Metres from the factory that caught fire in Bawana Industrial Area on Saturday evening, hundreds of labourers congregated for lunch on Monday: the only topic of discussion was the blaze that ended 17 lives. The conversation was peppered with anecdotes and personal experiences illustrative of how labour laws are flouted daily.
Take, for example, 30-year-old labourer Mohammad Raja, who said, “Overtime should ideally be choice-based, but most factories employ us only if we are willing to do 12-hour shifts, for which we are paid between Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 a month. If we take more than one day off in a week, our salaries are cut or, worse, we are replaced. So most of us work through our illnesses.”
According to the Factories Act, 1934, no adult can be made to work for more than eight hours a day, and for overtime, double the wages are to be paid. After every 12 months, they are entitled to privilege leave for not less than 18 days. The labour law also states that every employee has to be paid within a working week from the first of every month. Many workers, however, said factory owners block their salaries for at least 15 days, and refuse to pay if a worker quits during that time. “Sometimes, the money comes in the last week,” said 25-year-old Gautam Yadav.
Another way that factory owners keep workers “in check” is by ensuring they don’t form unions. “They are often threatened with dire consequences by factory owners if they join unions. Sometimes, if even seen with a union leader, the labourer ends up losing his job,” said Amit Kumar, a member of the Delhi Ispat Udyog Mazdoor Union.
A lack of union support means grievances go unheard. In Karawal Nagar — populated with pressure cooker, utensil and denim factories — Yogesh Swami (32), president of the Karawal Nagar Mazdoor Union, finds it hardest to persuade migrant labourers.
He said, “In this area, factories are broken into small units with less than 15 workers… which means there is little unity. It’s a deliberate move by factory owners… this way unions with such few people don’t get formed. Also, to register a union, labourers need to have some identification cards… most migrant labourers don’t have those.”
In Bawana, many workers also lamented that factory owners don’t give anything in writing, which can help them procure identity cards or open bank accounts. “If we get our voter IDs made, they fear we will be treated as a vote bank and that will help us exert our demands,” said a factory supervisor. Workers also said that as they age, they are paid less, or asked to leave.