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Modern-Day Slavery: Delhi Factory Workers Work 10 Hours Every Day To Earn Less Than Minimum Wage, Netas Remain Unfazed

A worker said, "Even if the netas do show up, they talk to the factory owners, not us."

Itne kam me to mushkil se hi gujara hota hai (It’s difficult to manage with so little),” said Vijay Kumar, a forty-six-year father-of-three who works in a steel factory as an operator. Vijay lives ten minutes away from where he works in Azadpur, New Delhi. Across the railway track, thousands of factory workers live in slums where the dwellings are unfit for human habitation for many reasons. Pick any — overcrowding, the noise of trains, lack of sanitation and drinking water, unhygienic living-conditions — you will find them all in this area.

Walking alongside the tracks, one see dumps of garbage with clouds of mosquitoes around them. This, of course, is responsible for children and adults in the area fighting one disease after the other. People also get injured — or even experience fatalities — because of the trains. “Ghaeebon ka to yahi haal hai (This is what the poor have to go through),” said thirty-two-year-old Sunita Devi, who has lived here for 16 years.

Vijay hails from the Begusarai district in Bihar. He came to Delhi in search of a better life, away from poverty, when he was just eighteen. Alas, things did not get better for him. He earns Rs 7,500 per month, after gruelling for eight hours, six days a week. It is much less than the minimum wage set up by the government to ensure fair wages for the working class. For an additional four hours of work per day, he sometimes manages to earn Rs 3,750 more. He told NewsCentral24x7, “We don’t have a good life, we live in pain rest of our lives and die in pain.” 

In the national capital, the minimum wage for an unskilled worker is 14,000, for the semi-skilled worker it is 15,400 and for skilled worker 16,962 for 8 hours of work. The government also classifies wages based on education. And national minimum wage under Narendra Modi government is Rs 9,772.4, while labour unions have been demanding Rs 26,000 per month for quite some time now.

Vijay said, “sarkaar malikon ki baat sunti hai (The government listens to the factory owners, not us).” He said that despite several hadtals and dharnas, little had changed, adding “Even if the netas do show up, they talk to the owners. Taking this to court doesn’t help either.”

According to a 2017 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on “Social, General and Economic Sectors of Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi”, almost 92 per cent of cases under the Minimum Wage Act, 1948 are still pending.

Surya Prakash, a lawyer and labour rights activist, and his team had surveyed the industrial areas of Delhi. He found that labour laws have been and continue to be blatantly violated and abused in broad daylight. He found in his study that none of the workers surveyed was paid the entire amount of minimum wage.

Fifty-six-old Vikrama Paswan of Rohtas, while getting ready to go for work in a steel factory, says that he doesn’t even know the name of his factory — most of the factories in Azadpur don’t have names of the establishments displayed. Makes it more difficult for anyone to pursue legal action. 

Vikrama doesn’t receive benefits like ESI or pension. “Our pay has been kept low at an unreasonably low rate for years now, it’s the time our wages must be raised to ensure that workers like can afford a house,” he said, adding, “Rent me hi 2000 chala jaata hai (Rent alone costs around 2000 bucks).”

He works a 9 PM  to 9 AM shift, for which he is paid Rs 12,000 per month. He said, “I have to look after my wife, three daughters and a son, who lives at home in Bihar. How can we manage all this with such a meagre salary? The government must ensure at least minimum wage to us.” He added, “Koi safety nahin hai. Kuch ho jaata hai seedha ghar bhej dete hain (There are no safety protocols in place. If something happens to us, they send us home).”

Unnamed factories in Azadpur.

As per the workers, most of the factories do not have the number exit as mandated in law. In cases of fire, workers find it difficult to evacuate. Recently, a massive fire broke out in the Bawana Industrial Area, in which at least 17 workers died.

Many workers in the area receive less than what they are entitled to; in fact, most of them don’t have Employees State Insurance card and EPFO enrolment. Female workers are paid even less.

Sita Devi, a mother of three, works in a steel factory. For eight hours of her work, she is paid less than Rs 5,000. She said, “It’s sad how little we get paid for the work we do. But what choice do we have?”

According to the ‘State of Working India’ report by the Aziz Premji University, 82 per cent of male and 92 per cent of female workers earn less than Rs 10,000 a month.

Mathur Paswan, a left-wing union activist, who has been fighting for labour rights for more than two decades, told NewsCentral24x7, “Ek bhi factory Azadpur me minimum wage nahin deti (Not a single factory in Azadpur pays minimum wage).” He said that the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has been targeting the labour laws from the beginning of its tenure.

Speaking to NewsCentral24x7, Surya Prakash said that if one looks at the state of affairs when it comes to the implementation of labour laws, the situation is awful. “The GNCT of Delhi has miserably failed in implementing these labour laws — this is mainly because of the overall neglect of the working class and limited powers of the democratically elected government of Delhi. The elected government can no create posts including those for the numerous vacancies in the Labour Department of Delhi.” He added that the number of inspectors in the labour department was inadequate for the proper functioning of the department.

A tiny CPI(ML) office in Azadpur.

Abhishek Kumar, the General Secretary of Delhi unit’s All India Central Council of Trade Union, said that the BJP government was shielding blatant crony capitalism by creating a social divide. He said that the approach of the Narendra Modi-led government was to promote “modern-day slavery”.

He further said, “I have never seen labour laws being destroyed at such a fast pace. Job security is being ended through reforms like fixed-term employment.” He added, “We have strongly opposed the decision to end 44 labour laws and to bring four labour codes in the last five years. Workers have to face more oppression and problems due to these changes”.

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