IITK Migrant Workers Update: Labour Commissioner Visits the Campus

July 12, 2010

By Manali Chakrabarti. An account of the visit of the Labour Commissioner at the IIT Kanpur campus on May 7 2010. Previous accounts of migrant workers issues in IIT Kanpur here and here.

Background:

The whole thing started because of the initiative of our worker friends of the Environment Building. For some of us unfamiliar with the case, these are the same set of 27 workers who were thrown out of their jobs even when the Institute’s official committee found that their contractor was actually working in gross violation of labour laws. Incidentally the contractor was awarded several crores worth of new contracts (Rs 25 crores till May 2009). These workers are all working outside the campus now and have taken up the issue of labour laws violations in the Institute almost as a crusade. They filed a complaint against the Institute with the Regional Labour Commissioner’s office (Central) in October 2009. After two rounds of hearing in which the Institute’s representatives actually gave a written undertaking that “there is no violation of any provision of any Labour Law” in IIT Kanpur, the Labour Commissioner (he is the labour commissioner for the entire states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand) could be persuaded to visit the campus. The date decided was May 7, 2010.

Initial Programme:

The initial programme for the Labour Commissioner was the following:

Site visits to various kinds of contracts with contingent labour force in the campus. He was to inspect the various mandatory records, documents and registers to be maintained by the contractor and the principal employer. And also the various amenities like toilets, canteen, crèche, etc. (obviously none of these were there – there is not even a single toilet for the 2000 odd contract workers – including women – working for the Institute) provided by law.

The Employees’ union (Karamchari Sangathan) also wanted to meet the labour commissioner and depose on the issue.

The Institute had claimed that they have ensured all the legal requirements for the contract workers through the efficient functioning of the Minimum Wages Monitoring Committee. It was decided that the labour commissioner was to meet the first two chairpersons of the committee (who accounted for 6 and a half years of the total 8 and a half years of the committee’s existence) to get their view.

Finally it was decided that he would meet workers attending the Hamara Manch meetings so that he gets to know about work and working conditions directly from the contract workers.

Since the Institute representative had already given a written undertaking that “there is no violation of any provision of any Labour Law” in IIT Kanpur, the commissioner had decided not to meet any Institute official in this regard.

What Actually Happened

The labour commissioner Mr Chaubey arrived at around 12 noon and was accompanied by Mr Bidua, the legal enforcement officer (IIT comes under his jurisdiction) and Mr Sharma for taking notes and minutes. The complainants’ lawyer, and workers’ representative who had filed the complaint, were supposed to be present for the entire visit.

But then instead of the pre-decided programme, Mr Bidua managed to take the entourage straight to Mr. C. P. Singh’s office (C. P. Singh is Assistant Registrar, Legal, IITK). And as is the ‘usual’ practice, the worker was left outside.

C. P. Singh’s Office – 12 noon

Shri C. P. Singh had led the team that deposed on behalf of the Institute in this case. He had made elaborate arrangement for tea, and other functionaries of the Institute were also present (including the head of the Institute Works Department and other Engineers from the Department). After tea there they were escorted to the Director’s office where the complainant’s lawyer was asked to wait outside. The Director apparently reiterated that everything is in order in this reputed Institute and that the Labour Commissioner could inspect anything and everything with full cooperation from and the Institute officials. After the Director’s meeting, Mr. C. P. Singh was very keen to break for lunch, but the labour commissioner insisted that he wanted to visit the sites first.

Meanwhile our worker friend left standing outside witnessed a flurry of activities. Apparently there were several mobile phone conversations asking all work to be suspended at various sites. A couple of IWD engineers left on their scooters to the sites to ensure that all workers were removed before the visit. Much of the official protocol with the labour commissioner was probably merely delaying tactics to give enough time for mop-up operations.

Site Visit: In front of the Swimming Pool – 1pm

When the entourage arrived (besides the labour commissioner and his men and the complainants, almost all the senior functionaries of the IWD and Mr. C. P. Singh were there) there were no workers in sight. The person in charge (manager of the contractor) informed that the men had broken for lunch. He claimed that there were only 34 ‘unskilled’ men on the site. The registers were in perfect order – all with daily attendance and signatures – though it claimed that the work had only started on the 1st of May.

The Env bldg. (EB) worker friends (they are all skilled masons) had better assessment of the kind of work and were convinced that it should employ significantly more man days to have reached this stage. The contractor’s men and the Institute officials kept insisting that the records were correct. They claimed that since work was being done by heavy machinery it did not need many workers. This was surprising as the site claimed to employ (register record) only unskilled workers and they obviously cannot operate heavy complicated machinery. It was further observed by the (EB) workers that there were at least 50 cycles while only 34 workers worked at the site!

Then the Labour commissioner asked the workers to be brought in for questioning. When the contractor’s men went out to get them, one of the Institute engineers followed and said “Arre yaar, helmet welmet laga ke bhejo, tareeke se, aise hi chale aawe, aur safety belt welt sab hai na?”

The workers came and every one of them claimed that they were being paid the due wages @ Rs 224 per day. One worker even came and said that he was getting Rs 7500/- per month! This was particularly interesting since, though the rates have been revised by the government in April (payable in May) – the new rates have not even been implemented yet; at the earliest, the first payment according to the new rates would be done when the salaries are disbursed in June.

The commissioner asked for the work to be started as it was already past 2 pm. The Institute’s men and the contractor’s men said that it was usual for workers to take extended lunch, and anyway the machines need to be started. So the Commissioner asked the machines to be started. But by this time he was almost getting ‘convinced’ that things were more or less in order in the Institute.

While the workers were still deposing, EB worker friends and their lawyer decided to walk around the site. And there they came across an incredible sight. Around 60 workers were hiding behind dense babool bushes at the periphery of the site. They looked extremely scared and would not budge from their supine position in spite of cajoling and intermittent threats by the EB workers. The labour commissioner was called over and then the workers finally were persuaded to talk. Haltingly they told that they were from Chattisgarh, and stay at Chapera Pulia and were paid at the rate of Rs 160 per day (even this was an exaggeration according to reliable sources). There were several women, adolescents and children. They were told to hide because of the Labour Commissioner’s visit. They also said that many more workers worked on a usual day. All this happened in front of several top level Institute officials – and at least some notes were taken by the clerk of the labour commissioner’s office. Mr Bidua, the labour enforcement officer, tried to interject on behalf of the Institute but was silenced by the labour commissioner. (It needs to be mentioned here, that in the Investigation Report submitted by the investigating team sent by the Labour Commissioner’s office in response to the complaint filed by the EB workers, it was categorically stated that there were no inter-state migrant workers in the campus. This is significant as there are even more stringent laws for migrant workers given the vulnerability of their situation. Mr Bidua was part of the investigation team.)

Site Visit Hall 10: 2.30pm

Hall 10 construction has been going on for several months and a portion of it already houses some students. On a usual day around 150-200 workers work at the site. On the way to Hall 10 the entourage somehow took an unconventional route and was witness to several trolleys full of workers fleeing the site. Our EB worker friend tried to stop them but the trolley actually speeded up. When the security guard nearby was asked as to where these workers were going, he said rather ingeniously that they ‘did not work in the campus but were merely passing through’. The guard at the site was more forthcoming and he informed that the site supervisor had asked for the workers to be driven out of the campus immediately “unhone workeron ko bhagane ko kaha tha’. When the EB worker friends and the lawyer asked for them to be called back, the labour commissioner said that ‘there was no need and he has already noted that around 200-250 workers have taken off in the tractors’. It may be noted here that these are trolleys attached to a regular tractor usually used to transport grain, other produce, hay or cattle. The workers are packed in them like sardines: women, men, and children.

There was in a way a repeat of the bush scene from the earlier site. These bushes seem to grow unusual fruit in the Institute – migrant workers from Chattisgarh. None of them were paid their due wages and of course none of the amenities were present. This site was emotionally significant for our EB worker friends because the contractor was their erstwhile employer – M/s Gupta Enterprises.

By this time the Institute officials had gone completely quiet. Mr Bidua, the labour enforcement officer, tried to salvage the situation by some glib talking. It turned out that he knew the contractor and his men rather intimately and kept addressing them by their names. He also knew the Asst. Registrar Legal well as it came out that they were roommates during their stint in the army. It sure does seem to be a very small world. The Asst. Registrar Legal again tried to coax the Labour Commissioner to an Institute sponsored lunch but he refused. At this he left.

Around this time the Labour Commissioner suddenly started feeling very tired and was not keen for any further site visits. He kept saying that he cannot move around any further in the sun. And the whole entourage then proceeded to meet the two former chairpersons of the Minimum Wages Monitoring Committee.

Meeting with MWMC ex-Chairpersons

At this meeting, the people present included Prof. Shobha Madan (chairperson MWMC Dec 2000 to 2003) and Prof. Harish Karnick (2004 to 2007), several office bearers of the Karmchari Sangathan (the employees’ union of the Institute), Rahul Varman and the Labour Commissioner, Law Enforcement Officer, the other functionary from his office, complainant’s representative and their lawyer. The chairpersons tried to present their case including the genesis of the MWMC office, its function, volunteer participation, absolute indifference to gross neglect by the Institute administration – all these with supporting documents. But the commissioner neither had the patience to listen carefully nor seemed to have any inclination to understand the complexities involved. The ‘friendly’ Labour Law enforcement officer was even more ridiculous in his behaviour – he kept laughing throughout the meeting as if an elaborate comedy show had been put up for him and the rest of the time he was on his mobile. Every once in a while he would prod his neighbour and complain that he was very hungry. At the end of it the Labour Commissioner could at least appreciate the absolute farcical nature of the current minimum wages monitoring committee and said ‘so it seems to be completely ornamental’. The meeting ended with a round of shaking hands all round. Though Rahul told the labour enforcement officer in front of everybody that it was ‘utterly shameful’ that such a situation existed in spite of his ‘regular’ visits to the campus, the officer remained unfazed.

The labour commissioner and his friends decided they were too tired to come to the workers’ meeting and left immediately after this meeting.

Hamara Manch Meeting with Workers at 5 pm

Around 75 workers had assembled for the meeting with the labour commissioner. They were duly informed that he was not going to come. But instead of being hugely disappointed, what ensued was a very fruitful discussion on the role of such legal enforcement machinery, what ought to be the expectations from them, how one can organize to make them more accountable. After all it was our organized effort which forced the labour commissioner to make a personal visit to the campus and also make some fruitful inspection however limited it may have been.

Several other aspects of the Labour Commissioner’s visit also came out during the discussion:

Several worker friends of the Environment building had assembled at 11 in the morning and went around the campus to determine where all construction was being done in the campus. They forwent their daily wages for this visit. They found that all the minor work had been suspended for the day and only three major sites had some activity going on – though at a much lower level than expected.

They saw several trolleys full of workers being taken out of the campus.

They saw and heard a couple of the IWD engineers going from site to site on scooter to stop the work and evacuate the workers.

Most of the civil, electrical and other maintenance workers were given off at lunch time because of the visit. When they asked about wages they were told that they would be paid full wages but should leave the campus immediately. Some of these workers were present in the meeting. In Halls too the contract workers were asked to leave at lunch time.

Thus ended the momentous visit of the labour commissioner.

(Based on eye-witness accounts of several workers and others present at various points during the visit; the names are being withheld for obvious reasons)

1 Comment »

One Response to “IITK Migrant Workers Update: Labour Commissioner Visits the Campus”

  1. Sudha Bharadwaj Says:
    September 1st, 2010 at 03:59

    I was once a student at IITK (5 year Maths 1979-84) and was involved with the mess workers organisation then. This very honest and graphic report shows tht nothing has changed at IITK! But those experiences inspired me to join a trade union in Chhattisgarh. Even today i work as a trade unionist and human rights lawyer at Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.
    The students and faculty of IITK who are supporting the struggle of the contract workers/ migrant labourers /construction workers should not be disheartened. The stark reality is that an elite Americanized high-tech institution can and does co-exist with semi-bonded and grossly illegal conditions of labour, and all the science that is taught there does not help the rest of the IITK community to even see this, let alone change it. And of course saving the image of IITK is more important to the system than giving even the legal dues to those who perform back breaking labour to keep it going.
    Even if it proves too difficult for us to win the demands of the workers, we can hope that we may be somewhat transformed by those efforts….All the best.
    sudha bharadwaj
    advocatesudhabharadwaj@gmail.com

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