The Jharkhand government under Chief Minister Hemant Soren has extracted a commitment from Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to do away with contractors, recruit labourers directly from the state, register itself under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act next year, and sign a memorandum of agreement (MoU) with the state.
A May 22 communication from the Ministry of Home Affairs to Chairman, Railway Board, seeking 11 trains to transport 11,815 labourers from Jharkhand to work for the BRO in Ladakh and other areas, set off a series of communication between the state government and BRO.
The state had received many complaints from labourers who were recently airlifted from Ladakh about not just delayed payments, but also lower wages than what was specified in the scheduled rate chart of BRO, and withholding of bank ATM cards by contractors.
In letters exchanged with BRO, the Jharkhand government raised serious concerns on the “plight” and “exploitation” of labourers from the state. In fact, Chief Minister Soren had earlier said it would be in the interest of labourers to take the government’s consent for work outside so that it could protect their rights.
BRO’s commitment to directly recruit assumes significances a small percentage of worker salaries was actually taken by “mates”, who are themselves labourers, but coordinate with small groups of labourers, on behalf of the BRO.
In letters to the Jharkhand government, BRO said “mates” are coordinators and ensure better command and control. Comparing “mates” with contractors in this case will “not be appropriate”, it said.
When contacted, Jharkhand Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh told The Indian Express, “Initially, there was a contractual system with no link between the BRO and the labourers. Now, an agreement has been reached that they will be recruited directly.”
Based on the Hardness Index of the area of work and the skill of the labourers, the payments will range from Rs 15,900-29,000 for Ladakh with effect from June 10. It will be a marked increase from what labourers received earlier through “mates”.
The Indian Express spoke to labourers, recruited through ‘mates’, and recently airlifted from Ladakh.
* Pansal Marandi of Dumka, currently in transit, said his salary is Rs 10,000 per month. “’Mate’ has my ATM and he will give me money once I am back in Jharkhand. I came to know from other sources that my actual salary is Rs 16,000, but I don’t get that amount.”
* Raj Kishore Marandi of Dumka said his salary for the last five months was pending. “The mate had kept the ATM with himself and says he will pay the money in sometime. I don’t know how much I get in my account,” he said.
* Sanatan Besra of Jamtara said he receive Rs 9,000 per month: “I was paid around Rs 50,000 after I returned. But the ATM remains with the ‘Mate’. He kept a portion with himself and gave me the remaining amount in cash.”
*Soilen Soreng of West Singhbhum area said he has not been paid for the last eight months. “I used to get Rs 10,000 per month which the “mate” told me will be given after some time. He has my ATM.”
In a letter to the BRO, Principal Secretary Labour Rajeev Arun Ekka said the organisation’s claim that it directly engaged with workers “surprised him”. “They (labourers) have returned home with bitter memories and experiences. Government of Jharkhand is deeply concerned at the plight of these labourers…It is also surprising that these workers were not receiving appropriate payments through bank accounts and cheques as per wages fixed in the scheduled rate chart of BRO,” Ekka wrote.
In the letter, he said that there is no provision of “mates” in the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act. “And this is in gross violation of the Act. This also opens the door of exploitation of poor tribal workers in the hands of middlemen and touts,” Ekka wrote. He asked for BRO’s registration in Jharkhand and an MoU for the recruitment of labourers. Through the letters, the state government demanded that an agreement be signed by the the BRO with the state.
Brigadier Nitin K Sharma, DDG (TP) for Director General, Border Roads, explained in the letter: “BRO is committed to safeguard the interest of the labourers who are backbone. It has been the constant endeavour of BRO to ensure that the aspirations of its labourers are met and their legitimate wages are paid in time.” The labourers would also be eligible for host of other benefits like medical facilities, injury benefits, rations, clothing, accommodation, free conveyance, and fixing of wages via Boards constituted at different projects for this purpose, he said in the letter.
“BRO will undertake recruitment of labour directly without involvement of any contractor or Mate,” Sharma said in the letter. Seeking a one-time waiver from registration in the “interest of work and national security implications”, the BRO said it would apply for registration with the states as an establishment employing migrant labour for year 2021-22 and that it will sign an MoU with Jharkhand once it is approved by the Defence Ministry.
Accepting the request for a one-time waiver, Chief Minister Soren said: “National Security is our priority and at the same time we have prioritised that honour, dignity and rights of our workers are guaranteed while serving the nation.”
When contacted, BRO’s public relation officer Lt Col DA Johnson said, he was not aware of the development. “I cannot comment as I have no information.”
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