The Int Bhatta Majdoor Union yesterday signed an agreement with the brick kiln owners’ association Mehsana fixing the wage rate for the paatla workers at Rs. 565 per 1000 bricks. This is a hike of 12.5% over the last year’s rate of Rs. 500. Even this w …

Andrew

The Int Bhatta Majdoor Union yesterday signed an agreement with the brick kiln owners’ association Mehsana fixing the wage rate for the paatla workers at Rs. 565 per 1000 bricks. This is a hike of 12.5% over the last year’s rate of Rs. 500.

Even this was achieved through a long process of attrition. Those of you who have been following the post, will know that the strike in Mehsana began on February 1. It took three weeks before the owners were brought around to sign an agreement. Bilaspuri workers held out for one week and Marwari workers for two weeks before resuming work.

The Union has used the threat of withdrawal of workers from brick fields under the Bonded Labor Act to force employers to negotiate and reach a solution quickly. However this strategy works only in the initial part of the season when the workers have outstanding debt.

By the time, the strike call was given this year, the workers had outstanding dues over employers. The late strike call represented a misfiring of Union tactics that came about because of peculiarities of the season – late start and then excess supply of labor because of delayed season in North India (where the production is yet to start). In the absence of the threat of Bonded Labor Act, the Union took recourse to the Labor Department and implementation of Minimum Wage.

The statutory minimum wage for paatla workers is fixed at Rs. 214/ per day/ per 1100 bricks. So far the Union as well as the Labor Department had interpreted this to be a piece rate. Last year the Union filed a complaint with NHRC about the low fixing of minimum wage (at half the market wages and effectively working out to less than Rs. 70 per day for an eight hour day). In reply, the Secretary Labor Gujarat Govt. claimed that this was a per day rate.

The Union argued on behalf of this clarification for higher piece rates. It asked for overtime as paatla workers typically work for 16 hours a day. Mediation proceedings were launched under the ID Act and a sympathetic Assistant Labor Commissioner persuaded to undertake inspections of kilns in Mehsana. All this put pressure on the employers who ultimately agreed for a negotiated settlement.

The positives from the agreement are that this is only the second time that the Union has managed to sign agreement with employers. The first time was three years back and was more a hit and miss affair. So hopefully, this marks a recognition of the Union by the employers. Secondly the agreement holds for all workers whether they are from Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, or UP. The participation in the strike was also uniform this year. So again hopefully this trend will consolidate in the years to come.

The news from other clusters has been mixed. In Dholka Bavla clutser in District Ahmedabad, after sustained mobilization, workers from three brick kilns went on strike – again a mix of all three source states. This remains to be resolved even after 10 days.

In Adalaj, the largest cluster, there has not been any significant movement forward. The workers have not responded to the Union. Some meetings were held and some case work has resulted.

On service linkage work, there has been good progress. The work on this front is led by Prayas Centre for Labor Research and Action (PCLRA) because of tactical reasons. PCLRA has been putting pressure on the state departments of education, health, and ICDS to link the brick kiln workers with their services for the last three years. There are indications that at least in education, the department is becoming pro active in providing services. Schools have been opened in nearly 110 brick kilns of Gandhingar block enrolling 2800 children. The Gandhi Nagar collector organized two big health camps for workers.

Looking forward:

  1. In clusters, where wages remain low, like Kakosi, Union is preparing cases under the MW Act.
  2. Union is deliberating some overarching legal action on the wage front. One option suggested by our lawyer is a petition in the Industrial Court to fix wage rate for brick kiln workers.
  3. As season draws to a close, there are likely to be a large number of cases.

Sudhir Katiyar on behalf of Int Bhatta Majdoor Union


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