A Window into Coal Workers in India – Part II

June 5, 2018

This article is a continuation of the history of the coal industry in India by Sudipta Pal. The article has been translated by Kuver Sinha.

Part 1, which is the history prior to the 1980’s can be found here

 

Privatization of the Coal Industry in the New Economy

 

In the 1980’s, underground coal mines started closing one after the other, while open mines that used machines instead of workers to extract the coal gained in prominence. In the same decade, several new technological advances were introduced: machines like dozers, dumpers, etc. that could cut through hard ground were brought in. These machines made it possible to uproot and remove thousands of acres of earth and stones and then cut out the coal that lay underneath. On the one hand, the earth and stones accumulate in huge, mountain-like heaps, and on the other the coal pit gets ever so deeper. Open pit or open cast mining destroys everything that lies on the surface.

Before the advent of surface mining and the relevant technology, extractive mining from deep underground mines used to be profitable. It was the unplanned and unscientific extraction methods perpetuated by the corrupt colliery administration that ultimately made this type of extraction too expensive and unprofitable. There now exist completely mechanized ways to extract coal from depths of over 300 feet. One average ECL colliery worker-day amounts to 0.49 tonnes of coal; an average worker-day in an open cast mine equals 10.56 tonnes of coal. Moreover, open cast mining gives faster returns on investment, while the turnaround time for deep underground mining is much longer and the profits much lower.

This is why most private owners are keen on investing in open cast mines which employ contingent workers. After 1985, and especially after the liberalization of 1991, private owners lined up to open mines and contract workers started replacing permanent workers.

Contract workers have been involved in the coal industry almost from the first day of nationalization. Strong workers movements in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s resulted in some of them becoming permanent. The ones who were left behind were soon joined by many more contingent workers entering the industry. While initially employed only seasonally, these contingent workers gradually started doing all the jobs associated with coal production from the 1990’s onwards, including work that was done by permanent workers.

Coal India started illegally employing contract workers in their open cast coal production process by outsourcing. According to the Indian government’s notification, activities like coal cutting, overburden removal, and stone cutting were illegal when outsourced to contract workers. This rule was rampantly flouted, until by the mid 1980’s, almost in complete silence, outsourcing became the norm in Jharkhand (Central Coalfield Limitied or CCL), Chhattisgarh (Southeastern Coalfield Limited) and Orissa (Mahanadi Coalfield Limited or MCL).

Production by contract workers increased steadily. In West Bengal, outsourcing was staved off in ECL in the face of stiff opposition by CITU and HMS. But in 2002, CITU finally gave in to the pressure from the management. Contract workers started being hired in small coalfields, under the pretext of coming out of BIFR. Haradhan Ray, a CITU leader in the mining regions, kept fighting against this trend until he was finally ousted from CITU.

From 2004 to 2012, the fraction of coal production by contract workers in Coal India rose from 40% to 60%. Correspondingly from 1970’s onwards, the fraction of permanent workers declined in the following way, exemplified by two typical years:

Year                      Perm Workers in Coal India
1973-1974                700,000
2012-2013               356,000

Moreover, production rose in the following way for the same years

Year                      Total Production (millions of tonnes)
1973-1974                81
2012-2013               452

Meanwhile, from 1993 onwards, the coal industry was gifted to private hands by introducing amendments to the Coal Mines Nationalization Act, 1973. In 2014, the Modi government passed the Coal Mines Special Provision Ordinance Bill, 2014, and thus completed the process of privatization. The ruling party in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress, agreed to support the passage of this Bill. Coal blocks across the entire country were handed over to private companies at throwaway prices.

In West Bengal, the Goenkas started India’s first completely private coal mine – the Sarshatali Coal Mine Project. Back in 1993, Tara Colliery was started in Churulia in the Asansol region. Private entities owned 76% of Tara Colliery. In the first phase, EMTA was responsible for production in these two collieries. This responsibility later shifted to a different private agency. These collieries employ 100% contract labour. Most workers come from outside. In the case of accidents, dead bodies are disposed off with coal or stones to avoid compensation.

Between January 6-10, 2015, the central trade unions called for a coal workers strike. All smaller unions and workers organizations supported this strike. Contract workers across India joined the strike as well. On the second day, when the threat of widespread power outages had just started to materialize, the central unions pulled the strike!

The Condition of Contract Workers

ECL has under it around 74 underground mines and 21 open cast mines. Every colliery has one or more big contractors. Most contract workers are the descendents of permanent workers, and also locals who have lost hope in agriculture. The contract workers do not get steady work, but they turn up day after day at the colliery to make ends meet. Crowds of workers come in the morning in the hope for work; some get work at the whims of the contractor, others go back home. The contract workers did not get the minimum wage declared by the government and they didn’t even know that the Labour Department of the central government sets these wages twice a year. In 2006-2007, their daily wages amounted to Rs. 60-80 and since the number of people seeking work is large, some agree to work for even less.

Work would be assigned in the home of the contractor. Workers would wait for hours outside the home, in the hope of receiving wages. Sometimes they would be told to come back the next day. Wages were not given in time, and there was rampant maltreatment. Workers were not employed for too many days at one stretch in the apprehension that they would raise the demand for permanence.

There were many people who had been contract workers for 30-40 years. In fact, there were 2200 contract workers at ECL who had been working since 1992. They knew every kind of work associated with the colliery, and yet did not receive the dignity of becoming permanent.

Many underground mines employ only contract workers. Permanent workers do not want to work in the most hazardous places in the mines, where temperatures can soar or poisonous gases can leak out. Contract workers are sent in. They can be brought into the colliery at any time on an emergency basis – sometimes in the middle of the night – and they can be made to work straight through two or even three shifts. Contract workers saved the New Kenda Colliery from a fire by working underground for two straight days. But the management doesn’t care to even know how many of them are there.

The workers do not have a Form-B register, where their name, address, photo, workplace, and work description are supposed to be listed according to the Mines Act. Since they do not have any identification papers, it is never clear just how many workers are in the Raniganj Colliery region. The ECL authorities could not provide this information when it was demanded by an RTI application. Even the Regional Labour Commission stated that they didn’t have these statistics, when asked. No central trade union brought forward the demands of the contract workers.

Movement of the Contract Workers

In 2006, the contract workers of ECL started organizing under the banner of “Adhikar”, a group registered under the West Bengal Government’s Society Registration Act. The ECL administration completely ignored the contract workers, and the lower echelons of the established trade unions did not even recognize them as ECL workers. There was a prevailing culture of thinking of them as workers of the contractor, not ECL.

Before Adhikar started working in Raniganj, contract workers had never brought their demands to the colliery management. Now, they have attained a measure of dignity. In areas of ECL where Adhikar is active, workers have won some basic rights – for example, the contractor now comes to the workplace to distribute work, Form-B has been registered for most workers, they have obtained employment cards, and they now recieve between Rs. 233 (the minimum wage) to Rs. 272, deposited in the bank.

Workers in some collieries are receiving Rs. 592 per day, instead of Rs 486, in accordance with the recommendation of the High Power Committee. Most workers, however, are not receiving more than Rs. 300-350. When workers raise the demand for fair wages, the contractor stops work. Even if higher wages are implemented as a result of agitation, the contractor simply stops work so that workers are forced to work for lower wages.

Permanent workers have remained silent supporters of the movement of the contract workers, but have not actively participated in it. After Adhikar started their movement, the parliamentary political parties all floated new unions for contract workers. But they often forced their workers to come to a compromise with the contractors.

At the Mahanadi Coalfield in Orissa, the contract workers have disregarded the established trade unions and are conducting their own struggle. Gradually, the demand of “equal work equal pay” is being heard. In the last 5-6 years, the strikes of contract workers have made a dent in the production of coal. For example, continuous strikes at the Mahanadi Coalfields resulted in substantial loss in 2012-2013. Apprehensive of the growing organization of contract workers, Coal India came to an understanding with the five central unions.

Anti-workers Agreement

In 2010, representatives from Coal India met with representatives of the five central trade unions and created a High Power Committee. Following the directives of this Committee, in 2013 Coal India created a wage structure for the contract workers that is in accordance with the NCWA (National Coal Wage Agreement). Every single work that the contract workers will be paid for comes under the category of permanent work and it is in fact illegal to employ contract workers for such work.

Coal India Limited came to an agreement with the five unions by which all permanent work will be performed by contract labour. In return, they increased the wages of the contract workers significantly at one go. As mentioned previously, it is illegal to employ contract labour in several of these jobs. Contract and permanent workers should receive the same wages, if one follows the principle of “equal pay for equal work” guaranteed in Article 39 (d) of the Indian Constitution, or the numerous rulings on Section 21 of the Contract Labour Regulation and Abolition Act, 1970. It is therefore illegal on the part of Coal India to pay them less.

The difference in wages (per day) is as follows:

                                  Lowest wage                    Highest wage
Permanent             Rs. 675.61                             Rs. 1228.31
Contract                  Rs. 486                                  Rs. 591

The wages for permanent workers include basic and DA; including other benefits would make it higher.

The anti-workers decision of Coal India will result in hundreds of thousands of contract labourers losing their right to “equal pay for equal work” and the right to become permanent. On the other hand, by employing contract labour in permanent jobs at low pay, the need for permanent workers is being chipped away. Permanent workers being forced to take voluntary retirement.

During conversations with contract workers, it becomes evident that the entire concept of equal pay or becoming permanent is a fairytale to them. A pall of gloom still hangs over coal mines. Children of workers still don’t learn to read. The teachers in the school look at the lower caste Bauris and Adivasis with hatred. They say, “What’s the use of your getting an education?” They are neglected at school. Health conditions are appalling in the colliery regions. Living conditions are hellish, mixed with coal and beside sewers. Coal dust is in the air even as children are vaccinated. Coal apparently has enabled human civilization to advance…

Conclusion

The account of permanent and contract workers described here cannot end without mentioning the many others in the coal regions whose lives revolve around coal stolen from legal and illegal mines – a racket that takes many lives, almost daily. People displaced from their land or livelihood by the mines, who cannot get any kind of job there – permanent or contract – become pawns in the hands of the coal mafia. This is another long story.

The old workers villages that cropped up near open cast mines are now ready to be displaced by the insatiable hunger of the mine itself. Government owners, private owners, goons and leaders all tell the workers to move on from their homes – they need these lands to mine more coal. This coal – who does it benefit? How essential is it for civilization and for people – these are the questions being raised today by the workers who have lost their rights, their land and their livelihoods in regions with coal mines.

1 Comment »

One Response to “A Window into Coal Workers in India – Part II”

  1. K SHESHU BABU Says:
    June 11th, 2018 at 12:54

    Informative article on the plight of coal mine workers and the exploitation by private coal mafia on contractual labourers. They are not only being under-paid but their services are being terminated suddenly making them unsettled due to abrupt loss of income. Successive rulers have failed to regulate and monitor illegal and widespread private mining corporations making huge profits from labourers hard work

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