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Blind workers protest against new wage structure

Jiby Kattakayam
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Joining hands: Visually challenged workers of the National Federation of the Blind holding a protest march in Delhi against the Federation's decision to implement a new wage structure.
Joining hands: Visually challenged workers of the National Federation of the Blind holding a protest march in Delhi against the Federation's decision to implement a new wage structure.

Undaunted by the darkness that they struggle with on a daily basis, several dozen visually challenged workers of a disposable plate manufacturing unit run by the National Federation of the Blind at Mundka have decided not to cave in to the management's decision to place them on a production-linked incentive-based wage structure instead of a fixed pay structure.

On Thursday, they held each other's hands -- calloused hands that expertly shape disposable thaali, dona, and chow mein plates overcoming their disability and help earn their livelihoods -- and walked to the Pushp Vihar office of the Federation in protest against the NGO which represents their community. (Reported in The Hindu on Friday).

The workers, numbering over 100, who had massed under the banner of Blind Workers' Union, alleged that they were subjected to exploitation and poor working conditions and according to the new terms that the management imposed on them through an office order on November 9, wanted their productivity to match those of workers with normal eyesight.

However, the NFB said that it was incurring a loss running the production units due to the economic downturn and was running short of funds. Hence, they felt the need to place the workers on a production-based wage structure. NFB office-bearers said the NGO has received no aid from the Government since 2002 on the ground that they were flush with funds, but now the situation had changed. The workers claimed that according to the new structure whereby they would be paid Rs.22 per 1,000 dona plates, Rs.49 for 1,000 thaali plates and Rs.27 per 1,000 chow mein plates, the maximum they would earn a month was nearly Rs.2,600 despite increasing their productivity almost 1.5 times and working on holidays too, compared to around Rs.3,300 per month they made according to the fixed pay structure.

The union also demanded that the workers be paid minimum wages prevalent in Delhi for wage labourers. [The minimum wages in Delhi for unskilled workers is Rs.6,422 per month, for semi-skilled workers is Rs.7,098 per month, and for skilled workers it is Rs.7,410.]

The workers, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, pointed to the air-conditioned office of the NFB and said: “If they don't have funds, why can't they turn off those ACs. We work under such pathetic conditions. They have not even installed a ceiling fan for us. In summer it gets so hot. Look at our fingers. Sometimes our hands get caught in the machines and cause bruises and they expect us to work at the rate of workers with normal eyesight.”

NFB North Zone vice-president Inder Singh, a visually challenged person himself, said the choice for the NGO was between shutting down the production unit completely and continuing to run it under the new scheme to cut down on losses. NFB North Zone secretary Chandraveer said unions were politicising the issue and leading the workers to their downfall. He also alleged that the protesting workers were not working efficiently earlier due to the fixed pay structure.

Mr. Singh remarked that the unions were not backing the NFB's attempts to get reservation for visually challenged persons in government jobs and fighting discrimination that such persons faced in workplaces. He said the NFB had also stopped its cultural and sports programmes as part of cost-cutting, and was now focusing on educational loans, as this was found to be very beneficial.

The Blind Workers' Union also claimed the support of workers at the Faridabad production unit of the NFB. The union alleged that the Federation's “motto of ‘letting the blind lead the blind' was being replaced by ‘let the blind exploit their poorer blind brethren'”.

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