Gurgaon may be represented as the success story of Indian entrepreneurship, that was unleashed by the opening up of the economy in the nineties; but hidden behind this chimera of glass towers and office buildings is a dark underbelly – comprising thousands of industrial workers living and working in abysmal conditions. While there is a visible large populace working in call centres and software companies, close by are migrant workers uprooted from villages, stitching clothes for global companies.
Gurgaon-based trade union leaders allege that the failure of the Labour department in ensuring implementation of the rules, the unwillingness among the factory owners to let workers join/ form trade unions, and the unscrupulous contractors, have put the workers in a pressure-cooker like situation – that often explodes on shop floors. The Haryana government often sides with the factory owners, as it only sees the investment angle, they allege.
Part of the problem stems from a change in the system of ‘manufacture’. They work on a piece rate and part rate system. Earlier, a single tailor would work on a garment, and earned a monthly salary; but the situation has changed today, with the ‘chain system’ coming in after 2004.
Ram Avatar, who has been working in the garment industry for the last several years, says that currently 20 to 30 people work on a single garment. “All of us are given difficult targets every day. The work starts at 9 am, but it may continue long in the night,” he says. And the facilities in the factory are abysmal.
The workers allege that the contractors who hire them play quite a negative role, as they harass them incessantly, force them to work on Sundays, and don’t pay overtime as per rules. It is almost impossible to get leave; and a minor issue can lead to the loss of a job. Another major issue rankling them is the growing temporary labour, that accounts from almost 80 per cent of the workforce in many companies.
Comrade Murli Kumar, a senior trade union leader working in Gurgaon since the eighties, says, “If the decision is left to the contractor, most of the times workers do not get the minimum wages, ESI benefits and Provident Fund dues,” alleges Kumar. He adds that the growing discrimination between permanent and contract workers is a further cause of friction. “The Labour department works only for the permanent workers who are unionised; the temporary workers have nowhere to go,” he says.
The situation is such that while a permanent worker gets Rs. 20,000 in a company, his temporary counterpart might only get Rs. 7,000 for the same work. “This situation creates a lot of tension on the shop floor as the contract workers are treated as slaves,” alleges a worker; and even points out that in some companies cameras have been installed near toilets, to keep a tab on their movement.
Workers allege that the implementation of labour laws is poor, despite the City being a major industrial centre. “There is no Grievance Committee for resolving labour issues, although the government had made a promise to set it up after the Honda strike,” says Anil Kumar, AITUC General Secretary. He is surrounded by a group of workers from a Manesar based automobile unit, who have been suspended for the temerity of forming a union.
“We are constantly harassed, not given proper identification papers and benefits due to us,” says Santosh Kumar, a temporary worker with a leading garment factory that witnessed violence recently. Interestingly, while the contractor who was involved in this incident has been slapped with minor charges, there are 9 workers who have been charged with serious offences. “The management has promised us that they will be released, and therefore the work has restarted,” says a relative of one of the workers who has come all the way from Bihar to get him released.
“Despite all the hard work the earnings are poor, and workers have to live in urbanised slums,” says Satish Kumar, who runs Mazdoor Morcha, a newspaper for the workers in Faridabad.
While the working conditions of the labour are bad, the living conditions are even worse. The majority of the garment workers in Udyog Vihar live in the urbanised villages of Gurgaon – where 4 or 5 of them share small concrete rooms, with no ventilation and little sanitation. They live and cook together, while struggling to eke out a living. Kapashera village is home to several tailors who have now become part of the assembly line.
The hardest hit are workers who were skilled and trained as tailors. Their ‘value’ has reduced; and they also feel ‘compromised’ at not being able to make a full garment.
“We used to be tailors but now none of us is required to work on a complete garment – only parts,” says Santosh, whose brother also works in another garment factory. He works in a small sampling section as he is an expert tailor, and works on the initial few samples for the garment. The story of most of the workers is the same; they have become part of an assembly line, instead of becoming tailors.
Sharing the story of de-skilling of the workforce, Mohd. Mubarak says that garment manufacturing in Gurgaon has turned into mass manufacturing, and this has led to the change in profile of workers. While this has brought the production cost down, and brought more contracts for the manufacturers in Gurgaon, the salaries and conditions of the workers has not improved. In the year 2000, Mubarak used to get Rs. 2,000 per month; but after 12 years he is making Rs. 5,000 per month – while the cost of essential items has expanded manifold.
Kapashera in fact has become a training ground for the garment workers; training centres have come up for teaching basic skills. These training schools have tie-ups with contractors, who hire the students directly, for the companies in Gurgaon. Mubarak says that the skill requirement has come to such a level that a person with even 15-days training can work on the shop floor.
Rao Surender Kumar, a senior trade union leader associated with INTUC, says that temporary workers move too frequently, and also take little interest in trade union activities.
“The lack of unity among the contract workers, whose numbers is increasing by the thousands, is a major impediment to their cause. The workers who have joined trade unions get their due share of benefits; and we have asked the government to ensure that for permanent work, permanent workers are hired,” says Rao. He also points to the failure of the Labour department in ensuring that labour laws are implemented in letter and spirit.
While the garment industry in Gurgaon and Faridabad contributes almost 30 per cent of India’s exports, they are increasingly under pressure from competitors in China, Bangladesh and Vietnam. The clothing companies for which they manufacture are continuously cutting prices, and asking them to standardise operations. In such cut-throat competition, it is obvious that the industry will constantly look for cost reduction. The inconsistent nature of the business also means that there are sudden rushes, followed by slack periods.
Manmohan Gaind, an industrialist, says that workers in Gurgaon face several problems – related to housing, sanitation, and inflation – leading to frustration that explodes many times on the factory floors. “We have seen that tensions unrelated to work lead to problems,” says Gaind, pointing to the recent hike of room rents in Manesar.
The factories in Gurgaon cater to local and global demand, that waxes and wanes; in such a situation, it is not possible to hire a permanent work force, opine factory owners. “There is need to change the labour laws, and bring them in tune with the present times,” says Gaind, while significantly pointing to the acute shortage of labour in this industrial belt. The labour from Bihar, that used to run factories here, has stopped coming, since development work began in that State; whereas the labour from nearby Rajasthan has almost become negligible, says R.S Rathee, a leading man power supplier.
Ameena Sherwani, founder member of the Manesar Industries Welfare Association, says that industry will have to acknowledge the contribution of the work force. She recalls how her uncle, an eminent industrialist who had set up GEEP, used to take care of the workers. “A happy workforce, that has a long term stake in the company, will be more productive and useful to the company in the long run,” she says. She agrees that there are certain black sheep who use trade unions as platforms to blackmail the owners. “Set up canteens, good convenience facilities, pay reasonable salaries, and don’t treat workers as ‘lower class’,” she suggests. The government must also help the positive industrialists as well as the workers, by acting as a bridge – rather than a party to a dispute, she asserts. She points out that there are many companies in Gurgaon that take good care of the workers.
Where the government stands
The much needed labour reforms in India have not taken place. While the reforms have not happened, the industry is caught in a tough situation as it competes in the 21st century, while working with government departments who are governed by 19th century laws.
Despite incessant complaints by the workers, and trade union leaders, and recurring violence in industries, Gurgaon labour officials say that things are normal, and there is no unrest in the work force. Ravi Yadav, Joint Director, Industrial Safety and Health, says that the Labour department keeps a close watch on the working of the factories. “We do not allow any violation of the labour laws, and any errant behaviour is dealt with strictly,” he says. While refusing to share the recommendations that have been made in the case of the recent Orient Craft violence, Yadav says that steps are being taken to ensure contractors follow the law in letter and spirit.
Pandit Ram Swarup Sharma, Vice Chairman of the Haryana Labour Welfare Board, told Friday Gurgaon that a number of schemes for labour welfare are being implemented in Gurgaon. “We pay a lakh of rupees of those who die while at work, while help is also given to those injured on the shop floor,” says Sharma. He admits that workers who do not get registered with the Labour department are not entitled to such help.
“We will ensure that money collected from workers is spent on their welfare. The ESI and PF is given to them, and minimum wages are paid,” asserts Sharma. He reiterates that the Chief Minister is committed to the welfare of workers.
His optimism is, however, not shared by the industrial workers in Gurgaon – who say that government does what the factory owners tell them to do. The unions are registered if the owners want it, and dissolved if the same is so desired by them; and the Labour department does not pay any heed to the plight of the workers, alleges a trade union leader.