By Sudhir Katiyar Gayatri, a brick kiln worker who was beaten up, addressing the meeting Dundigal cluster in Ranga Reddy district had seen an intensive workers’ struggle last year. In the brick kilns, the strategy we have used is to demand a hike in wa …

Andrew

By Sudhir Katiyar

Gayatri, a brick kiln worker who was beaten up, addressing the meeting

Dundigal cluster in Ranga Reddy district had seen an intensive workers’ struggle last year. In the brick kilns, the strategy we have used is to demand a hike in wages under the threat of using the Bonded Labour Act to send the workers back to their homes.

The second part of the strategy was not operationalised last year as it was felt that this would further inflame the situation and the organizing team is not strong enough. So last year, attempts remained focused on the enforcement of minimum wages. This led to downscaling of minimum wage from Rs. 367 to Rs. 252 as owners raised a technical issue in the notification. However, finally even this much amount was not paid.

Union formation

A series of meetings was held in the intervening period at both destination areas in Hyderabad and at source area in Bolangir district to take the forward the struggle. A key process initiated was the formation of a union. The process was initiated at both source and destination areas. Applications have been submitted in Bolangir Odisha and Ranga Reddy district, AP for registration of a union.

Finalizing strategy for the season

A key stage in the mobilization process is holding a public meeting. This meeting was scheduled for 25th February. Normally the workers go on strike immediately after public meeting. As discussions began on the strategy for the season amongst the Solidarity Committee, the local supporters said that the strike call should not be given. This is because the union is not registered yet and the mandatory notice under the ID Act has not been given.

Prayas team then suggested the use of the Bonded Labour Act to put pressure on the employers. It is clear that the workers fall under the bonded labour category. If the owners do not accede to the demands for hike in wages, then they could be slapped with notices under the Bonded Labour Act. The Act allows workers to stop working and to go back home irrespective of the amount of bonded debt they may have incurred.

A meeting was held at the IFTU office on the 24th February to finalize strategy for the public meeting where there was reluctant acceptance around this. It was decided to distribute a general application for release under the Bonded Labour Act. Whoever wanted to could sign it.

Involvement of Students and Faculty of Central University

A new development this season has been the involvement of students and faculty from Central University Hyderabad (and some other institutions also) in the mobilization process. This group has accompanied the Prayas team in the field and participated in the organizational processes.

The public meeting on 25th February

This was the big event for the season. The meeting was to be held on Monday, a working day. This was significant as it meant that the workers will have to stop working that day. Permission for the meeting was taken beforehand. The owners complained to the local police. There were also some threats given to Krishna, who is the field coordinator.

Participants at the meeting

Eventually the meeting turned out to be fairly well attended. Almost 500 workers from different bhattis participated in the meeting that lasted for almost six hours. Solidarity committee members from the city also participated in the meeting. As decided, the applications for release under the Bonded Labour Act were distributed in large numbers.

During the meeting itself, two extreme cases of atrocity on workers were received. In both the cases, workers had been beaten up by the employer. The two most frequent complaints received were (i) workers being forced by the owners to work long hours and (ii) the weekly food expenses insufficient to buy food for the family. In addition there were complaints of violence or the threat of violence.

The meeting took place in a charged atmosphere. A group of employers stood on the side observing proceedings. A big labour contractor from Odisha tried to gatecrash the meeting and had to be removed. The issue of taking out a rally was hotly debated amongst the core group. However it was decided not to take out the rally as this might provide the police with an excuse to disrupt the proceedings.

One of the cases received under the Bonded Labor Act was referred to the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) on the day of the meeting itself. The complainants comprised of three families who said that they were beaten up by the owner when they asked for more food expenses. The group stayed at the MRO office itself. The next day, the case was taken up by the MRO and the Labor Department officials.

Filing Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

Efforts are being made to file a PIL to bring pressure upon the Government and the employers to ensure enforcement of minimum wages and improvement in work conditions. There is sufficient ground for the same. There have been rescues under the Bonded Labour Act every year during the last decade. Then there is the experience of last year when the minimum wages were not paid. The PIL provides a chance of rapidly up scaling the Dundigal initiative to the whole state. The rapid up scaling is also essential as it is not possible to hike wages in a small cluster of an industry.

The strange case of Mohan Sunani and bali (human sacrifice) in inta bhattis

During the meeting on 25th February, one extreme case of atrocity was received from the inta bhatti of Raghma Reddy. The workers complained of frequent violence by the brother-in-law of the owner. One worker had received a serious injury on his forehead.

The workers were one of the first to sign the Bonded Labour Release application form. They also complained that the mukaddam has been threatening them by saying that two balis need to be given.  Just as the meeting ended, workers from the bhatti called saying that a worker is being badly beaten up by the owner. A team immediately rushed to the bhatti and found a worker, Mohan Sunani, lying at the feet of the owner’s brother-in-law. He had broken a stick beating him up.

Mohan was immediately rushed to a hospital. He said that he was beaten up as he had been absent from the bhatti for a couple of days. Soon the owner also arrived. Mohan, who was admitted in the ward, refused to be x-rayed. It is difficult to say what prompted him – the sight of the owner or something else. However he left the bed and refused to be treated.

By this time, there was a large group comprising of Prayas workers and university students who tried to convince him to come with them and file a complaint with the police. However the mention of police completely unnerved him. He refused to enter the Prayas vehicle. After three hours of persuasion, Mohan was left with the owners.

A signed undertaking was taken from them. Next day, the workers from the bhatti called up the Prayas and union team. A couple of them came to the office in Secunderabad with an application saying that they feared for their lives.

The union team first ascertained if the workers are willing for a compromise with the owner. It then called up the owner and set up a meeting. Next morning there were negotiations with the owner who agreed to pay the minimum wage rate of Rs. 367 and agreed to most of the conditions.

The union team then paid a visit to the bhatti and held a meeting with the workers. It emerged that Mohan was not there at the bhatti. Conflicting reports emerged as to what had happened. The owner said that he had run away. The workers were agitated and demanded that he should be produced.


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