Damning report on conditions of leather workers

In March 2017, the India Committee for the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights NGO, published a report titled Do leather workers matter?  The report focused on the three major leather production regions – Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi-Ambur area in Tamil Nadu. Apart from the literature research, the report draws from interviews with 166 workers of 46 companies and 14 home workshops in 2011 and 2012.

The Leather and Footwear Industry in India

The most important markets for Indian leather and leather products are the USA, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, France, the Netherlands, China, Vietnam and Belgium, which together account for nearly 75% of India’s exports. The sector is said to employ 2.5 million people.

Apparently, post-independence, the government saw the leather industry as “a traditional industry employing a large number of people” and that “production within small-scale units will offer maximum employment opportunities and will preserve traditional skills”. This promotion of small-scale units has meant that today they contribute 90% of the total production. When you take into account the size qualification for registration under the Factory Act, it becomes clear that the large majority of this industry remains unregulated.

Also, the government’s plan to modernize the leather industry decimated the traditional system which was dominated by rural Dalits. They were reduced to leather workers in the new urban centres.

Environmental and Health Impact

While the report discusses Agra and Kolkata, Tamil Nadu accounts for 60% of the country’s tanning capacity and finished leather production. There are about 198 units registered in Vaniyambadi and 102 tanning units in Ambur. The vast majority of these are export-oriented. The environmental damage done by the tanning units is extreme: “The tannery belt in Tamil Nadu, including the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster, has seen far-reaching pollution from chromium and other chemicals coming from tanneries. There has been a severe drinking water crisis for decades in villages around Ambur, caused by chrome pollution from wastewater discharged by the tanneries. The wastewater found its way into the agricultural fields, roadsides, open lands, and also into the river Palar.” While a Supreme Court judgement has mandated that all tanneries be connected to effluent treatment plants, this is usually an eyewash.

The working environment is also toxic for workers. A movie titled “What are your shoes stepping on?” by Danwatch captures the hazards well. One incident that the reports highlights: “In January 2015, for instance, the collapse of an illegally constructed effluent storage tank at a Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) in Tamil Nadu caused a great disaster. Ten workers, who were sleeping at the tannery next to the CETP, were caught unaware and drowned in the toxic sludge that gushed out of the tank. Officials from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) knew about the violations in the usage of the precarious tank at the CETP, but were bribed not to take action against the building of the tank. Right after this accident, the 78 functioning tanneries were closed down. However, most of the tanneries reopened in August 2015.”

Child Labour

The report documents the use of child labour in the leather industry:  “In the tanneries in the region around Tamil Nadu boys aged 11 or 12 are employed to clean the tanning tumblers, since they can easily climb inside the chambers. In February 2015, hundreds of children were rescued from leather units in Hyderabad, who were kept in unhygienic and unventilated dark rooms monitored by video cameras, many suffering from skin problems and other diseases.” The situation is probably worst around Agra.

Contractualization and Casualization of Labour

According to the report, temporary workers form a large percentage of the workers employed in the industry. They are usually paid daily or piece-work rates. The existence of contract workers is sometimes not disclosed: “A glove factory in Vaniyambadi- Ambur for example, indicates in its submission for the renewal of its factory license that it has only 69 workers, while according to workers it employs at least 400 workers at any given time.”

Typically exploitative practices are followed. Temporary workers “perform the same type of job as permanent workers, but are paid less and are not provided with any additional benefits…They are paid INR 100 per day, which is below the minimum wage of INR 126.48 per day, and do not receive provident fund or other benefits.” The statutory minimum wage is lowest in Tamil Nadu. In 2016, it was 126.5 rupees per day, compared to Rs 282 for an apprentice in textiles.

Home-based work is also common. This tends to be done by women and is often the most labour-intensive part. Another report by Homeworkers Worldwide, Labour Behind the Label and Cividep called Stitching Our Shoes: Homeworkers in South India in 2016 goes into greater depth. These women tend to earn even less – maybe 50-70 rupees a day. Attempts at banning homework have led to this kind of work going underground and regardless, the women rely on this income source. They do not want it to disappear. About 30% of the workers in the leather industry are women.

Unionization

Unions are present but their power is curtailed: “At factory level, employers have succeeded in reducing the potential for collective bargaining by unions, as they have replaced trade unions with factory level worker committees.” The two most active unions are the North Arcot District Leather Processing Workers Union and the Leather and Leather Goods Democratic Labour Union (LLGDL). But if workers actively declare their association, they face suspension or dismissal.

The report also says, “The factory level unions negotiate so called ‘working agreements’ with the management. These agreements in leather companies in Vaniyambadi-Ambur include clauses like “Workers are obliged to not resort to any direct action on any account but would lawfully approach the management for the redress of their grievances”, “Workers will not refuse any work assigned to them and known to them in the interest of improving production, productivity and profit of the Company”, “Workers not to indulge in union activities during the working hours and within the factory premises” and “Compensation due to accidental death only available to permanent workers”.”

Conclusions and Recommendations of the Report

Overall, the tone of the report is damning. “Dalit and Muslim labourers don’t seem to have benefited from either the growth of or the support for the sector at all.” Also, “The highest wages paid in a factory are often around the level of a minimum wage.”

The recommendations of the report include due diligence by the brand companies, a thorough mapping and audit of their supply chain, transparency around the use of sub-contractors, mandatory written contracts and equal treatment, supporting collective bargaining rights, setting up grievance mechanisms and collaborations with local NGOs and civil society members.

The report ends with annexures of the responses by leading garment brands (like H&M, Inditex, Clarks, Puma, etc) to the points made above. While most companies acknowledged the importance of environmental issues and the limitation of their own audits to the first-tier of suppliers, there was little in terms of concrete steps that might be taken.

 

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Unions tackle layoffs in IT Sector as hundreds of employees lose jobs

 

As layoffs continue in the IT sector, unions have stepped up their efforts to organise and resist illegal terminations. While in 2014, it was TCS, now it is the American company Cognizant Technology Solutions which employs 1,50,000 people in India and also others like Wipro, Capgemini and Tech Mahindra. IT employees unions – FITE and NDLF have stepped up their efforts to educate workers about their rights through various activities – both through social media and by leafleting outside IT Parks.

NDLF Protest against IT Lay off — Sholinganallur 18th May

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Should the blood of martyrs then go down the drain of the wine shop? – Comrade Niyogi

A brief look at trade unions’ role in Anti-liquor movement 

Alcoholism is one of the most pressing problems facing the Indian working class. One fifth of alcohol consumption in the world is in India[1]. Barring the states like Gujarat where liquor is banned, 20% of most of the state Government’s revenue is due to excise on Alcohol.[2] In Tamil Nadu, the problem is especially acute as since 2013, over 20,000 crore rupees of annual income for the State Government is through the State Liquor retail service, Tamilnadu State Marketing corporation (TASMAC). It is well known that Tamil Nadu is considered to be one of the few remaining welfare states in the country. However, this welfare-ism, which are really freebies at placating the citizens, come at the expense of making significant portion of its adult population addicted to liquor.[1]

In last few years, there have been a wave of anti-liquor protests across the state. As such, an anti-establishment campaign like this attracts to it a variety of currents from the entire spectrum of the politics. Right from Gandhian activists like Sasi Perumal to right wing parties like the BJP and a spectrum of the left parties have protested against the state sponsored free flow of liquor over last few decades. The protests organized by the left parties have often been led by women comrades and activists from various youth wings. Trade unions and working class organizations, other than few independent unions, have been conspicuous by their absence in leading or even significantly getting involved in such protests. As the issue primarily concerns workers and their families, this is a puzzle.

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எஸ்மா சட்டத்தை பிரயோகிக்க உயர் நீதி மன்றம் உத்தரவு, சமரச பேச்சுவார்த்தையில் உடன்படிக்கை, போக்குவரத்து தொழிலாளர்கள் வேலை நிறுத்தம் முடிவு

மாநில அரசின் அமைச்சர் குழுவுடன் 16 மே இரவு வரை நடைபெற்ற பேச்சுவார்த்தையில் தற்காலிக சமரசம் ஏற்பட்டதை அடுத்து போக்குவரத்து தொழிற்சங்கங்களின் காலவரையற்ற மாநில வேலை நிறுத்தம் இரு நாட்களுக்கு பின் முடிவுற்றது. இதுவரை நடந்த பேச்சு வாரத்தைகள் தோல்வியுற்ற நிலையில், வேலை நிறுத்தத்தை நிறுத்த எஸ்மா சட்டத்தை உபயேக்கிக்க வேண்டும் என மதுரை உயர்நீதி மன்றம் மே 16 அன்று இடைக்கால உத்தரவு ஒன்றை பிரப்பித்த நிலையில், மே 16 இரவில் அரசுக்கும் தொழிற்சங்க பிரதிநிதிகளுக்கும் மீண்டும் பேச்சுவார்த்தை நடைபெற்றது. ஏற்கனவே அறிவித்திருந்த ரூ750 கோடியுடன், ரூ500 கோடி அதிகமாக அரசு ஓதுக்கீடு செய்ய ஒத்துக்கொண்டது.

1250 கோடி ரூபாய் போக்குவரத்து தொழிலாளர்களின் அகப்படி நிலுவைத் தொகைக்கும், ஓய்வூதியத் தொகைக்கும் ஒதுக்கீடு செய்யப்படும். செப்டம்பர் 2017க்குள் ஓய்வுபெற்ற தொழிலாளர்களின் ஓய்வூதியத் தொகை ஈடுகட்டப்படும். தொழிலாளர்களுக்கு தரப்பட வேண்டிய மற்ற நிலுவைத் தொகைகள் (காப்பீடு, பிஎஃப்) ஆகியவற்றை ஈடுகட்ட 3 மாதங்களில் அரசு கொள்கை அளவில் அறிக்கை வெளியிடும். 13வது ஊதிய பேச்சுவார்த்தை தொடர்ந்து நடைபெறும. பேச்சுவார்த்தையில் உடன்படிக்கை ஏற்பட்டதை அடுத்து போராட்டத்தை வாபஸ் பெற்றதாக தொழிற்சங்கங்கள் கூறியுள்ளனர். இதற்கு முன்னர் மே 16 மாலை சென்னையில் நடந்த பொதுக்கூட்டத்தில் நூற்றுக்கணக்கான தொழிலாளர்கள் கலந்து கொண்டனர்.

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With judiciary threatening ESMA, transport workers strike ends with partial success

The two-day state wide strike of transport workers was called off on the night of 16th May, following a meeting between trade union leaders and senior ministers of the government. As hundreds of workers from Chennai gathered outside the MTC headquarters prepared for a public meeting at 4pm, leaders announced that the government had called the senior union representatives for talks at the Secretariat. Previous rounds of talks – including on 14th May before the strike began – had failed to yield any positive results.

However, at the end of the public meeting, news came that the talks were still on-going and workers dispersed. Adding to the uncertainty was the direction of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court that workers must report to work or face action under ESMA. Later at night, the union leaders announced to the media that the strike was being called off as an agreement was signed.

Agreement signed between the unions and transport secretary

**According to the agreement, Rs.750 crores and Rs.500 crores originally offered to be given in September, would be made available at once to clear the existing DA arrears and pension dues. This includes Rs.250 crores as an advance for student concession (GO 37), Rs. 375 crores as a short-term loan to settle provident fund and gratuity of retired workers (GO 38) and Rs. 121.84 crores as a Ways and Means advance (GO 39).After three months, pension dues of the retired workers would be cleared. Apart from this, the statutory deductions which have not been paid to the respective departments (PF, LIC, gratuity, etc) will be looked at on a policy level. Wages will remain as per the 13th wage agreement until a new one is signed.

The strike was near complete as most workers including technical staff stayed away from work. The ten unions that led the strike are LPF, CITU, AITUC, HMS, TTSF, TMTSP, PTS, MLF, AALLF and TWU. However, union leaders said that members of the Anna Thozhilalar Peravai (ATP) affiliated to the ruling AIADMK also struck work. “They are also workers facing the same problems. Their dues have also not been paid; just because they belong to the ruling party’s union, their problems do not magically disappear. They also have families to feed and empty stomachs”, said Com.Chandran of CITU on 15th May, Day 1 of the strike.

While wage negotiations ought to take place once in three years, the unions decided to shift focus to recovery of dues to the tune of Rs.7000 crores which include PF, gratuity, pension benefits, etc which have not been paid. As Thozhilalar Koodam reported earlier, the demands put forward included that the government compensate the loss incurred by the transport corporations and pay the accumulated dues. There was a feeling that unless these systemic issues were not addressed, a wage negotiation would go nowhere.

Particulars Amount in crores
Credit society Rs.320
Wage deductions (LIC and Housing loan) Rs.360
Provident Fund Rs.2200
Contributory Pension Rs.1400
Gratuity Rs.450
Earned leave Rs.210
DA arrears Rs.40
Retired workers
PF Rs.310
Gratuity Rs.900
Earned leave Rs.100
Commuted pension Rs.170
TOTAL Rs.6460

The government, represented by the Transport Minister Vijayabhaskaran, said that unions had a political agenda rather than the interest of the workers at heart. He said that Rs.750 crores had been sanctioned through various GOs and yet, the unions were determined to strike. On Monday, the minister made a round of several depots in the city and claimed that a large number of private busses were called in to ensure that services were not hit. Some of the MTC busses were also operated by drivers of private busses.

Private buses at the Anna Square depot in Chennai

According to one driver in the Basin Bridge depot, some of the buses were taken out and driven to the nearest bus stop just when the minister came, but as soon as the minister left the buses were back in the depot. Workers also said that only MTC drivers are equipped to drive the buses as they are bad condition. A technical staff from the Madhavaram depot said “the buses are in bad condition, even the breaks don’t work properly. Only our drivers have the experience to drive these vehicles. The government is risking the lives of passengers by engaging other drivers.” According to the workers, the strike was a big success and even the private bus drivers came only out of compulsion and threat of violence.The general feeling among workers was that it was a legitimate strike engaged as a last resort and that they were merely asking for part of their wages, i.e, statutory deductions, due to them.

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During the public meeting, leaders from each of the unions blasted the AIADMK government and their refusal to negotiate with the unions. CITU leader Com.Balakrishnan said “If they were a responsible government who is interested in the welfare of the workers, they would have called us for a dialogue in February, soon after the strike notice was given. It is not a sudden strike, we gave them enough notice, so nobody can say we indulged in an illegal act.”Workers said that they faced tremendous pressure from local goons as well as the police. One LPF member from Red Hills said that he had not been home for two days as the police were visiting his home and intimidating him. There were constant threats of false cases. Com. A.S Kumar of AICCTU also said that workers were being forced to sign bonds that they would work on the days of the strike and those who resisted were threatened with transfer or arrest.

Although media reports suggest that the transport corporations will ensure that the two days of the strike will be counted as leave and no action will be taken, workers were skeptical and felt that they could face other types of victimisation like transfer or punitive action through memos. CITU, LPF and TTSF have also approached the Madurai bench and have succeeded in quashing the interim order regarding ESMA as they claimed that the order was passed unilaterally without giving opportunity to the workers to explain their side. Com.Sampath Srinivasan, senior leader of TTSF characterised the strike as a 75% success. “The strike has definitely brought the government’s attention to the issue of the workers. The agreement was reached in light of the fact that if ESMA was implemented, our focus and energies would shift to protecting workers from arrest and divert attention from the original demands”, he said. He added that the Right to Strike is a serious issue which needs the attention of all trade unions. Meanwhile, the specifics of the agreement are being worked out and wage revisions talks are set to begin on 24th May. However, given that the demands only sought to provide ad hoc relief, it is likely that these issues will re-emerge.

** This paragraph with information on the terms of the agreement was inadvertently missed out in the original post and has been added.

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ஸ்லாம் தொழிற்சாலையில் பெண் தொழிலாளர்கள் திடீர் வேலை நிறுத்தம்

மாநில அரசின் 2014 குறைந்த பட்ச ஊதிய ஆணை கார்மென்ட்ஸ் தொழிலாளர்களுக்கு உறுதி செய்யப்பட வேண்டும் என உயர் நீதி மன்றம் கடந்த வருடம் முதலாளிகளுக்கு ஆணையிட்டது. இது வரை குறைந்த பட்ச ஊதியத்தில் தராத ஊதிய நிலுவைத் தொகையையும் தர வேண்டும் என உயர் நீதி மன்றம் கோரியிருந்தது. தங்களுக்கு தர வேண்டிய ஊதிய நிலுவைத் தொகை மற்றும் வருடாந்திர ஊதிய உயர்வு, சமூகப் பாதுகாப்பு நலன்கள் கோரி மஹீந்திரா சிட்டியில் உள்ள ஸ்லாம் தொழிற்சாலையின் சுமார் 300 தொழிலாளர்கள் வேலை நிறுத்தப் போராட்டம் நடத்தினர். வேலை நிறுத்தம் மே 11 முதல் 15 வரை நீடித்தது.

போராட்டத்தின் போது நிர்வாகத்தின் மீது கடும் அதிருப்தி அடைந்த நிலையில், கார்மென்ட்ஸ் மற்றும் பேஷன் தொழிலாளர்கள் சங்கத்திற்கும்(GAFWU), நிர்வாகத்திற்கும் நடைபெற்ற பல்வேறு பேச்சு வார்த்தைகள் மூலம் நிர்வாகம் பணிந்துள்ளது. ஒரு வாரத்தில் ஊதியத்தை உயர்த்த உறுதி செய்வதாகவும், போராடியத் தொழிலாளர்களை வன்புறுத்திய கண்காணிப்பாளர்கள் மீது நடவடிக்கை எடுப்பதாகவும், ஊதியம் கொடுக்காத 38 தொழிலாளர்களுக்கு உடனடியாக ஊதியம் கொடுக்கவும், பணிநீக்கம் செய்யப்பட்ட 29 தொழிலாளர்களுக்கு நிவாரணம் கொடுப்பதாகவும் நிர்வாகம் ஒத்துக் கொண்டுள்ளது. இதனால் தொழிலாளர்கள் வேலை நிறுத்தத்தை முடித்து வேலைக்கு திரும்பியுள்ளனர்.

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