Update on the Gujarat Brick Kiln Workers’ Struggle – By Sudhir Katiyar This is an update on the brick kiln workers struggle for higher wages in Gujarat. The union has been working in the brick kilns of Central Gujarat and North Gujarat for last five ye …

Walton Pantland

Update on the Gujarat Brick Kiln Workers’ Struggle

– By Sudhir Katiyar

This is an update on the brick kiln workers struggle for higher wages in Gujarat. The union has been working in the brick kilns of Central Gujarat and North Gujarat for last five years.

The workers are divided by type of work they do and different source areas. Three years back, the union had called for a large scale strike seeking to bring together different categories of workers in different regions. The strike failed as the employers adopted a hard line stance and starved the workers into submission. Learning from this, the union changed strategy in last two years. It went for a cluster approach and shortened strike period using the threat of the Bonded Labour Act. Success in two clusters of Mehsana and Sanand – both led by militant Marwari workers – helped the union to regain ground. The wages in these clusters shot up from Rs. 330 in 2009 to Rs. 520 in 2012. To put this in perspective, this is significantly higher than wages elsewhere. It also bucks the trend of lower wages in Gujarat.

The brick kiln season this year was marked by instability. The All India Brick Kiln Owners Association gave a call for a lockout because of new environmental guidelines. This led to delay in start of production in large parts of North India. The lockout led to delay in start of production in major parts of Central Gujarat. The Prajapati owners started late while the Moslem owners stated in time. Delay also meant that labour was surplus as workers who would have normally gone to Uttar Pradesh instead came to Gujarat. There were also repeated rumours of kilns being shut.

The mobilization of workers was also delayed. The struggle in Mandal took away the time of key organizers. The mobilization process started in January and has centered around five clusters.

  • Adalaj in Gandhi Nagar: This is the largest cluster of more than 200 brick kilns. The area is dominated by workers from Chhattisgarh who have been cool towards the union from the beginning and especially since the failure of the strike three years back.
  • Chatiyada in Mehsana (40 brick kilns): This is the model cluster for the union. In three out of last four years, the union has been able to strike settlements.
  • Kakosi in Patan (30 brick kilns): This cluster has seen major struggle with mixed results. One year the union was successful. However two years back, the employers adopted a hard line stance. They separated from the Mehsan association and promulgated a lower wage rate in their area. The cluster is dominated by Uttar Pradesh workers.
  • Sanand (30 brick kilns): This is the cluster that has led wage declaration. Dominated by Marwari workers who led the struggle, the owners have replaced them with workers from Chhattisgarh.
  • Dholka/Bavla/ Chiyada ( 100 brick kilns): This is a mixed cluster with workers from all source regions. The ownership is also mixed. This cluster has not seen much mobilization except during the strike in 2009-10.

Strike in Chatiyada cluster in Mehsana

The workers collected on 25th January. Workers in one brick kiln had stopped work. It was decided to call for a larger meeting next week on 1st February. In the meantime, the owners were served with the demand notice. The prevalent wage rates hovers around Rs. 500 while the workers have demanded Rs. 700. On 1st February, nearly 200 workers from 15 brick kilns came together. It was decided to go on a strike till 4th January. If the owners do not settle, then the workers will plan to go back to their homes. On 2nd, the workers gathered again and took out a rally to the neighbouring kilns. There were reports that bharai and nikasi workers are beginning to join the strike. The paatla workers were asked not to allow bharai workers to lift their bricks till their demands are met. The jalai workers have submitted a memorandum separately asking for a settlement within three days.

Expanding the strike to other clusters

A series of public meetings have been called in other clusters – 4th in Sanand, 8th in Chiloda, 11th in Adalaj, and 15th in Kakosi. Depending on the response in these meetings, action will be initiated.

Focus on cases under Minimum Wages rather than Bonded Labour Act

For the last two years, the use of Bonded Labour Act has been the cornerstone of union strategy. However this year, the union also proposes to use the MW Act because of changed circumstances. In some clusters, the owners have not given any advance yet. While in some others, workers have already put in more than three months of work with the result that they have outstanding wages. This makes the use of Bonded Labour Act less attractive.

Cases under Bonded Labour Act

The union gets a steady stream of bonded labour cases during the season. This year it has already handled many cases under the Bonded Labour Act and got workers released.

Participation of other category of workers

While the union has made efforts from the very beginning to unite all categories of workers, it is only paatla workers who have responded to call for work stoppages. Other categories of work have been dominated by their contractors who have led negotiations. It is still too early to say if things will change this year. But in Chatiyada, there was participation in the meeting by other categories of workers also.

Denial of work to Marwari workers

Marwari workers have been traditionally militant and led the wage struggle. There has been a trend of replacing Marwari workers. While they dominated Chatiyada and Sanand clusters and had presence in Adalaj in paatla work, they have been replaced by workers from Chhattisgarh. In bharai and nikasi work, they had a monopoly. But even here they are being replaced by workers from Uttar Pradesh. The Union is responding to this situation by initiating mobilization amongst new groups of workers. In Chatiyada, for the first time workers from Chhattisgarh participated on an equal footing with Marwari workers.

– Sudhir Katiyar writes on behalf of Int Bhatta Majdoor Union, Gujarat

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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