Lives on contract

A company manager’s death during a workers’ agitation in Ghaziabad throws light on the problems faced by contract labourers.

THE death of a manager-level official of a brake-shoe manufacturing company in Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh, in the second week of November following a skirmish with the company’s workers has drawn widespread opprobrium. Apart from 27 workers who have been accused of beating the officer to death, some 350 unidentified persons have been named in the first information report (FIR). Among the main accused are two senior trade union leaders of the district who, informed sources said, were not even present at the venue when the incident happened.

The issue received good coverage in prominent business newspapers, with some reports drawing attention to the need for labour reforms. Parallels were drawn to an incident in 2008, when workers of an automotive component manufacturing company in Noida, also in Uttar Pradesh, were booked for the murder of an officer of the company. In October 2009, following the death of a worker in a unit of Rico Auto Industries in Gurgaon angry workers beat up an official of the company. Their counterparts in auto-component manufacturing units in the region also struck work in an expression of solidarity.

The latest incident occurred in Ghaziabad’s Sahibabad industrial belt, where trade unions have from time to time organised protests demanding regularisation of contract workers. The nature of their work, they argued, was not contractual but permanent. This and a 12-hour workday were becoming increasingly common. The incident can also be traced to the simmering discontent among workers in the region and elsewhere.

Ghaziabad has a longer history of industrial development than Gurgaon in Haryana. Agricultural land made way for industries several decades ago. The textile and other units that came up provided employment to thousands of people. Nearly 5.5 lakh workers are estimated to be working in the 13 industrial areas in the region.

The company in question employed workers on contract basis and it is said even workers who had put in over 10 years of service had not been regularised. The company has 375 workers on its permanent rolls and 900 on contract; of the 900, around 700 are employed in direct production work, which is of a permanent nature. One of the demands of the union has been to treat these workers too as permanent employees.

According to some of the workers, three months ago the management hired a few hands who would roam the shop floor armed with pistols “to intimidate us”. This year, the company denied the workers their Diwali bonus and gave them only a box of sweets sparking rumours of closure.

A few weeks before the manager’s death, the management had sacked eight workers without assigning any reason. A case in this regard is pending at the District Labour Commissioner’s (DLC) office. “We wanted to sort out the issue with the management but it remained adamant,” said a worker. The workers’ union, registered in 2006, then gave a notice for a three-day strike beginning November 16.

“We always met targets, and the company was making profits. We had never struck work before but we sensed a change in the management’s attitude a few months ago when it hired men to police us,” said a worker.

On November 12, the Additional Labour Commissioner (ALC) issued notice under Section 4 of the Uttar Pradesh Industrial Disputes Act calling upon the workers to withdraw their strike notice and urging the management not to declare a lockout.

On November 13, the workers called off their strike. It was decided that on November 15, all the three parties concerned would hold talks. The same day, at 2 p.m., the incident occurred.

On that day, when workers reported for duty in the bounding department, one of the most labour-intensive departments of the unit, they found that two of their colleagues, both union leaders, had been moved to different departments. Also, workers’ duties had been reallocated without informing them. When the workers questioned the arbitrary transfer, two armed managerial staff entered the area making aggressive and intimidating inquiries. This led to an agitation by the workers. The deceased, who was an Assistant General Manager (Industrial Relations), allegedly opened fire with a gun in the direction of the workers. “It is unusual for a genuine HR person to use a gun and mouth abuses,” said senior workers. The Senior Superintendent of Police Raghuveer Lal, too, expressed surprise that firearms were allowed on the company premises.

Interestingly, the union had written to the management on August 21 that the people it had hired were “traditional union-breakers and disrupters”.

Said an employee: “Workers do not create unrest. They are interested in decent work and regular employment. They know how far they can go with their demands. The management creates conflict over the legitimate demands of the workers. The problem is that the management considers the workers as its domestic servants.”

Contract workers complained of inhuman treatment. “If a worker had high fever, he would be forced to spend the night on the shop floor and then make arrangements himself to go to a hospital. During night shifts, the officers would come under the pretext of checking and kick and abuse us for nothing,” said a contract worker who requested anonymity. Some of them even fired workers on a whim, the worker added.

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