THE ordinarily raucous Mayapuri Industrial Area in West Delhi, comprising 1,800 factories manufacturing everything from shoes to coolants and vehicle engines, has fallen largely silent over the last month. The only ones seeing brisk business are eight glitzy banquet halls on the Ring Road, veiling Mayapuri’s sooty factories and crumbling jhuggies.
It’s to these banquet halls that Shiv Kumar, 20, has turned since the owner of a slipper manufacturing unit fired him and around 80 others after demand plummeted post the November 8 demonetisation. Kumar, who worked as a thread cutter on the finishing line at the factory, earning Rs 7,000 a month, is now employed as a “masalchi” at S K Royal Ornate Banquet hall, cleaning dirty utensils.
Like Kumar, many in this industrial area have been left looking for new skills and odd jobs since shortage of currency forced down demand.
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“Work at the banquet hall is both good and bad. It’s good because we are fed leftovers from parties so I don’t have to worry about meals. But the timings are bad because parties go on late into the night. We come home at 4 am every day after 16 hours of work,” says Kumar.
While he may end up earning the same money as he did at the factory, washing between 200 and 400 utensils a day, the 20-year-old says the work can’t be compared to what he used to do. The manager of the hall is often rude too towards workers like him. But what has left Kumar most shocked is the attitude of the guests at the parties. “Once or twice I saw the guests slap errand boys, for not understanding them or clearing their plates before they had finished.”
Manish, the contractor who hired Kumar, says he has around hundred permanent staff members, including trained cooks and waiters, working for S K Royal Ornate. Workers such as Kumar are temporary, kept mostly for menial jobs like scrubbing utensils or running errands.
Jobs such as these won’t last, Manish admits. “The wedding season is almost over. Most contractual workers including Kumar have been paid their dues and we are closing for a month now. There should be a few more weddings in January and we will hire again at the time,” he says.
Gulab Singh, 30, worked as a helper on the power press in a crush metal scrap factory.
He was fired on November 12 after the factory ran out of work. Now he runs a chicken shop.
“I called up my factory owner later, but he still does not have enough work to hire me back. The other factories in Mayapuri too either have no jobs or the money they are paying has fallen to half of minimum wage. I decided to set up the shop in my room with Rs 4,000, money that I had managed to save through the year,” he says, sitting next to a pen holding around 10 birds.
Singh says he decided to turn to this trade after watching a local meat-seller at work. He bought old cages from the scrap market and birds from Naseerpur and began selling chicken every evening.
Singh admits he has not been able to master the art of quartering chicken yet, but his buyers, from the jhuggis of Mayapuri, are not too choosy. Given the lack of small cash with most people, chicken prices too have dropped here, from Rs 160 to Rs 140 a kilogram. Singh manages to make a little over Rs 200 on most days.
Rishi Soni, 25, used to work as a line supervisor overseeing assembly of ‘Chinese’ mobile phones at a factory. It shut on November 25 because the owner did not have enough money to meet the minimum order limit. Soni says the owner has promised all 80 of them that he would open again in March and re-hire them.
For the intervening months, Soni is making ends meet with a small momo stall he sets up every evening in a Subhash Nagar market, 3 km away. “I spent two years learning so as to graduate from a helper on the line to a line supervisor monitoring 40 helpers, and now I sell momos. It is a little embarrassing but this is an emergency measure,” he says.
However, since Soni doesn’t know how to make momos and it is not a trick learnt easily, he has been steaming dry momos that he buys in bulk from Raghubir Nagar. His earnings have dropped to roughly Rs 300 a day from Rs 500 at the factory.
As he waits to be re-hired, Soni remains hopeful. “The season is good for momo sales and no work is big or small.”
Women workers are the worst off as they are among the first to be let off by factories as work dips, and it is not easy for them to find alternative jobs.
Guddi Devi, 50, was fired from the same factory as Shiv Kumar. She had been working for seven years there, and would trim excess rubber from the soles of slippers. Three years ago, her 18-year-old son Birju too joined her at the factory. Trained to run the press which emblazons patterns on slippers, he is a “karigar (artisan)”, and due to his specific skill, is among those to have retained their job post-demonetisation.
Says a stoic Guddi Devi, “Women are always assigned the basic kaam (work), like packing or cutting or trimming, but men are encouraged to hone their karigari (craft) at the machine, which makes them indispensable to the factory and ensures higher pay.”
She says that among the hundred removed from the factory, most were women. The owner retained a core group of 300 workers.
At the time, Guddi Devi earned Rs 5,500 a month. Her son makes Rs 8,000.
After she was laid off, Guddi Devi tried to set up a push-cart selling snacks or vegetables. But all the slots were “taken” and she gave up fearing police harassment for their weekly hafta.
She knows of others who are heading home, mostly to villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, after the factories shut, but that isn’t an option for her. “I do not own any land. My parents and I used to work as farm labourers in our village in Uttar Pradesh till we migrated to Delhi in 1990. It has been years since I last visited relatives and I do not want to burden them,” says the 50-year-old.