Contract Labour in Coal Pits

Anirban Biswas

One aspect of the implementation of the New Economic Policy since the beginning of the 1990s has the reduction in the number of permanent workers and the rise in the employment of Contract labourers in the organized sector. This was considered as an effective measure for paring costs and increasing profits. Permanent workers have to be given decent salaries with variable dearness allowances, provident fund and ESI benefits, free living quarters etc. Contract labourers, on the other hand, can be made to work at less than subsistence wage and can be deprived of these facilities, because they are usually unorganized and many of them even do not know what rights they are legally entitled to. The coal industry of India perhaps provides a glaring example of this sordid picture.

In the year 1972-73, Coal India employed 700 thousands of permanent workers, and just four decades later, the number went down to 365 thousands. The output of coal over these years has however become 5.58 times as much. It simply underlines the fact that the role of contract labourers in the production of coal has become of paramount importance.

What do these labourers get in exchange of their risky and back-breaking work? In the large coal-producing region known as the Easstern Coalfield, covering the Asansol-Ranigaunj-Disergar-Pandaveswar regions, workers were made to work at Rs 80-100 per day till 2010 and were not generally given even identity cards. Established trade union leaders belonging to various power-hungry political parties usually looked after the interests of permanent workers and in many cases, worked as lackeys of the management. Sometimes they organized dharnas (sit-in demonstrations) and demonstrations for small wage increases, but never fought for their just rights.

In 2006, an organization named Adhikar (Right) Thika Sramik (Contract Labour) Union, led by two women social activists, namely Sudipta Pal and Sipra Chakravarty, took up the cause of contract labourers. When they began their work among those about whose plight they felt concerned, they noted with concern that despite the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, these labourers, employed by contractors, were made to do all the works of permanent and long-term nature. After they began a propaganda campaign, contract labourers gradually came to be aware of their legal rights, and came to know that they were not men of contractors, but workers of the Eastern Coalfields Limited. Naturally, these two women activists and their organization earned the ire of the management, contractors and the established political parties. After the change of government in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress is the most aggressive force, and it is backed by the police.

A brief outline of some of the struggles of Adhikar may be provided here. On 23.11.2009, contract labourers started a dharna under the banner of Adhikar, demanding identity cards, payments at office counters, introduction of the minimum wages as declared by the state government etc, the management gave a verbal assurance, but the demonstrators demanded a written one, which the management declined. Then the labourers began a hunger strike, after which the management held a discussion with the representative of the Adhikar and gave some assurances. The hunger strike was lifted, but the secretary of Adhikar and the agitating workers were surrounded and threatened by contractors, with the support of the management. The Central Industrial Security Force arrested eleven workers and the secretary of Adhikar, and handed them over to the police. They were released after intervention by the Asansol Civil Rights Association. During the course of the agitation, the contractor-management alliance got nakedly exposed. A few months later, the propaganda campaign led to the introduction of a minimum wage of Rs 149, the system of payment from official counters, identity cards, provident fund accounts and arrears of two years in ten mines of the Sodpur area—an area that comprises several coal mines. This was in 2010. The news of the success of the struggle spread to the labourers of other areas. From contract labourers from quite a few areas of the Eastern Coalfields Limited got in touch with Adhikar and learnt about their legal rights.

This was, however, only the beginning. Struggles did not stop, but continued. In February, 2012, continuous dharnas were organized for bonus, underground allowance, coalmines provident fund, medical benefits for workers' families etc. It was told on behalf of the Chairman that it was beyond his capacity to commit on these issues, but it soon came to be known that underground allowance was paid in some mines belonging to the BCCL (Bharat Coking Coal Limited), another subsidiary of Coal India. Then a dharna was organized in the face of strong opposition from the police and the management. The management, after six days of continued agitation, finally came to the discussion table and conceded the demand for underground allowance. During April-May, continued dharnas and hunger strikes were held, in protest against illegal dismissals of four security guards, who had participated in the movements led by Adhikar. The movement was victorious.

Furious at Adhikar's struggle against depriving contract labourers of equal pay for equal work, i.e. payment of wages at par with permanent workers for the jobs supposed to be done by the latter, the ECL authorities stepped up repression on Adhikar. Two incidents may be referred to. In April 2013, Sudipta Pal and eleven workers were arrested following a false complaint launched by the management of the Kenda area. TMC activists attacked the protest procession that followed, and a similar attack took place when Adhikar was holding a public meting in a coal mine situated in Kunustaria area. On 12 August, 2013, some workers started a strike after repeated appeals to the authorities for minimum wages, identity cards and right to sign attendance registers failed. A group of Trinamul Congress (TMC) activists, led by their local block president, swooped on them and brutally beat up Sudipta Pal and another worker. The police, following a FIR submitted by these TMC activists, implicated Pal and five workers in an Arms Case. The union did not surrender, but filed a FIR against the TMC block president and another chieftain. Adhikar also protested against this repression through posters and leaflets.

Then a convention was organized in defiance of threats from Trinamul Congress activists. Helped by some other unions and various civil liberties organizations, the convention was a grand success.

In September 2014, Adhikar arranged another convention, in which the violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work was emphasized A high-powered committee had prescribed the wage of contract labourers midway between the wages prescribed by the Central Government under Minimum Wages Act of 1948 for workers employed in non-coal mines and the wages payable to the lowest category of regular workers, category-1 of National Coal wage agreement. This was definitely against the interest of contract labourers and the principle of equal pay for equal work.

But even this prescription of the high-powered committee has not been implemented in many places. So, Adhikar organized a hunger strike in November 2014 in front of the BCL headquarters. It has elicited some response, but the struggle will continue until the contract labourers receive their due recognition and rights. What started as a modest and localized effort by two ladies for understanding and ameliorating the conditions of contract labourers in the Eastern Coalfield region has now grown into a large banyan tree providing shades to workers of many places. Adhikar has been successful in creating a new awareness and a fighting ability among these marginalized sections. This is going to last and survive all the storms that come in the way.

Vol. 47, No. 29, Jan 25 - 31, 2015