When the shipbreaking organizing project started in 2003, led by one of IndustriALL’s founding organizations (the International Metalworkers’ Federation), it was of common knowledge among the locals that whenever a shipbreaking worker was killed on the job the body was unceremoniously tossed into the sea. As most of the workers are undocumented migrant workers, no one ever bothered to ask any questions, search for the families or make any demand against the employer. That was before the workers had a union.
In the video “Into the Graveyard” produced in 2010 by the IndustriALL affiliate leading the project work, the Mumbai Port Trust & Dock & General Workers Union, Vidyadhar Rane, Secretary General of the shipbreaking workers' union tells the poignant story of six workers killed in an incident in Alang shipbreaking yard in August 2009. Two of the workers were from Uttar Pradesh, the four others were from one family from Piperla Village in Gujarat, 3km away from the yard.
The union, the Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers' Association (ASSRGWA), took the case to the highest levels of justice, demanded a special enquiry and for the first time ever in the history of Alang, obtained financial compensation for the 6 workers deaths. It took the union 3 more years of unwavering tenacity and commitment to finally obtain, in September 2012, a monthly pension from the Provident Fund for the widows and family of the workers from Piperla Village.
Last week, on 3 October, a union delegation from Alang and Mumbai in India and IndustriALL Head & Regional Offices and Bondgenoten/FNV Mondiaal from the Netherlands met with the families of shipbreaking workers that died in August 2009 to hand over the precious documents that entitle the families to a pension.
The international union delegation came directly from the IndustriALL project evaluation and planning meeting, which took place nearby in Bhavnagar, on 3 and 4 October. The meeting examined the recommendations made by an external evaluator for the FNV Mondiaal and the possibilities to continue supporting the organizing drive in Alang.
The shipbreaking workers’ union in Alang now counts around 10,000 members, out of an average of 40,000-50,000 workers, and the union in Mumbai over 3,500 workers. Every year, the union has grown and gained major achievements for the workers, including:
- recognition of Ship Breaking as a scheduled industry, thus allowing workers to claim minimum wages,
- access to drinking water in the yards,
- the introduction of personal protective equipment, and
- securing compensation, social security benefits and pension for families whenever possible.
One of the major challenges that remain ahead is how to create a tripartite structure to engage in social dialogue to improve overall working conditions in the shipbreaking yards. As in Alang the Shipbreaking Employers each rent their plots, which can occupy between 50 to 2,000 workers and as they draw upon some 182 contractors to provide cheap labour, the union currently needs to fight case by case, plot by plot, and cannot bargain collectively to overall improve the horrendous working conditions on the yard.
As Vidyadvar Rane mentions:
“one of the major achievements is that now the majority of the participants in this meeting are the shipbreaking workers themselves from Alang and Mumbai together, coming to discuss their situation and planning how to strengthen their union and defend their rights.”
For the very first time, the meeting was happy to welcome two young women workers who informed the union about the even more precarious working conditions of around 1,500 to 2,000 women in the yards and requested support from the union to demand equal remuneration, job security and safety equipment.
Sadly, despite all the good news regarding the growth of the union and progress in obtaining benefits, the death of 6 young workers on 6 October 2012 acted as a timely reminder to the authorities of the terrible conditions workers continue to face despite the union’s best efforts.
IndustriALL is appalled at this tragic loss and fully supports the complaint made by ASSRGWA with the various concerned authorities, including Port authorities, Factory Inspectors, and the Asst. Labour Commissioner, demanding a Special Enquiry of the incident and will continue to monitor and coordinate closely with its affiliate on all further action required.