Skilled women workers claim government is trying to ‘kill the institution’

For over two decades, Chikkathayamma's nimble fingers have maneuvered the intricate insides of an electrical combination switch, part of the assembly line for Maruti's 800 CC cars.

She and her colleagues — many of them visually impaired like her, and the others with physical disabilities — have worked on the shop floor, made printed circuit boards, and done the cabling, soldering and circuitry for various electronics and electrical components. Today, the women workers at the Karnataka Rural Poor and Handicapped Women Development Society, under the Department of Industries and Commerce, are “sitting idle”. Barring a few small projects like repairing discarded printer cartridges, work has dried up over the past few years.

Wages here are low — most of them are paid between Rs. 4,500 and Rs. 5,400, marginally below the prescribed minimum wages — and payments are erratic. But, what troubles these women the most is what they describe as the “government’s attempt to kill the institution”. Indeed, what started off as a good public enterprise, one that could have set an example for training and employing people with disabilities in skilled engineering labour, is now languishing.

Workers say that things went quickly downhill on the work floor after the government cancelled their contract with the NTTF (Nettur Technical Training Foundation) in 2008. The department did little to get new contracts or jobs, and when questioned, workers were told that all the jobs had “migrated to MNCs”. In 2009, the Society signed an MoU with Samarthanam Trust, an NGO, where all resources and infrastructure of the Society was handed over 'free-of-cost' for development and maintenance.

Sunitha (46), who is visually-impaired, recalls how proud they were to tell people that they worked on a factory floor, the “kind of work skilled men did in factories”. Handing out the recycled paper cards that they have made over the last month, she says: “We are skilled workers. Not only does the government not bother to bring us jobs, now, they have handed us over to an NGO that is asking us to make cards out of recycled paper. Why should we do this?” Most of them referred to it as a “matter of dignity and pride”. Lokamma (50) adds: “Instead of expanding such an initiative that can help and skill people like me, they have chosen to neglect it. When we ask them, they tell us it is unprofitable, but how can an we earn them money if they don't bother to get us work." She recalls how her team used to assemble at least 800 car switches per day.

Currently, workers here have not been paid their wages since September. The workers Union here, affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, has filed several complaints with the Labour Department. Union members said that the labour department has refused to intervene as it involves another public enterprise.

The Union has also opposed the handing over of the society to the NGO. They claim that they're caught between the government and the NGO. “Our names are simply being used to get all sorts of grants from the government and elsewhere. But we are being paid the same paltry salary of around Rs. 5,000,” says Renukamma (45). Her colleague adds that the real “interest” may be in the building here, and not in the skilled resources it houses. Also, they feel that under the NGO their jobs may not be secure, and feel the government should protect their interests.

When contacted, G.K. Mahantesh of Samarthanam said that they stopped handling the institute, a few months back, following "some misunderstanding with the Society". “We are interested in running this society, and we even paid their wages for over 35 months, but then a director of the society asked us to step down,” he said.

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