Conditions Of Contract Labourers In JNU
By Rashmi Singh
13 December, 2010
This article is based on the research conducted by the author on informal labour, for AMAN Trust.
The recently concluded Commonwealth Games have exposed the government’s contempt towards the working class in Delhi.Even though some sections of the media did highlight the terrible working conditions of the labourers, much of it got lost in the noise about corruption scandals and nationalist jingoism. In the aftermath of the games, the so-called fourth estate continues to focus its energies on the question of corruption, while everyone seems to have forgotten about the lakhs of construction workers who built the very edifice of the Games. Indeed, the dusty secrets of labour code violations during the Games have been relegated to just that – the dust of the city.
The question is not just of justice anymore, but whether we should harbour any sort of hope at all about an improvement in the disturbing living conditions of workers in Delhi. Indeed, I doubt if there are any avenues left for us to impress these issues on an insensate and thoroughly phlegmatic public in this city. If mainstream spaces are closed off to these issues, does student politics, and the place for radical left politics in Delhi campuses have answers for us? The answer, unfortunately, is not very promising – if the Commonwealth Games were a magnified moment of workers’ exploitation, such violation occurs on a daily basis in one of the most progressive institutions of India, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Tucked away behind the construction site of a new hostel being built in JNU, the construction workers slum is covered on three sides by thick vegetation, without a proper road to reach it. There are more than 400 workers living in this slum, employed by Jaycon Infrastructure Ltd under an agreement between JNU and RITES, a government enterprise that undertakes engineering and project management work. Some of the workers have been working here for more than two years, and they come from different districts in Orissa, Bihar, U.P, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal. Apart from those who do specialized jobs of layout, steel measuring, wood layout, etc, nearly 90% of the workers here do not get the stipulated minimum wages. While those who work with plaster and carrying bricks get only 100 rupees per day; the masons get between Rs 120 – 150, depending upon their skill. Along with this wage for their daily wage (dihadi) of eight hours of work, most of them work over-time and try and fit in two to three shifts per day to earn more. The extra earned per hour (ghanta) or hour of extra work is as paltry as Rs 12. So more than half of their minimum wage according to the revised rates of Rs 203 for unskilled workers, Rs 225 for semi skilled and Rs 248 for skilled workers is not given to them. Moreover, they are never paid on time, and the payment is never made directly. Some of them have not been paid for four months now, and they are made to work by the contractor who gives them money enough for only rations (kharchi). Thus, by giving about Rs 500 per head for a fortnight and irregular payment, the contractors and the administration make sure the workers get just enough to survive for doing mind-numbing work in the worst conditions under late capitalism.
Due to their payments being held back by the sub-contractors or Jamadars who bring them to the city through a network of kinship relationships, the workers are caught in a cycle of deferred payments. A labourer who has been working for the company for about 6\7 years has been denied regular payment for the last 3 years. As a result, most of his money is tied up with the Jamadar and he cannot shift to another company. Under Article 23 of the Indian Constitution, this is bonded labour. In the ‘GENERAL CONDITIONS OF CONTRACT FOR WORKS’ code of RITES, Section-11, the contractor is obliged to fix wage period, never exceed wage period by one month, be paid on the working premises as per a date notified in advance, and before the expiry of the tenth day before the last wage payment, be paid directly and without any deductions other than those specified by the Central Government through a general or special order under the Payment of Wages Act 1956. Besides this, the contractor is obliged to comply with the following Acts: Payment of Wages Act, 1936, Minimum Wages Act, 1948, Employees Liability Act, 1938, Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996, Building and Other Construction Worker’s Welfare Cess Act, 1996 and the Contractor’s Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970.
Further, the RITES document clearly states: “Under the provision of Minimum Wages (Central) Rules 1950, the Contractor is bound to allow to the labours directly or indirectly employed in the works one day rest for 6 days continuous work.” This is not the case as all construction workers in JNU have been working continuously for 7 days unless they take a holiday themselves which costs them a day’s wage and is therefore avoided as far as possible.
Even more so, clause 19B also states: “Whatever is the minimum wage for the time being, or if the wage payable is higher than such wage, such wage shall be paid by the Contractor to the workmen directly without the intervention of Jamadar and that Jamadar shall not be entitled to deduct or recover any amount from the minimum wage payable to the workmen as and by way of commission or otherwise. The Contractor shall ensure that no amount by way of commission or otherwise is deducted or recovered by the Jamadar from the wage of workmen.” These workers however, have never been intimated in advance about the date of their payments and have been paid only by their Jamadars after deducting his specific commission from the minimum wage of the workers. Here it is important to mention that despite the Jamadars cut, most workers believe more than his commission, it is the collusion of the company and the administration that eats away their earned incomes.
Apart from not getting their due wages, majority of the workers also do not posses any I-cards still, despite the rules stating that the contractor shall issue an Employment Card in From XIV of the CL (R & A) Central Rules 1971. Its implication is that they are unable to make any savings in bank deposits.
The workers reside in terrible living conditions, the ten toilets built earlier are now in shambles, and women workers have to go together to empty areas around the building to relieve themselves. There have been incidents of workers getting burnt by naked electricity wires and construction material falling on a women’s feet without having any first aid box kept at the site for help. Most of all, the incessant rain during the month of September this year caused a host of illnesses among the families of workers who, besides losing several days of work, had to take extra money from their Jamadars to go to private hospitals in Munirka, as JNU Health Centre does not offer free treatment to the workers. The lack of a market nearby to procure daily rations means that they have to frequent Munirka market on foot every few days to get groceries, etc. Though the authorities in question have done nothing to prevent the above violations, police has come here once to shut down small kirana shops some workers opened for themselves. The East Gate is not open for even workers to pass through, and some of them have been heckled at the main North gate of JNU for not carrying an identity proof, being made to prove their status as workers through phonecalls before being allowed inside the premises.
It cannot be stated what is more disturbing – the RITES DGM present at the site actually explaining the poor conditions in terms of the workers excessive spending on their drinking thereby transcoding class exploitation in the familiar language of laziness and moral ethic; or admitting that the wages are ‘somewhat’ less than the legal minimum but at the same time questioning the ‘motives’ of such questions put forward to him and asserting that unlike the rest of Delhi, at least workers are being paid something in JNU.
Despite legal provisions to have all wage disbursement information available on the work site, every question asked on the same has been met by a perverted understanding of the ‘interests’ involved in such legitimate questions, as if everyone is looking for a loophole to put their own toungueful of greed in. As most of the workers interviewed stated, most of them are aware that they are getting paid less than what is due to them, but since all of them owe their loyalties to different jamadars and have been employed from different periods of time, they do not have the unity to confront their employers together. As one worker from Gorakhpur stated: we hardly get any time from work, and once the day is over most of us fall asleep after getting tired, when will we ever get time to really know each other? Being from different parts of India, and being employed under different contracts, construction workers have very little chance of articulating their interests collectively. Capital keeps them tied in forced labour with just enough subsistence provisions to recycle their strength for everyday of construction work. Besides this, these cuts are justified in the name of loans taken by workers for marriages, medical operations, that they owe their jamadars. While it is true that some workers do ask for money for such occasions, fact also is that most of them repay their loans, and this certainly doesn’t justify withholding their minimum wages! Under such exploitative conditions of contract labour, the burden of proof saves the contractor from any harm, since their collection of signatures on attendance sheets with blank wage columns ensures they get away from the legal apparatus of the state, and it becomes very difficult to say exactly where all the money is going.
At this stage, it becomes important to examine the role of JNU administration in explicitly encouraging this behaviour. While the Assistant Registrar’s office asserts with curious insistence that JNU is the principal employer in these contracts; in the same breadth they pass off the responsibility to RITES, saying that they have no direct contact with the workers and seem completely unaware of their role in the process. When asked about the mechanism for redressal of grievances, the administration displayed ignorance of Section 21 clause (2) of the Contract Labour Act that obliges the Principal Employer to nominate a representative who is present at the time of disbursement of wages by the contractor. In Section 21 (4) of the same act, the principal employer is liable to make payment of wages in full and cover the unpaid balance. Clearly, therefore, the JNU administration has completely washed its hands off its legal duties. Besides, Sections 17, 18 and 19 mandate that restrooms, drinking water, first aid etc should be provided on the working site, even though money is deducted from the minimum income in the name of these ‘extra facilities’. What makes matters worse is that the workers, the JNU administration and the RITES office – none of them have heard at all from the Labour Inspectors who are supposed to conduct regular checks on these sites. Sadly, the Contract Labour Act states that no court can take cognizance of such violations unless given a written complaint in writing from the Inspector. So while JNU administration continues this total affront to labour laws, it manages to hide under its image of a ‘world-class’ progressive institution, just like the rest of the city.
Since 1990s, JNU as an institution has been weeding out permanent employees in every sector and replacing them with contractual labour. In two separate incidents in November 2006 and April 2009, workers were dismissed from their jobs for demanding their rightful wages. Only after a long and sustained struggle by JNU students, with some intervention by some committed faculty members, were these workers given their rightful incomes, even though none of them could find employment again on campus. The Workers Committee set-up in 2007 was not taken seriously by JNU administration, which deliberately never defined its role legally to sustain any effort in this direction. Despite some achievements, most non-teaching staff working as peons, clerks and office assistants still do not get their ESI/PF slips. Many of them need to chase their contractors to get their monthly minimum wage which is never paid on the stipulated date of the month. Their minimum wages were regularised by a sustained campaign by students who ‘gherao-ed’ the contractors and sat with them during payment days thereby ensuring the workers get paid on time. But apart from making the contractors pay the wages by checking on them thus, nothing fruitful can be sustained as long as the JNU administration does not accounts for these lapses as the Principal Employer and commit itself to workers’ claims.
To this end, there was in fact an effort towards forming a trade union three years ago. But given that the process of deciding upon its constitution took too long, the contractors threatened the workers into looking for new jobs. The absence of an encouraging response from the labour ministry on various letters and legal pleadings filed by the students, as also Lyngdoh’s death spell on JNU elections stalled the matter for good. Even in this effort though, construction workers were not a part of the initial meetings, as most of them feared reprisal from their contractors; besides, as one student leader pointed out, since students do not see them regularly except on their work site, these conversations tend to be ‘stark’ and easily notice-able by the administration, leaving very little scope for their presence to be un-noticed in any such venture.
Though it is clear that JNU’s Engineering department is in an intractable nexus with the contractors, what also needs to be debated is how the student body can facilitate unionization of workers with the help of a trade union without stepping on the process itself. Protest politics and gheraos also unfortunately end up focusing the attention on the student body and its tussle with the administration (as in 2006), while unintentionally relegating the workers to the background. Though the independent Left manages to work around party whip for more diverse and urgent issues, this section too by virtue of its autonomy gets away without taking responsibility at the time of a fall-out, since the workers cannot go to an organized union for redress. Taking up odd incidents of such violations and protesting ends up being a ‘flash in the pan’ sort of intermittent activism that fails to hand over its energy to the workers, who need to assert themselves in their own right to get their rightful wages. For contract labourers who cannot afford to lose time and certainly cannot afford to lose their jobs, coming out in the open against the employer directly needs better strategizing on our part.
The connection between student politics and labour rights has a long and rich history, and needs to be tapped in time and again for correcting ourselves from lapsing into inaction as well as hasty interference. Also, it is necessary to ask ourselves what to do to keep such struggles alive despite being out of office due to bans, which is an imposed adjustment that we have work our way around. Most students believe that they are not competent enough to take up unionization work without the help of a trade union. The back-up of a trade union is necessary to cushion the consequences that administration-contractor wrath might invoke. Still, even if everyone agrees on such, it is clear that as students we need to fill up the trust deficit that has built up over the last few years and evolve a common ground of protest politics that can be used to include workers’ issues in a continuous manner, and keep it a priority issue at all times.
Pushing for a mandatory introduction to labour acts and rights programme funded by the University for the workers with pamphlets and obligatory meetings might open a way forward. Documenting their working conditions and working hours could be another step towards creating more awareness of these legal rights, and then moving on to the formation of a union. Also pushing the Staff Association which consists of permanent employees to support their counterparts is needed, since the permanent employees seem to be completely disinterested in the living conditions of contractual workers, a fate that is ultimately tied to theirs. If campus space, in the words of a trade union leader, due to its highly politicized environment ends up being a ‘notoriously difficult’ place for ensuring workers’ rights, we need to seriously consider how to change our politics for what its meant, and to find new ways for dealing with a bureaucratic neo-liberal institutional framework. Debate over the mode of protest always has to follow the time and wishes of the workers themselves. And in the words of JNU’s campus poet Vidrohi, even though it is a mistake to think we know what Utopia we want to reach, we can certainly be sure about what we want to remove from our way, and this gives us enough hope to carry on with our struggles.