L&T strike: “We are worse than animals here”

The bus stop for L&T’s ECC plant in Neervallur (on Chennai Bangalore Highway) is about a 1 km away. The bus conductor kindly allows us to get down near the plant gate. A motley group of workers watch us silently as three of us approach them, so do the uniformed policemen stationed near the plant gate. We approach a few workers standing close to the gate, all the while wondering why is the group so small? Hadn’t we heard that all the workers were on strike, where were the rest? But it didn’t take long before the numbers swelled and we were surrounded by large group of workers.

Since January this year, the 2000 odd contract workers of L&T ECC plant have been on strike, each time broken by false assurances by the company. The first one day strike was in January 2012, followed by a 5 days strike between 21st-26th May 2012 and now the workers are again striking since 6th of August. The demands are – permanency, wage raise, safety at work, clean drinking water, better living quarters with toilets and bathing area. Listening to the demands, one wonders why do the workers need to strike for something as basic as this? Shouldn’t a company like L&T be providing them with basic facilities like clean drinking water or toilets?

The workers informed that the plant was moved from Manappakkam near Arakkonam in 1998 after a court case citing pollution from sand blasting. The present plant is spread over 360 acres on land purchased by L&T.

Almost the entire workforce in the L&T EEC’s fabrication plant at Neervallur are contract workers. Approximately 500-700 are local Tamil workers and the rest, about 1500 are inter-state migrants workers from Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam.

There are 14 formal labour contractors (companies) in this site and 12 informal contractors. The informal contractors, who are local people, are workers themselves and have 20 or so local workers working under them in a labour gang. The way it works is, the informal labour contractor is on the roll of L&T and all the paper work/contract is made in his name. The 20 workers, who work under him, do not have any formal contract with the company, except an ID card/gate pass. While they get a salary slip, their name is not mentioned on it. This sort of informal arrangement of recruitment seems to be prevalent since the site became operational in 1998. There are about 172 such workers at the site presently and are all hired locally. The migrant workers are recruited by the 14 formal contractors like General Industrial Builder Pvt. Ltd, who do not provide any formal ID or contract to the workers.  Each formal contractors usually provides 200 or more workers for specific jobs.

Wages

The wages are woefully low, much below the prescribed minimum wages of the state. Moreover there is a clear division in the wages between the local and migrant workers.  A senior mechanic, who has been with the company for more than 15 years is paid Rs 334 per day, one of the highest paid employee in the plant. His assistants/helpers gets paid only Rs 150 per day.  A worker who has been with the company for 3 years shows a pay slip (which does not have the company’s name anywhere) has been paid a gross of over Rs 8700, but has had to work for 108 hours of Over Time (OT) to earn this amount which includes Rs 2300 as OT. The worker informed that this was a single OT and they don’t get paid double OT.

Salaries gets deducted if they take a day off. “If we are even late by 5 minutes, half an hour’s salary is cut”.  With no proper transportation facility and the bus stand located 1 km away from the factory gate, it is often a great burden for the workers. “There is transport arranged for only day shift and that too only to and from Kanchipuram. When we take the public transport, how can we make sure that we are on time. When the shift ends in the night at 1AM, we walk to the bus stop and the police harasses us. The ID card we have has a no seal, no ID number and the police says that this can be bogus’, said a worker.
Most of the migrant workers, some of whom have been at the same site since 1998, are paid anywhere between Rs 150-Rs 195 per day for 8 hours of work. 3 hours of OT is compulsory, for which they get double wages. It is important to note that the workers hired by the 12 informal labour contractors do not get double OT but only single OT.

There are two work shifts- day shift and night shift. When the production pressure is high, the same workers are asked to work for two shifts, informed the migrant workers. “They call us from our sheds after we have finished our shifts and force us to work,” said Lal Singh* of Samstipur Bihar, who has been working at the site for 8 years for a wage of Rs 120 for 8 hours of work. Another worker, Nathji* from Balia in UP, who has been working at the same site since 1998, had started with a salary of Rs 45 per day, which has increased to Rs 195 a day in last 14 years! He works as a grinder. None of the migrant workers have pay slips, their salaries are put in envelopes and handed over. The payments are usually not made till 15 or 20th of every month. And due to the ongoing strike, none of the workers have been paid till date.

Working Condition

The workers complained of over work, inadequate work breaks, no holidays including government holidays. “If we have to go home, we just leave and no salary or formal leave is given to us. When we come back from our villages, we have to usually sit at home for 5-10 days without any wages before we are given work at the site, despite working at this same place for years”, informed Sant Kumar Chandra* of Bihar.

Safety is a big concern for the workers. Accidents are common they say and several workers showed their scars from injuries at work.  Few months ago, one worker operating a lathe had his finger cut. He was shifted in 4 vehicles from the plant to the general hospital in Chennai, causing a delay that it was too late to reattach the fingers, alleged the workers. Yet another worker died after a winch pulled him at worksite.  The workers said ‘It’s all ‘heavy duty’ work here but no training is given. There are no proper sheds inside the site, all the work is done in the open. “We have to work under hot sun and rains. Machines which are old and improperly maintained are used. The Factory Inspector is supposed to have visited the plant but none of us have seen them here”. Incidentally, the plant also has ISO 9000 certificate. The lone first aid provider was dismissed after completing 2 years in July this year with a gratuity of Rs 29000, for which no accounting was given. There is no ESI clinic or hospital nearby. The workers are taken to the hospital and left to fend for themselves. The pay slips reflect ESI and PF deductions, but the workers did not have PF or ESI numbers/cards.

“There are no provision for tea or snacks, food is arranged for one time only. The toilets are cleaned only once every 2 weeks or when an official visits. There is no clean drinking water for us at the work site. We are treated as slaves” informed the local workers. Whereas, the migrant workers said that they had to bring their own food. The workers alleged that the two water tanks inside the site were hardly cleaned and the water smells very bad but they drink it since there is no other water source inside the plant.

Living condition

The workers took us to their living quarters at the back of the factory. There is no proper road to the quarters. The workers cut across a field to reach this place. In the nights and during rains, it can be pretty difficult due to wild animals in the field.
There was a shorter path from the back of the plant to the quarters but it was closed by the management.

Row of poorly ventilated 8×8 ft rooms, with a shelf in the corner to serve as cooking area, is home to the migrant workers. Each room houses 10-150 workers. “We cannot sit, sleep or eat inside these rooms. We sleep outside, but are always fearful of snakes. When it rains, we huddle inside these rooms, there is not enough space for all of us to sit, so we stand till the rain stops,” informed the workers.


With no drainage connection, there are puddles of grey waste water around the living quarters. An open well, infested with mosquito larve, is the only source of drinking water. There is no toilet or bathing area. Workers use the open area and bushes behind the factory and their rooms as toilets and a small pond a little distance was serves as a bathing area.

“In L&T Hazira in Gujarat, we have so much better facilities, I can’t believe how they treat the workers here, like animals. I had come here for a change, wanted to see how it is to work here in Madras, but I am not staying here. I do not even have a place to stay”, informed a worker who has come only a few weeks back from Gujarat. A set of rooms had plastic sheets on top of asbestos roofings since they leak.

“Madam, we are worse than animals here. We don’t even treat our animals so bad back home. Atleast we give them clean water to drink and bathe, but we don’t even have any such thing here” lamented a young worker from Bihar.

The Strike

This year workers demanded increment in wages. “The management kept delaying saying we will increase next month. Finally in May 2012 they gave an increase of Rs 5 to 35 per day for different workers”. The workers have formed a union under CITU Kanchipuram District and struck work between May 21 and 26. They also hoisted the Union flag on June17th, on a Sunday, which they call as their first Sunday leave. The workers said that after the union formation, they have won some victories.

Earlier they had to work on Sundays, now Sunday has been recognized as a holiday. ‘Earlier we used to work for Gandhi Jayanthi, Independence day and all national holidays. Now we don’t’. The 2 shifts of 12 hour work days has been changed to 3 shifts of 8.5 hours each. At the same time, 86 workers have been dismissed after the labour department enquired the company about employing workers who have completed 480 days as contract workers.

The workers have been on strike since 6th August asking for a wage increment of Rs 70 per day for all workers (locals and migrants) and permanency of workers who have completed 480 days of work.  The workers alleged that the Human Resource manager had threatened the workers with dismissal if they didn’t desist to tear the union forms. The workers say that experience certificates are being denied to the workers.

The workers also alleged that the local police and highway patrol has been intimidating them since they went on strike. The police is said to have visited the villages where some of the local workers come from and have threatened them. This has been reduced after the union complained to the SP according to the workers. On August 16, 2012, a group of highway patrol came to workers sitting at the plant site and in their intention to disperse the workers, lathi-charged them. Injuring two migrant workers. As the one of the migrant workers put it ‘ We ask for our right and get lathi charged’.  Meanwhile the union has filed a case with the labour department and negotiations are in progress.

Since they have been on strike, the management has not paid any salary, even for the last month, which is causing a great hardship amongst the migrant workers.  But they continue to be strong in their demand for a decent wage and their rights and both local and migrant contract workers are fighting the management jointly. Says a migrant worker ‘This unit made Rs 260 crore profit last year and all we got was a chocolate at the end of the day’!

(* Names changed)

TN Labour Blog visited the striking workers on 18/8/2012. The article is based on their interaction with the workers infront of the factory gate and a visit to their dwellings behind the factory.

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