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Contract labour - a threat to Indian Society

30 June, 2015There were shocking revelations about the situation for the many temporary contract workers in the Indian State of Maharashtra at an IndustriALL Global Union workshop held in the city of Pune this month. 

The 23 and 24 June meeting, held with support from Dutch trade union aid organization FNV Mondiaal, heard from 35 unionists affiliated to IndustriALL through Shramik Ekta Mahasangh (SEM).

The affiliates are battling to organize the temporary workers and the workshop looked at strategies to overcome the many obstacles they face.

Participants revealed that companies – both national and multinational - are hiring fewer permanent staff and using more non-union precarious workers.

There were stories galore of companies that dismiss permanent workers and rehire temporary workers for the same work, but for a fraction of the salary. Almost all permanent workers in the room had colleagues doing the same work for much less salary (earning up to an unbelievable 80 per cent less).

A living wage is a long distant dream for most of these contract workers, even though many of them work for years and years in the same job. Either their short-term contracts are continuously renewed, or they are sent in through many different agencies to avoid legal pressures to make them permanent. This situation can continue for up to 20 to 25 years in India - possibly even longer.  

The effects on the precariously employed contract workers are disastrous. Not only in regard to their employment conditions, but also for their place in Indian society. Their low wages have a long range of consequences, of which not being able to get married is cited the most. The first question a potential family-in-law asks is whether the worker has a permanent job. If not, there is no marriage.

Contract workers also often find it impossible to send their children to school past a certain age - with girls usually the first victims. However, this affects boys as well, who then have no other option but to become a contract worker themselves at the age of, say, 14.

Many contract and agency workers speak of not being able to take any holiday at all. One contract worker said he was forced to - all of a sudden - work 12 hours per day, instead of eight or sometimes ten. There was a choice between that or no job.

The contract workers do not have the ability to pay for medicines. Not for themselves and neither for their families. There is no childcare or crèche. No maternity leave. No access to bank loans, no… the list is endless.

Many women knowingly hide any jewellery that indicate that they are married, for fear of losing their temporary job if they get pregnant, or for fear of never getting a permanent employment.

SEM is fighting back and tries to organize these precarious workers. Unfortunately, that results in a new range of problems. Not only do contract workers often lose their jobs as soon as they join a union, there has also been pressure, harassment and victimization towards permanent workers’ unions for attempting to organize the precarious workers.

To overcome this situation, SEM registered a separate union for the manpower workers in the entire Maharashtra State, the Maharashtra Contract Workers Union (MCWU) in September 2014. Their registration has so far been rejected for technical reasons, possibly after pressure from the employers’ lobby. The procedure was restarted in March 2015 and it is now hoped the registration will come in August.

The new union hopes that the precarious workers will remain union members even though they may change jobs many times.

SEM is currently, with the support of the IndustriALL-FNV Mondiaal South Asia Precarious Work Project, doing a mapping of the Pune area to gather information on the situation of contract workers in different industrial areas.

The MCWU will also appoint organizers to start organizing and recruiting precarious workers. As soon as possible, the MCWU will then also form local committees, consisting of local and federation level leaders, to negotiate with the local managements on behalf of the contract workers.

SEM expects to organize at least 3,000 precarious workers by the end of 2015 in and around Pune, which is the second largest city in Maharashtra. Once successful, the union hopes to then be able to start organizing in other parts of the state in the coming years - a much needed effort.