Central unions, labour dept. stay away even as steel workers continue strike

June 11, 2014 09:41 am | Updated 09:41 am IST - New Delhi:

The furnaces and whizzing machines in 26 hot-rolling steel plants in Wazirpur in North-West Delhi remained shut for the sixth day on Tuesday as workers continued to raise demands for minimum wages, Provident Fund and health benefits.

Beginning 9 a.m., the local police followed the workers some distance as hundreds of them took out a demonstration walking around the dusty plants. Inside the plants, iron blocks are converted into steel after being rolled and washed with acid, and the processed steel is used for vessels and other objects at Wazirpur and Jahangirpuri industrial pants.

The workers walked from Wazirpur to Raja Park, picketing factories that were still running and asking workers from cold-rolling steel plants nearby to join them. At Raja Park, surrounded by steel plants on all sides, the workers –organised as Garam Rolla Mazdoor Ekta Samiti – demanded minimum wage for skilled work of Rs.10,374, and asked for appointment letters, identity cards, wage slips, besides other insurance and health benefits as prescribed by the law.

“I have worked here 20 years. Initially, we were hired by the owners but later on, we were shown as being on contractor’s rolls. We work 12-hour shifts in temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius but not one worker here has an Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) card,” said Guddu Kumar, a 40 year-old migrant worker from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.

The workers recounted that after toiling in harsh conditions for several decades, they had launched their first major strike in 2012 to demand a weekly off. With the furnaces taking long to fire up, most factory owners prefer running the furnaces 24 hours, requiring workers to be on 12-hour shifts often without a weekly off. After the 2012 strike, the workers were given the option of a weekly off on Wednesdays. In 2013, they struck work for several days for a second time, demanding an increase in wages commensurate with minimum wages.

Ironically, though these plants are located around a large multi-storied building serving as the Employee Provident Fund Organisation (North) office building, none of the workers have a PF account. They said they were denied overtime wages at the rate of double the usual wages, as prescribed by the government. Several young workers were not familiar with the employer’s names as several plants had boards with only plant numbers. “If we ask labour officials, they side with the factory management. Approaching large central trade unions is like jumping from the fire pan into the fire because they demand a 10 per cent “cut” for any dues they help us get back,” said a worker.

All India Trade Union Congress functionary J. M. Singh denied the charges. “If we help workers, they usually give us a part as a donation. It is not something we ask from workers. We have fought for their rights for several decades,” he said.

Hind Mazdoor Sabha’s Shambhunath Shukla took a similar stand. At the labour office in Nimdi Colony, officials said they were not aware of the workers’ ongoing strike. “With limited staff, we have reduced inspections and act if we receive formal complaints about minimum wages etc. We have not yet received any letter from them,” said an official.

“No political party spoke of justice for workers in their manifestos. Baba Ramdev and the government talk of bringing black money stacked in foreign banks, but what about the Rs.6,000-Rs 7,000 stolen from a worker every year by denying minimum wage, PF?” asked a 50-year-old worker.

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