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Indian contract workers join mining unions

22 February, 2013On 20-21February, Indian trade union members joined a massive general strike calling, among other demands, for an end to contracting out of permanent work. One of the participating unions, the Indian National Mineworkers’ Federation (INMF) has been developing a specific and systematic organizing campaign for workers in precarious employment. Since 2002, INMF has already organized 66,869 precarious workers.

“Union strength is dependent on membership. We have to organize contract workers, unionize them, fight for them and increase our strength,” Mr. B.K. Das, General Secretary of INMF.

The number of permanent workers in Indian coal mines has fallen rapidly from 700,000 in 2000 to 300,000 today and is expected to reach 100,000 by 2016. However, the workforce has not decreased. Contract workers have progressively replaced permanent workers, making organizing contract workers a priority for the INMF. The federation started to systematically organize precarious workers in many companies including Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), Mahanadi Coalfields Limited (MCL), Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), Western Coalfields (WCL), and South Eastern Coalfields Limited.

Having agreed an action plan, INMF organized a series of awareness raising workshops involving trade union leaderships in the different coal fields, then embarked on a systematic mapping of the workplaces, collecting information on precarious workers and identifying potential organizers among contract workers. Supported by IndustriALL’s precarious work project, a training program was developed to train permanent and contract worker organizers, while education workshops for precarious workers encouraged them to struggle for equal or at least better treatment. All sectors of mine operations were covered: women workers were trained to organize contract women cleaning workers in the mining companies. 

The INMF has been able to build a successful organizing campaign in the face of hostility from the mining companies. One of the strengths of the campaign has been to make visible what the unions have achieved for precarious workers in the different coalmines. Sharing information on the achievements of the unions has helped make contract workers realize that their struggles are winnable and encouraged them to mobilize. 

Throughout the campaign, the INMF has followed the principle of organizing contract workers into the same unions rather than dividing the workforce through the creation of separate unions. However in some cases, delays occurred due to the process to amend union statutes and a number of separate unions for contract workers were created, including the Asansole Coalfields Contract Workers’ Union (9,600 members) and the Mahanadi Coal Fields Contractual Transport Workers Union (10,375 members), closely monitored and supported by existing unions.

Building stronger unions has enabled precarious workers to achieve improvements to their working conditions. Through collective bargaining, the Mahanadi Coal Fields Contractual Transport Workers' Union has secured regular payment of wages through the bank, deduction of provident fund contributions, access to medical facilities in the company hospitals and annual bonuses. At national level, their increased strength has helped Indian unions to successfully mobilise to secure an agreement in 2012, which grants a substantial increase in wages and other allowances for precarious workers in the public sector coal industry.

The INMF has shown that organizing precarious workers is not only possible, but that it increases the power of all workers to negotiate better pay and working conditions.