Duniya ke Mazdooron Ek Ho! Looteron ki Jageer Nahi, Chhattisgarh Hamara Hai! Inquilab Zindabad!
Often “talking” is more difficult than “fighting, but the contract workers of Chhattisgarh did that too … and inked a remarkable settlement. 22nd January 2016 marks a watershed in a 25 year long struggle for contract workers in the ACC Jamul Cement Works (now LafargeHolcim), Chhattisgarh when their union the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) signed a settlement that is exceptional in many ways.
For the past more than 25 years PCSS, a deeply rooted and militant union affiliated to the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee), has been fighting a long battle in the streets and in the courts against the hard conditions of work and life of contract workers in the cement plant of ACC Jamul, in violation of the industry-wide Cement Wage Board Agreement. In 2006 the Union won an order for regularization of hundreds of contract workers, which was partially upheld in 2011 by the High Court limiting the relief to about 120 workers still in service. But an intransigent management that refused to even recognize, far from negotiate with the PCSS, and which grew even more powerful as it was incorporated into Holcim and then LafargeHolcim; a callous and toothless labour department; and a hostile pro-corporate right wing government ensured that the High Court order could not be implemented. Despite strikes and dharnas the matter was dragged back into court, and was pending before the Division Bench of the High Court of Chhattisgarh. In the year 2012 two things happened. On the one hand, the PCSS getting support from global federation IndustriALL and solidarity from Solifonds and Unia, filed a complaint against Holcim before the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD in Berne, Switzerland, alleging 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.
On the other hand Holcim began constructing a huge, highly mechanized, state-of-the-art new expansion plant in Jamul that was to have 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 outside workmen. 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 fits and starts, discussions actually began between the top management of LafargeHolcim and the PCSS on the directions of the Swiss NCP, first in Berne and then from 2014 onwards in India. It soon became clear that it was a difficult choice before the Union – either the benefits of regularization and arrears to a small group of workers as directed by the High Court; or negotiating to minimise the retrenchment that was being proposed. At this point the High Court beneficiaries showed 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 not-so-calm debates, 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 with maturity towards a
settlement. This was despite the opposition of the local political class and vested interests such as the 22 contractors and their 60 supervisors who were also to be rendered irrelevant. The settlement provides that out of 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 minimum wage), 196 at 50% 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 upto 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 is quite unprecedented. No doubt both the Union and the workers cannot be happy losing jobs, particularly when it means venturing out of the protective umbrella of the Union into the jungle of labour law violations that our industrial areas are. But painful and protracted consultations confirmed that the other alternative of legal retrenchment with a month’s pay after endless legal battles was probably more painful. And of course, no one leaves the Union, which would be there through thick and thin to ensure promises and to help multiply more unions in the industrial areas. The larger political issue of whether such labour – displacing technology is really needed, or should be permitted, needs to be fought for by the larger working class movement of which we are only a tiny and not very powerful part.
For PCSS, this is the beginning of another round of struggle. To organize contract workers in other units of the cement industry and in other industrial areas; to give the toiling people a place to come to for solidarity in all situations – slum evictions, farmers agitations, atrocities against women or communal incidents; and to develop a centre for political education and a co-operative society to save workers from the goonda money lenders….. a lot is to be done. We would fail if we didn’t recall all those who helped us in these long years, for the struggle was not ours alone. The women and men of the working class bastis of Bhilai & Raipur and villages of Baloda Bazar of who stood in solidarity with us to brave lathis and share 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 are humbled to remember 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 hard way away. We hope that today’s gains strengthen our resolve to fight economism and to move towards such goals.
— Bansi, Lakhan, Ramakant, Rajkumar, Kaladas, Saraswati, Kaushal, Neera, Shalini, Rinchin, Shreya, Mahesh, Sudha Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee)