Chhattisgarh – Contract Workers of Holcim begin indefinite dharna

April 6, 2011


Press Statement by Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh

In cement industry, as in other industries, contract workers have few rights, and are, for the most part denied even the legally mandated minimum wages, provident fund privileges and basic safety equipment. Even though the Cement Wage Board Award, a tripartitie agreement between the Government, the Cement Manufacturer’s Association and the Central Trade Unions in force since 1978, has prohibited the use of contract labour in all cement manufacturing operations except loading and unloading of raw materials and packing, and even in those operations contract workers are expected to be paid at the same rate as regular workers; in actual practice, the use of contract workers in cement plants is rampant. In Chhattisgarh alone, it is estimated that there are 3232 permanent workers and 11,000 contract workers in cement plants.

Despite sordid working conditions, the contract labour in the ACC Jamul Cement Works, under the leadership of the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) founded by the legendary trade union leader of Chhattisgarh – Shankar Guha Niyogi, have been fighting a remarkably heroic battle for the last two decades against paper arrangements of contractorship, for their regularisation and implementation of this award. In 1989 after a 56 day strike and indefinite hunger strike by Shankar Guha Niyogi, the coal-gypsum loading unloading workmen started getting cement wage board rates. In July 1992, after 17 industrial workers including 3 from ACC Jamul lost their lives in the brutal police firing on a Rail Roko Satyagraha during the historic “Bhilai movement” when workers of dozens of factories joined together against the illegal contract system, the ACC management was forced to regularize about 120 casual workmen.

Finally, after the recommendations of the Inquiry Commission into the Police Firing , the State government referred the dispute of the workmen for regularisation to the State Industrial Court. Then started the vicious attack of the management to remove workmen from the reference list by illegal retrenchment, denying medical facilities and simply depriving them of work to force them to opt for the far from “voluntary” retirement. While other workmen who only got minimum wages were allowed to continue, the directly employed “casual workmen” had to face 10 months of “zero payment” forcing many of them to accept the so-called “Voluntary” Retirement Scheme (VRS). Even as the union struggled and succeeded, amidst endless adjournments, to obtain an interim order from the court not to change working conditions, the management managed to coerce about 300 workers who had been working for 2-3 decades in the cement production processes to resign. But many stuck stubbornly on. In the meantime the company silently changed hands and became a unit of Holcim. Finally on 28/2/2006 the Industrial Court reached, in its own words, “the inescapable conclusion” that the 573 workmen deserved to be regularized since their contractual employment was a mere paper arrangement and the contractors mere name lenders. Those who had been dismissed or coerced into leaving had to be reinstated by the company. The company was directed also to implement the Cement Wage Board.

Predictably, the company appealed the order in the High Court and requested a stay on the award. While granting the stay, the HighCourt directed the company to pay “full wages last drawn” to employees whose re-instatement was being stayed, during the pendency of this appeal. This is a welfare provision under Section 65(3) of the Chhattisgarh Industrial Relations Act analogous to Section 17B of the Industrial Disputes Act, which allows those workers who have already proved their case in one court of law to avail of subsistence wages while their employer appeals the reinstatement order, and this payment is unaffected by the final outcome of the case.

However, the company interpreted this “full wages last drawn” as the payment of 2 days, or 3 days, or 5 days of wages per month—which is
what the company was paying the workers towards the end of their tenure in the company, in order to coerce them to leave. Challenging the company’s interpretation of “full wages last drawn” as violating the spirit of the Act – for in no way can 2 or 3 days wages be called “subsistence wages”—and demanding a humane interpretation that it mean s a full month’s wages (i.e. 26 days wages) at the rate at which wages were last drawn per day, the Union filed a writ petition in the High Court. However, neither the Single Judge nor the Division Bench in the High Court have been able to offer any interpretation of this crucial phrase “full wages last drawn” till now. The appeal before the Supreme Court is still pending. This issue while underlining the vulnerability of workmen during prolonged litigation by companies, isalso significant since, if Section 65(3) had been properly implemented, each of the workmen would have worked off the so-called VRS amounts, since the company had prayed that these should be adjusted with the interim payments.

In the meanwhile, the High Court has again upheld on 21st March, 2011 the Industrial Court’s ruling that the contracts with the workers are “sham and bogus” and directed to company to regularize the contract workers, numbering well over a hundred, who are still working in the company. While the High Court’s order is disappointing in that it does not give any recognition to the rights of those coerced into accepting voluntary retirement, it is still significant in recognizing the unfair labour practices practiced by this hugely profitable multinational company, which engages in fraudulent behaviour with the most vulnerable of its employees and denies them their modest wages. Despite this clear indictment by the courts, the company is refusingto implement the High Court order and to regularize any one of the more than hundred eligible Union employees. In fact the Union had to send the copy of the Judgment by Registered Post since the company representatives refused to accept the copy from Union representatives. Therefore, the Union has launched an ongoing indefinite dharna in Bhilai seeking immediate implementation of the High Court order.

On 3rd April, after having served notices to the Collector, Durg; Assistant Labour Commisioner, Durg and the City Superintendent of Police, Chhaoni the workers are sitting on dharna in a pandal in front of Com Niyogi’s Statue in the Bhilai Industrial Estate. The pandal sees groups of workers coming in after respective shifts, their families and ‘mohalla’ members sitting in the day time, and volunteers from among the affected workmen sleeping there at nights. The ACC workers give slogans before going to work in each shift, and are holding gate meetings and distributing pamphlets at all the other 100 odd factories in their lunch hours asking for solidarity. They are asking just one question:- “Is Mr. Raman Singh’s government capable of forcing this financial giant multinational Holcim to show sensitivity to the 30 year long struggle of the contract workers, whose blood wages have amassed its profits, to implement the High Court order, and to abide by the Indian Labour Standards?”