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How Chhatisgarh’s Contract Workers Overcame the Odds

Sudha Bharadwaj 08 Feb 2016


 
A deep commitment to collective rights from the local union, international solidarity and grit ensured that the contract workers of Chhattisgarh inked a remarkable settlement, this January


January 22, 2016 marks a watershed in a 25 year long struggle for contract workers in the ACC Jamul Cement Works (now Lafarge Holcim plant),Chhattisgarh when their union the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) signed a settlement that is exceptional, on many counts.

For the past quarter of a century, the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS), a union affiliated to the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee), has been fighting a long battle on the streets and within the courts. The protests and legal action(s) have been against the hard conditions of work for the contract workers in the cement plant of ACC Jamul that violate both fundamental rights and the law. The ACC Jamul plant has kept its contract workers in dismal conditions in violation of the industry-wide Cement Wage Board Agreement.

In 2006 the Union won an order for the regularisation of hundreds of contract workers, which was partially upheld by the High Court in 2011, limiting the relief to approximately 120 workers who were still in service. Even this High Court Order could not be implemented. The reasons:an intransigent management that refused to even recognise, far from negotiate with the PCSS, and which grew even more powerful as it was incorporated into Holcim andthen LafargeHolcim, a multinational; a callous and toothless labour department; and a hostile, pro-corporate right wing state government.

Strikes and dharnas followed until the matter was dragged back into court. This dispute lay pending before a Division Bench of the High Court of Chhattisgarh.

In the year 2012, two things happened. First, the PCSS got support from the Global Federation IndustriALL and solidarity from Solifonds and Unia—international global solidarity organistaions for workers working in multinationals. The solidarity organisations filed a complaint against Holcim before the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD in Berne, Switzerland,pointing out that Holcim was disobeying the guidelines for multinationals by violating Indian labour standards and court orders, by refusing collective bargaining in good faith, and by violating the rights of the surrounding farming communities.

Second, and simulataneously, Holcim began constructing a huge, highly mechanised, state-of-the-art new expansion plant in Jamul, aimed for several times more capacity. It fondly imagined that after closing down the old plant and getting rid of its 1200 odd workers (and of course their Union too!) it would run this plant with some 90 highly trained workmen from outside. Right from the inception of this plant, PCSS began agitating for local employment and intervened several times for the rights of the thousands of construction labour engaged there.

After many delays and much procrastination, discussions actually began between the top management of Lafarge Holcim and the PCSS, following directions of the Swiss NCP, first in Berne and then, from 2014 onwards, in India. The negotoations threw up a difficult choice for the Union –(to push for )the benefits of regularisation and arrears to a small group of workers as directed by the High Court versus (negotiating for) minimising the retrenchment that was being proposed.

At this point the workers who were among the beneficiaries of the High Court order, showed a remarkable collective union spirit in giving up those benefits to push for maximum deployment of existing workers in the new and old plants with better working conditions; and the maximum compensation package with alternative livelihood support to those who were to lose jobs.
  • Despite some discouraging rounds and many heated discussions, the PCSS team, led by its chief negotiator Ashim Roy of the NTUI, and the management, led by Behram Shirdewala, Chief People Officer, were able to persist and finally arrive at a settlement. This was despite the opposition of the local political class and vested interests, especially the 22 contractors and their 60 supervisors who were also to be rendered irrelevant in the whole process.

    The settlement (the copy of the settlement can be read) provides the following:
  • Of the 932 contract workers, 536 of them would be deployed in the new and old plants – 212 of them at Cement Wage Board rates (about 4 times the minimum wage), 196 at 50% of the Cement Wage Board rates (twice the minimum wage) to be enhanced to full wage board rates in 2 years; and the remaining at 25% above minimum wages - to be enhanced to 30% above minimum wages after a year. (These workers were selected through a skill assessment process by the management which the union tried to keep as fair and transparent as possible.)
  • The remaining surplus workers have been awarded 3 months of wage for every year they worked as compensation (in addition to their gratuity and other legal dues), thus getting packages ranging from over 20,000 for a worker who has worked for a year right up to around 4.5 lakh rupees for older workers.
  • About 200 of these workers have put in less than 5 years, and another around 75 workers are over 55 years of age. Each such unmapped worker would be entitled to nominate one person from his family to get industrial training from the company’s training centre and support in placement.
 
For contract workers this marks an unprecedented breakthrough.

Neither the Union nor the workers can be happy about losing jobs. Particularly when it means venturing out of the protective umbrella of the Union into the ‘market’ where dignified employment is a far cry for the average working class Indian given the den of labour law violations that our industrial areas have become.
 
But, the painful and protracted consultations confirmed that the alternative of legal retrenchment with just one month’s pay –that too after further, endless legal battles –was probably the more painful choice.
 
The larger political issue of whether such labour – displacing technology is really needed, or should be our priority, needs to be fought for by the larger working class movement of which this union is only a tiny and not very powerful part.

For PCSS, this is the beginning of another round of struggle. To organise contract workers in other units of the cement industry and in other industrial areas; to give these workers a place to come to for solidarity when faced with multiple hardships– slum evictions, agrarian crises, atrocities against women or communal and targeted violence -- and to develop a centre for a broader political education. Most of all to establish a co-operative society to save workers from the tentacles of money-lenders, these are the formidable tasks ahead. A detailed Timeline of the struggle in ACC Jamul can be read here:



This is the time to recall all those who helped us through long years. The struggle has not been ours alone. The women and men of the working class bastis of Bhilai and Raipur and villages of Baloda Bazar of who stood in solidarity with us to brave lathis (stick blows) and share the trauma of confinement within jails and lockups; our friends amongst unionists, lawyers, journalists, students, social activists, film makers, and intellectuals in Chhattisgarh and all over the country, who supported us morally and materially; our comrades of IndustriALL, NTUI and Solifonds who through international solidarity made negotiations possible – to all of you, we say a very big thank you.

We also remember, humbly, those who are no longer with us –Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi and the martyr workers of Bhilai – who remind us of larger political goals and dreams, still a very long and way away. We hope that today’s gains strengthen our resolve to fight the narrow gains of 'economism' and to move towards these wider goals.

Duniya ke Mazdooron Ek Ho!
Looteron ki Jageer Nahi, Chhattisgarh Hamara Hai!
Inquilab Zindabad!

(This has been jointly issued by Bansi, Lakhan, Ramakant, Rajkumar, Kaladas, Saraswati, Kaushal, Neera,Shalini, Rinchin, Shreya, Mahesh, Sudha, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee)

Other Documents of Interest (below):
  1. An example of Nirman – Shaheed School

How Chhatisgarh’s Contract Workers Overcame the Odds


 
A deep commitment to collective rights from the local union, international solidarity and grit ensured that the contract workers of Chhattisgarh inked a remarkable settlement, this January


January 22, 2016 marks a watershed in a 25 year long struggle for contract workers in the ACC Jamul Cement Works (now Lafarge Holcim plant),Chhattisgarh when their union the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) signed a settlement that is exceptional, on many counts.

For the past quarter of a century, the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS), a union affiliated to the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee), has been fighting a long battle on the streets and within the courts. The protests and legal action(s) have been against the hard conditions of work for the contract workers in the cement plant of ACC Jamul that violate both fundamental rights and the law. The ACC Jamul plant has kept its contract workers in dismal conditions in violation of the industry-wide Cement Wage Board Agreement.

In 2006 the Union won an order for the regularisation of hundreds of contract workers, which was partially upheld by the High Court in 2011, limiting the relief to approximately 120 workers who were still in service. Even this High Court Order could not be implemented. The reasons:an intransigent management that refused to even recognise, far from negotiate with the PCSS, and which grew even more powerful as it was incorporated into Holcim andthen LafargeHolcim, a multinational; a callous and toothless labour department; and a hostile, pro-corporate right wing state government.

Strikes and dharnas followed until the matter was dragged back into court. This dispute lay pending before a Division Bench of the High Court of Chhattisgarh.

In the year 2012, two things happened. First, the PCSS got support from the Global Federation IndustriALL and solidarity from Solifonds and Unia—international global solidarity organistaions for workers working in multinationals. The solidarity organisations filed a complaint against Holcim before the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD in Berne, Switzerland,pointing out that Holcim was disobeying the guidelines for multinationals by violating Indian labour standards and court orders, by refusing collective bargaining in good faith, and by violating the rights of the surrounding farming communities.

Second, and simulataneously, Holcim began constructing a huge, highly mechanised, state-of-the-art new expansion plant in Jamul, aimed for several times more capacity. It fondly imagined that after closing down the old plant and getting rid of its 1200 odd workers (and of course their Union too!) it would run this plant with some 90 highly trained workmen from outside. Right from the inception of this plant, PCSS began agitating for local employment and intervened several times for the rights of the thousands of construction labour engaged there.

After many delays and much procrastination, discussions actually began between the top management of Lafarge Holcim and the PCSS, following directions of the Swiss NCP, first in Berne and then, from 2014 onwards, in India. The negotoations threw up a difficult choice for the Union –(to push for )the benefits of regularisation and arrears to a small group of workers as directed by the High Court versus (negotiating for) minimising the retrenchment that was being proposed.

At this point the workers who were among the beneficiaries of the High Court order, showed a remarkable collective union spirit in giving up those benefits to push for maximum deployment of existing workers in the new and old plants with better working conditions; and the maximum compensation package with alternative livelihood support to those who were to lose jobs.
  • Despite some discouraging rounds and many heated discussions, the PCSS team, led by its chief negotiator Ashim Roy of the NTUI, and the management, led by Behram Shirdewala, Chief People Officer, were able to persist and finally arrive at a settlement. This was despite the opposition of the local political class and vested interests, especially the 22 contractors and their 60 supervisors who were also to be rendered irrelevant in the whole process.

    The settlement (the copy of the settlement can be read) provides the following:
  • Of the 932 contract workers, 536 of them would be deployed in the new and old plants – 212 of them at Cement Wage Board rates (about 4 times the minimum wage), 196 at 50% of the Cement Wage Board rates (twice the minimum wage) to be enhanced to full wage board rates in 2 years; and the remaining at 25% above minimum wages - to be enhanced to 30% above minimum wages after a year. (These workers were selected through a skill assessment process by the management which the union tried to keep as fair and transparent as possible.)
  • The remaining surplus workers have been awarded 3 months of wage for every year they worked as compensation (in addition to their gratuity and other legal dues), thus getting packages ranging from over 20,000 for a worker who has worked for a year right up to around 4.5 lakh rupees for older workers.
  • About 200 of these workers have put in less than 5 years, and another around 75 workers are over 55 years of age. Each such unmapped worker would be entitled to nominate one person from his family to get industrial training from the company’s training centre and support in placement.
 
For contract workers this marks an unprecedented breakthrough.

Neither the Union nor the workers can be happy about losing jobs. Particularly when it means venturing out of the protective umbrella of the Union into the ‘market’ where dignified employment is a far cry for the average working class Indian given the den of labour law violations that our industrial areas have become.
 
But, the painful and protracted consultations confirmed that the alternative of legal retrenchment with just one month’s pay –that too after further, endless legal battles –was probably the more painful choice.
 
The larger political issue of whether such labour – displacing technology is really needed, or should be our priority, needs to be fought for by the larger working class movement of which this union is only a tiny and not very powerful part.

For PCSS, this is the beginning of another round of struggle. To organise contract workers in other units of the cement industry and in other industrial areas; to give these workers a place to come to for solidarity when faced with multiple hardships– slum evictions, agrarian crises, atrocities against women or communal and targeted violence -- and to develop a centre for a broader political education. Most of all to establish a co-operative society to save workers from the tentacles of money-lenders, these are the formidable tasks ahead. A detailed Timeline of the struggle in ACC Jamul can be read here:



This is the time to recall all those who helped us through long years. The struggle has not been ours alone. The women and men of the working class bastis of Bhilai and Raipur and villages of Baloda Bazar of who stood in solidarity with us to brave lathis (stick blows) and share the trauma of confinement within jails and lockups; our friends amongst unionists, lawyers, journalists, students, social activists, film makers, and intellectuals in Chhattisgarh and all over the country, who supported us morally and materially; our comrades of IndustriALL, NTUI and Solifonds who through international solidarity made negotiations possible – to all of you, we say a very big thank you.

We also remember, humbly, those who are no longer with us –Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi and the martyr workers of Bhilai – who remind us of larger political goals and dreams, still a very long and way away. We hope that today’s gains strengthen our resolve to fight the narrow gains of 'economism' and to move towards these wider goals.

Duniya ke Mazdooron Ek Ho!
Looteron ki Jageer Nahi, Chhattisgarh Hamara Hai!
Inquilab Zindabad!

(This has been jointly issued by Bansi, Lakhan, Ramakant, Rajkumar, Kaladas, Saraswati, Kaushal, Neera,Shalini, Rinchin, Shreya, Mahesh, Sudha, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee)

Other Documents of Interest (below):
  1. An example of Nirman – Shaheed School

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