More than 200 permanent workers of Noble Tech steel factory in Oragadam were on strike for protesting extremely unsafe and precarious working conditions as well as low pay. The permanent workers have formed a union under the leadership of CITU and have been subject to victimisation and harassment for the past year leading to the dismissal, suspension and transfer of union activists.
The factory, which employs almost 1000 workers, most of whom have worked on contract basis for many years together, seems to be a zone free from all laws and regulations where 10 workers have died in the last decade due to appallingly dangerous conditions. Noble Tech is a mini integrated steel plant which has within its premises facilities for steel melting, sponge iron and steel rolling mill. The factory produces steel channels, beams to several public-sector undertakings including BHEL, Neyveli Lignite Corporation, Director General of Supplies and Disposal (Central Government’s procurement agency) as well as to private industries like Larsen and Tubro, India Cements, etc. Noble Tech also owns a power plant which generates 12MW of electricity, some of which is sold to the government while the rest is used for running the factory.
A factory with a management to which no rules apply
The Noble Tech factory have been allowed to function despite blatant disregard for labour laws and exploitative and oppressive work culture. None of the workers, have received appointment orders, let alone confirmation orders. It was only after an RTI enquiry that the union came to know that around 200 workers are “permanent.” Many of them do not receive wage slips and for those who do get them, the slip contains inadequate information with no date of joining, PF and ESI number. This has been used by the management to deny that workers have been employed in the factory for several years. Workers reported that two registers are maintained – one is a company register and the other, a contract workers’ register. Shifting workers from the former to the latter is often used as punishment. One young worker from Bihar took leave and went back to his village to attend his mother’s funeral. When he came back after three weeks, he was shifted to the contract workers list. Having worked for four years in the company, he earns only Rs.9000 per month.
Wages are abysmally low – even the most experienced worker with 12- 13 years of experience earns Rs.13000. The union is hoping that the management negotiates with them and are seeking an increment in the wages. Apart from wages, ESI and PF have also been deducted arbitrarily. For some workers deductions have been made under both categories, but no numbers are provided. One of the union activists remarked “No government department – be it labour, pollution control or any other seems to budge. This management seems to have connections in high places.”
Murderous working conditions
According to the workers, 10 workers have died in the factory since it started operations over a decade ago. Regular accidents are the norm. Lack of safety harnesses which have resulted in workers falling from cranes causing serious fractures, bad quality of gloves and protective gear leading to serious burns and injuries like cutting of fingers and hands and lack of pollution control causing chronic respiratory and cardiac issues for some workers. When Thozhilalar Koodam met workers at the Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Labour in Irrungatukottai, several of them came forward to display injuries such as burns, cuts, bruises from surgeries after fractures.
The workers also mentioned that one of the workers who was a welder and had worked in the factory since 2007 died of a cardiac arrest. In his mid-fifties, this worker was from a village in Bihar who was staying in the factory premises. Despite telling the manager that he was feeling uneasy and asking for leave, he was ordered to report for night shift. He finished his shift and collapsed outside the gate. By the time he was taken to the hospital, he died. Two of his sons continue to work in the factory and blame the management for their father’s death. “We have no choice but to continue to work in this factory. We must take care of our families back home. We did not receive much money after my father died except what workers collected and gave us”, said the youngest son who is 22 years old.
Another maintenance worker who suffered serious injuries on his face, hands and torso after the electrical board exploded, was not given any money for medication and follow up treatment. Although he is back at work now, he still suffers pain in his hands.
Most of the workers say that while the company did take care of initial treatment, they had to bear the medical expenses later. Even worse, the managers would pressurise them to come back to work even if doctors advised longer rest period. Many of the workers who have suffered fractures have come back to work even though it was not completely healed.
State turns a blind eye
Given the type of violations that have taken place in the factory, it is evident that the police, Department of Industrial Health and Safety and the Labour Department have conveniently turned a blind eye to the workers’ plight. According to the CITU leadership, not a single FIR has been filed in the case of the dead workers and accidents continue to happen. The union claims that they have given representation to all the departments, but nothing seems to be done.
The Government of Tamil Nadu and its Labour Department are constantly trumpeting their achievements in the eradication of child labour, but workers showed Thozhilalar Koodam photographs of 16 and 17-year-old migrant workers working in risky conditions. There is much to be said about the complete lack of monitoring and enforcement of even the most basic of regulations.
Migrant workers join the strike
The strike which began on 1st June included permanent workers as well as some migrant workers from Orissa and West Bengal. Many of these workers have been staying in housing provided by the company and were thrown out immediately after the strike began. One of the workers said “We were making dinner when the manager came and shouted at us to leave. We asked for time and said we would leave after we finish dinner. He ransacked our rooms and threw out all our belongings. We had nowhere to go, our local colleagues have put us up for the time being.” The local workers, many of whom are fluent in Hindi have supported the migrant workers throughout the struggle. One of them said that even though they all earn the same low wage, these workers had it much worse. They would often be woken up in the middle of the night to report to work. There have been several instances where workers have worked two shifts continuously, even if they are sick. The workers who have joined the union say that others are too scared and fear that they will lose their jobs.
Union takes up environmental issues
Apart from the working conditions within the factory, the union and the striking workers also raised complaints to the Pollution Control Board claiming that the plant is releasing noxious gases and smoke as well as letting out polluted wastes into the canal. Residents of the neighbouring villages, have complained of contamination of drinking water and health issues due to the pollution in the air. The union submitted petitions to the TNPCB but no concrete action was taken prompting the workers to hold a demonstration outside the Board’s local office in Oragadam on 7th June.
Although the police allowed the demonstration to take place as they were informed earlier, they did not allow workers to go into the office to present a complaint. After much persuasion, senior officials came out to meet the workers and assured them that the pollution levels would be monitored and that they would inform the union about their next visit. Com. Nehru of the Farmers Association, Com.Vasantha of the Working Women’s Wing and Com. Kannan, State General Secretary were present.
After more than a week long strike, the management and the union arrived at an agreement brokered by the ACL. Com.Muthukumar, Kanchipuram District leader of CITU said that the union ended the strike on the following conditions – That the issue of suspended workers would be settled in one month, 14 workers who were dismissed will be given work, workers who participated in the strike would not be victimised and transfers would not be of a permanent nature. Com.Muthukumar characterised the strike as a victory as the management has begun to talk to the union and he is confident that they will be able to arrive at a wage agreement.
However, on the next day when the workers reported to work, only half of them were allowed inside. The rest were kept out with the management claiming that they were casual labour and could therefore be hired and fired at will. The union plans to focus on ensuring confirmation orders are given to the permanent staff. But the “casual” workers who were as committed to the struggle now face an uncertain future.