For more than 42 days, apprentices from Indian Railways’ Integrated Coach Factory(ICF), trained under National Council for Vocational Training(NCVT), are demanding employment in railways and its allied services including ICF. The protesters including their families have been on relay hunger fast protest opposite the factory in Chennai, fending police and insects alike.
Over 5000 apprentices including women and men, have been trained for various skills including fitter, electrician, welder, painter, carpenter etc. Till 1998, these trainees were absorbed into the workforce as vacancies arose according to these protesters. Since 1998, the recruitment of skilled workers has been through railway recruitment board(RRB) and direct recruitment of apprentices have stopped in ICF.
According to the protesters, they are locals having completed 8th, 10th and 12th and ITI. They were selected for apprenticeship after written, oral and medical examination by ICF(These apprenticeship is prevalent in all public sector corporations). Their training ranged from one to three years including one year work in production. At the end of this training, they were given another examination. Those who passed were given a course completion certificate with mark sheets. A worker who had shared his mark sheet, had obtained 74%. Given this kind of training and having hands on experience at the shop floor, the apprentices are asking why they should go through yet another examination, when prior to 1998, the apprentices were absorbed into their own factories based on seniority.
The protesters allege that the ICF management denies them employment based on a court judgment which they say is applicable only to railway recruitment and not coach production. According to them, the apprentices from railways are also contesting this judgment as similar protests are going on in seven locations including Patiala, Southern Railways, Varanasi and Kapurtala. The protests have been going on for more than 70 days in Patiala. The protesters also allege that according to a 2004 GO, the General Manager of the factory and railway zones has discretionary powers to employ these apprentices. While General Managers of several zones and factories have implemented this power, the protesters say that this rule is not being applied fairly across the board. After 2013, the zones have also stopped the recruitment, prompting the multi regional protests.
The protesters question the emerging model of production in ICF and railways where coach production and services are increasingly privatized. According to them, in 2000, there were 12000 employees in ICF producing 250 coaches. Today, there are only 8000 employees producing 2500 coaches. The apprentices allege that this is possible only with privatization of production via private contracts. The protesters say that only assembly work is carried out in ICF factories, and question the safety standards and corruption in contractual procurement. The protesters also question if the all contractual production is executed using RRB certified workers.
The protesting apprentices are from nearby regions and point to the acquisition of land(including agricultural land) by then Chief Minister Kamaraj for ICF factory. According to them, the chief minister had promised the possibility of employment for the population in 5-10 km radius not only for that generation but for coming generations.
The protesters say that their protests and struggles have met with only apathy and hostility from Government. They say that the sixteen unions including the recognized unions NFIR and ARF are not supportive of their struggle. They, however continue to receive support from civil society groups and sympathetic workers. They were detained on August 2015, when they tried to meet Prime Minister Modi on his visit to Chennai. They were arrested for a day on October 2nd, 2015, the day after their protest started. Even as they continue to face harassment from police, determined male and female apprentices continue to protest along with their families including children.