is a dream that he realises is very close to fructifying.
The distance they have travelled since February 23 last year has been immense. On that day, when several thousand workers converged on Parliament Street demanding labour law reforms, the men here quietly went about their work.
But this Tuesday, when central trade unions embark on their all-India strike, they will have company — the 1000-odd steel workers from Wazirpur Industrial Area - A Block.