I was speaking to a union committee member at Bosch. In his mid-forties, he was a cheerful person. We discussed his career with the company. He said, “Sir, I worked as temporary worker here for sixteen years before they absorbed me in permanent position. The best years of my youth were spent with the Damocles’ sword of unemployment hanging over my head. I got married during those years, my children grew up and started their schooling. My wife would be uncomfortable and tense whenever I got a break. Your social status also drops if you do not have a job. It is embarrassing to meet relatives and tell them you are on a break!”
As a young trainee who joined Tata Power in 1973, I had seen many workers working for ten years or so as temporary hands. This situation was not new to me. But the full import of the situation does not sink in when you are in your early twenties.
The intensity and pain in his voice haunted me; I found it difficult to remove it from my mind.
I spoke to Arvind Shrouti. He said that such a situation was common and the temporary workers and contract workers were living a terribly exploited life, neglected by the employers and society alike. They were living a hopeless life. We decided to meet some workers and speak to them.
* * *
It was a pleasant Sunday morning in Chinchwad [Pune], twenty workers gathered to meet me. It had to be a Sunday meeting so that they would not have to take a day off. [I discovered later that when they took a day off, they lost one day’s pay]. They came from many factories. Notable among them were Automotive Stampings & Assemblies Ltd. [ASAL], Bajaj Auto, Bosch, Sulzer, MAASS Flange India P Ltd. The list does not cover all companies represented by workers in the meeting.
I introduced myself and assured them anonymity. They were uncomfortable but the ice melted as the conversation progressed. I spoke initially to one of them. He came to Pune in search of a job. He hailed from a small town in Marathwada.
“Tell me, how long you are working in this factory?”
“Since 2009, Sir. Initially I worked as a helper, and quickly learned welding. So, I started working as a welder. I was employed through a contractor who did not pay our PF contribution and he was removed. The company then engaged me directly as a temporary worker.”
“I was paid Rs 7,500 pm for a seven months period.” Companies appoint temporary hands on a seven-month contract to avoid claim for permanency and for paying retrenchment compensation. Colloquially it is called ‘period’ by workers.
“Did they remove you after seven months?”
“No. They appointed me as a trainee for a period of two years. In 2011. The salary for a trainee was Rs 6,500 pm. But they do not deduct PF contribution for trainees.”
“Reduced salary? And trainee after temporary contract? That’s interesting.”
“After finishing the trainee period of two years, they called me to work as a temporary hand. Ever since then I work for seven months or for shorter periods as the supervisor wishes. Then they give me a break.”
“How long the break lasts?”
“It all depends on workload. Sometimes it lasts a few days. Sometimes it could be longer – a month or two. The Supervisor calls me on phone when I am required.”
“Let me recount what I understood. You started working in 2009 on contract and then as a temporary hand on a salary of Rs 7500 pm, in 2010 you were appointed as a trainee for two years on a salary of Rs 6500 pm without PF deduction, and since 2012 you are working as a temporary worker with breaks. Have I understood this right?”
“Here we are in December 2018. How much they pay you?
“I get Rs 8,800 in hand after deductions of PF, ESIC.”
“Yes Sir. I got married five years ago. I have a four-year-old son.”
“How is it to manage in Rs 8,800 pm in this city?”
“It is a big problem. My salary was Rs 7500 when I got married. I pay a rent of Rs 2500 pm.”
Another worker interjected. “Sir, the rent keeps increasing because the owner usually does not allow you to stay more than eleven months.”
“We have a 10 by 10 ft room. Almost all temporary workers live in such ‘kholi’ [room]. And we have to find another place nearby because we want to be in the same locality or near the children’s school.”
“My four-year-old goes to school. The school fees are very high. Three thousand two hundred rupees.”
“Has your wife taken up a job?” I asked the first worker.
“No Sir. Her time is spent in taking the son to school and bringing him back.”
“How do you manage in Rs 8,800 pm?” I repeated the question.
The other worker interjected again. “He avails company transport and canteen. Not all workers get it. The expenditure on transport is big for our pocket.”
“What happens when you fall sick? Does ESI Scheme coverage help?”
“What ESI Sir? If we remain absent for a long time due to sickness, we lose the job. Work does not wait for anybody. Nobody avails ESI sick leave.” Everybody agreed. The fear of losing the job had taken away the social security benefit.
“You don’t have the Identification card of ESIS?”
“What’s that? We don’t have it.”
“What happens when a worker gets injured?”
“They pay for the day of accident.”
“No payment for other days?”
A worker interjected again. “Sir, in our Company a worker lost the tip of his forefinger. It was cut in to two portions.” He showed me where the cut was – it was distal phalange. The worker had lost his distal phalange. The compensation for this injury is high.
“He must have received compensation because he lost front part of his forefinger.”
“Nothing, Sir. Nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” he said and continued, “Safety apparel is given. Helmets, Apron they provide. But no pay when we meet with accident. They must be thinking we will misuse the sick leave.”
“What happens when you have social engagements? Like a marriage in the family.”
“We lose pay for that absence. But I tell my Supervisor about the leave in advance lest he gets upset.” The fear of the supervisor was seen in every response.
“You mean you do not get paid leave at all? No sick leave or casual leave?”
“No Sir. In some companies they encash leave when your period is completed, and when they give you a break. It is at the end of the period. If you avail leave during the period, it is unpaid.”
“How many workers work in your factory?”
“Approximately Permanent 86, Temporary workers 50, Mathadi [Headload] workers 50 and 100+ through contractor.”
“Interesting fact is that the contractor’s workers earn more wages [they meant take home pay] than temporary workers. Because they do not have to pay for Bus transport and Canteen.”
“Sir, they increase Bus Transport charges and canteen charges. They do it when they increase workers’ wages following a settlement. It hurts because of our wages are poor.”
“They pay you minimum wages?”
“Yes, they pay them the prescribed minimum wages.” The Union Leader [of permanent workers in the factory] among them explained. “But very often they do not pay arrears of increased minimum wage.”
I was surprised. “What does your union do? Don’t you take up their case?”
“They speak about us occasionally to management but it does not work.” Everybody laughed nervously.
“Why don’t you speak to your supervisor?” I asked a worker.
“That the surest way of losing the job. We have seen some workers losing their job, it is better not to taste the poison.”
“Bonus?” I asked.
Some workers said they receive a month’s salary as Bonus. A few others said they do not receive anything. When I pointed out that if they worked for more than thirty days in a year they qualify for bonus, it was a surprise.
Recently the Government amended the Payment of Bonus Act. The law requires paying a minimum bonus based on the minimum wage. The minimum wage is a bit more than ten thousand rupees. So, the minimum bonus at the rate of one month’s pay [8.33%] works out to that amount, Rs Ten Thousand approximately. Some unscrupulous employers consider this a bit too high and they don’t pay at all, and some pay lower than that, a lump sum amount.
There is a trend of keeping the number of permanent workers less than one hundred. The reason is that an employer can close down the factory without having to seek permission of the Government authorities.
“How many workers work in your factory?” I asked this question to a worker from Bosch. This is a German company. It has had its share of labour trouble. At the Bangalore factory the wages of workers are so high that the wage cost is unaffordable. [See my blog: BOSCH Where Economy Bashes Psychology]
“How many workers work in your factory?” I repeated my question to the worker from Bosch.
“Permanent: 189, Office Staff 350, Company Trainees 800, NEEM trainees 750, Contractor’s employees 40, Yashaswi Institute of Technology 40, Reliable 60, Housekeeping 45, Gardening 10, Canteen 35, YISD 40, Security 60 and Fixed Term Contract 40. Sir, the numbers are approximate but are fairly accurate.”
“Wow!” Bosch had probably become hypersensitive to labour cost. They had gone to the other extreme of engaging such a large number of workers in various categories other than permanent category. A quick look tells us that the number of such non-permanent workers are 1920 excluding the 189 permanent workers and 350 staff.
“What’s the difference in salary? Between permanent workers and others?” I asked.
“Permanent workers get approx. Rs 50,000 on CTC basis or Rs. 43000 as gross salary. And others get Rs. 10500 if you are skilled or semi-skilled, and Rs 7500 for unskilled.”
If we do ‘back of the envelope’ calculations what picture we see? Let us presume that all the non-permanent  workers get Rs 10500. And we are told that the permanent workers  are paid Rs 43,000. So, the average of all wage payment works out to Rs. 13,412. This is how the cost is saved. The strategy is keeping the permanent employee strength to the barest minimum and appointing temps/ NEEM/ trainee employees on all other positions. The fall out of this strategy is creating precarious employment. This practice is so rampant in the industry that it will be unfair to single out Bosch for this pernicious practice.
This practice has a dangerous fall out. The employers pay, at all times, only minimum wages to the non-permanent employees. What is the effect of paying the minimum wage over a long period of time? Let me refer to the case mentioned at the beginning of this article. He drew a gross wages of Rs 7500 in 2010. Today he gets Rs 8800 in hand so let us presume that he gets a gross wages of Rs 10500 pm. During this period the consumer price index has moved up from 176 to 320 for Pune, recording an increase of almost 82%. But his wages have moved up 40% [((10500-7500)*100)/7500]. If cost of living was neutralised 100%, which is the directive of the Supreme Court as well, his wages should have been Rs. 13650 [7500*1.82 = 13650]. Since his actual wages are 10500, there is a shortfall of Rs Rs.3150. This means a workers’ real wages are eroded by 51% since 2010. So, this strategy of paying minimum wages at all times to non-permanent employees leads to statutory compliance but it results in effectively lowering the standard of living to such workmen.
Recognising this [perhaps] a few companies like Thermax facilitated wage increase for contractors’ workmen. While the wages are no match to what permanent workers get, yet it is a step forward.
“Sir, in our company the union signed a settlement for making some workers permanent. But the management has refused to make four workers permanent.”
“They say there are two office staff in your union. They can’t be members of any union. Remove them otherwise we will not make these four workers permanent.”
“Appears to be high-handedness of the management” I said.
“When it comes to high-handedness, contractors are no different, Sir. In our factory they pay overtime only after twelve hours work. My wages are fixed for twelve hours work. Sometimes I work sixteen hours so that I can get enough money to send to my parents.”
“Don’t company supervisors know this?”
“They know. But they do not feel concerned.”
“You were asking about how we live here. We have reached a situation where some contract or temporary workers are unable to get a bride in marriage.” Everybody laughed, but to my surprise they agreed. “In my factory there are three workers who are nearing thirty-five, but nobody is giving them a girl in marriage. Having a secure or well-paying job is the qualification. In some cases, they are able to get married because their parents have a good piece of land. It serves as other income.”
“Sir, the girls study up to 10th or 12th standard. They wish to lead a good life. Yes, why not?”
“My wife has studied up to 12th std. I get in hand Rs 8800 pm. We stay in a small ten ft by ten ft room. We have two school going sons. She gets upsets every evening when she finds that there is not adequate money in hand. It is becoming unbearable. We have a verbal duel every evening. When I told her that I was going to meet Sir today she thought it was perhaps about getting a permanent job. She will be disappointed.” His voice quivered. He was fighting tears.
“Ghar ghar ki kahani” another replied.
I asked his permission to visit his home. He readily agreed. The meeting ended with a cup of tea. For sometime there was silence. Then somebody spoke, “Are we to live like this for ever?”
The Bosch union committee member was lucky to find permanent job albeit after sixteen years!
* * *
We hopped in to my car. He sat in the front giving directions to the driver. We stopped when he signalled. While crossing the road, he held my hand thinking that I was an old man needing help to cross the road where traffic was buzzing with autos speeding past in unruly way. We entered a lane which had a few shops lined on one side of the road. From the busy street we had suddenly moved in a location which was entrance to the slum. We turned again and entered a passage between two ‘houses.’ Almost every house had a blue coloured barrel in front of the door which was used to store water. Some ladies were washing clothes, it was also the place where they washed their utensils. A lady was giving bath to her one-year old malnourished baby, in front of the entrance door. The entrance doors had curtains to provide privacy, but it was not difficult to see inside because the curtains were moved to a side.
We turned again and came to a door which was about five and a half feet high. It was narrow to allow only one person to enter. The wall was painted blue and the colour had faded. On the left side of the entrance door was an unplastered wall about three feet high which provided privacy to the person bathing there. Above the door was a tile with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s picture. And the door had a one-foot tall threshold to prevent rain water coming in the house.
We entered the room. It was perhaps less than ten feet in width, though it may have been ten feet in length. The room had one more door opening in to the room inside where his brother stayed. So, effectively the room got sliced by this passage. The smaller part of the room, divided by passage, had a wooden rack about thirty inches high. The gas stove rested on it. Of the three walls of the larger portion of this room, one had a tall rack on which aluminium containers were placed, presumably with groceries. Another side of the room had a curtain over the rack behind. It appeared that some clothes were placed there.
We sat down in the room. He said that the room was not big enough to accommodate four persons sitting, how would four persons sleep here? His wife was standing, but she also sat down, he moved to make room.
“When did you move in here?”
“My father came here during the drought in early seventies. And he never went back.”
I was completely taken aback by the experience. I have seen and entered many houses in slums yet this experience unnerved me.
“You stay with your brother, what does he do?”
“I don’t know.” He gestured to suggest that they were not on talking terms.
Small homes which do not permit adequate personal space to the inhabitants usually lead to quarrels. So effectively this was a one room home.
“My children study in seventh and fourth standards. Both sons. It is difficult to stay here in one room with them, they are growing up.” His wife nodded. She added, “They come and go anytime.” She was referring to his brother. Obviously she was complaining about lack of privacy for the couple.
While the man had this serious disposition, his wife had a nice smile. A man and his wife are almost always so dissimilar, almost as a rule, I thought. Both the husband and the wife were slim but she looked underweight, it was the only common feature between them.
“I have studied up to 12th standard. I do some work in an industry nearby and earn about six thousand rupees.” She responded to my question. He had studied up to tenth.
“She meticulously keeps account of every rupee we spend.’
“Before he brings home his pay, my list is ready. It shows how much we owe to grocer and others and it takes away everything!” She spoke looking down at her feet.
“I have been working for fifteen years Sir. They made my colleague permanent but I was not considered.” He could not understand why he was not considered for the permanent job. “Now a days nobody becomes permanent. There is no hope.”
“What do you do during the breaks?”
“Sir, I go out and wait for some workers at the ‘naka’ [corner]. If lucky I get painting job. Otherwise I return home.”
Two tiny rats disturbed the small containers on the rack. Everybody looked in that direction. I saw one mouse while the other made noise because of his movements.
“We have Ganapati here” he pointed out to a small picture of Ganesh on the wall, “So we will have mouse also.” He laughed to ease the tension. Everybody laughed nervously.
There was nervous silence in the room. I wanted to break it. So, I asked his sons who had entered the room to meet us, “So what do you want to be in future?”
“I want to join Army” said the elder. The younger lad did not speak. “He wants to be an engineer.” His mother responded on his behalf. A few minutes later we wished them good bye and came out of the house.
“I do not want my children to be influenced by the children in this area, Sir” he said as we moved out of his home. We were on our way back to the car. “I do not know how we can avoid it. I want them to join tuition classes but it becomes difficult. I will not be able to afford it.” He said as we found our way to the narrow lane.
We crossed the main road and came near my car. “My elder son wants to join Army,” he said. He was moved by our visit to his home. It was my turn to hold his hand. “I do not see how it will be possible. I have been working for fifteen years, I can not work too long, he will have to work by the time he finishes his schooling.”
“Have faith, things will work out for good,” I said.
I have never said anything to another person which so utterly lacked in conviction.
* * *
Insecurity and uncertainty rules their lives. Basic rights won by trade unions over a century are being denied to them. Inequality has hurt them more than others. Benefits of globalisation have not percolated to this class. This is ‘precariat’ which is getting recognised as a class now. There is simmering anger and also helplessness. Time will tell us if it has seeds of revolution.
[Read the Marathi version of this blogpost here: सांगा, त्यांनी कसं जगायचं? ]
Vivek S Patwardhan