Surprised I was! I recognised Dr Vivek Monteiro in the post on Facebook. A group of housekeeping and gardening workers were removed from service by BPCL and he was seen in the photograph with them. I felt that this needs further investigation, so I reached out to Dr Monteiro.
Among the present-day labour leaders, there is none who matches the stature of Dr Vivek Monteiro. An unassuming and soft-spoken person, he holds post-grad qualification from California Institute of Technology and Ph D from State University of New York. He has devoted his life to teaching science and to the labour movement, he is the Secretary of CITU for the past several years.
I met Dr Monteiro at his office in Bhandup and we started for BPCL’s staff colony. It is situated at Vashi Naka on Mahul road leading to BARC. At a short distance is the housing colony of Tata Power where I grew up and lived for thirteen years. The area was familiar to me then but has changed now beyond recognition. [But then I left this area in 1970, which was fifty years ago!]. A flyover of the Eastern Freeway goes over the Mahul road, almost above the entrance to the BPCL’s Staff colony, and over the freeway is the bridge of monorail! Two huge concrete structures dwarf this beautiful colony. Under these two modern structures representative of development lies a beautiful colony of public sector employees of BPCL, encircled by slum of impoverished dwellers who have no secure employment, some live a hand to mouth existence. There could not have been a more appropriate location for the story which follows.
Dr Vivek Monteiro and I reached the main gate of the BPCL staff colony. A vada-pav ‘tapri’ is constructed right under the signboard of the colony. On the other side of the gate is a police ‘chowki’ – with its door locked. Ten women and men surrounded us. They were housekeeping workers removed from service. He introduced me to them.
“They removed us from service. They called us in the afternoon and told us that our employment was terminated. We can’t enter our workplace, but they have brought in new 150 workers.” Others went to the gate and looked at the colony. The watchman in uniform came out of his post and gave a careful look. An old lady with lost vision in one eye mumbled something, I could not comprehend. ‘She is Kantabai Naidu. She has nobody to support her. She is extremely stressed,’ they said. I realised that this was going to be a long discussion, I exchanged contact details with Indubai Choudhari, the secretary of their union, with a promise to meet them again. A passer-by became curious on seeing discussion with us and asked if we were recruiting. He was immediately shooed away.
I called up Indubai and we decided to meet at the colony gate. She had asked Kusum, Saraswati and Kalavati to join us and they too arrived soon. We decided that the best place for discussion will be Indubai’s home.
“You will have to jump over a small gutter,” she was embarrassed to inform.
“No problem” I said.
From the main street we entered a very small space between two shops, wide enough for only one person to pass. The maze of spaces between the houses will surely ensure that a newcomer will not be able to find his way back to the main street. Indubai stopped, they were putting a cover over the gutter. It required us to jump over to the other side of the gutter. Indubai apologised for the inconvenience. A few left and right turns and we were at her home. It was a small home of two rooms of 8’x8’ size, with inner room as a kitchen. A small ladder was placed near and parallel to the wall to go to the upper floor. Sometime ago the Government allowed them to add one more floor but limiting the height to fourteen feet.
Indubai, Saraswati, Kalavati and Kusum sat down while they insisted that I should sit on a bench which I guess doubled up as bed at night.
“Tell me your native place” I asked.
“I hail from Jalgaon” said Indubai, “Saraswati comes from Kolhapur, Kusum comes from Jejuri. Kalavati’s home town is Ratnagiri but she has spent all her life here in Mumbai.” Marriage had brought them to Mumbai. And it also brought them greater misery. Their husbands had no job which can earn regular income, and this aspect was misrepresented during ‘match making’. Their men had taken to the bottle. Kalavati was not educated by her parents though she was brought up in Mumbai, though her brothers received schooling.
“What work your husband do?” I asked.
“He was employed in a textile mill, and lost his job during the textile mill strike. Then he just stopped working.”
“Our husbands did not have a good company job. They were also casual workers.” Indubai added.
“Your education?” I asked Kusum.
“Up to 4th standard. We lived in poverty. We used to pick up coal which fell by the railway track when wagons carried it; we used it as fuel for cooking.”
“When did you start working at BPCL’s housing colony?”
“Sometime in 1988. Actually, all of us joined there at the same time. I have three sons. So poor was our condition that I used to get them to BPCL for work. They have often cleaned the gutters and done other cleaning work as young boys. They would also supplement our earning by taking up jobs during school holidays.”
“We had no money. Sometimes people helped us financially.”
“Did your sons complete schooling?”
“One of them studied up to 9th standard, another has passed 10th and the middle brother has studied up to 12th.”
“Educating the children was a big problem” Indubai said. “A school opened up near our home and I wanted my children to get admission there. Somebody suggested that I should approach the local political leader then, and when I approached, he asked me to pay Rs. 500 for admission. I immediately left his office. I was not in a position to pay Rs. 500, and I also realised that the political leaders were not serving the people, they had opened a shop. I never again approached any leader.”
“How did the children get admitted to the school?”
“I approached the principal and the teachers. They were nice people. They helped.”
“What work they do now?”
“Sir, my son works as security guard. He is employed by the Security Guards Board and has steady income, though it is not adequate. Kalavati’s children work as casual workers. Saraswati’s son is no different. Kusum’s three sons do odd jobs, they too do not have regular job.”
“What kind of jobs?”
“Cleaning or sometimes painting.”
“Do they find work on all days?”
“No. They get work on twelve or fifteen days in a month. That’s a meagre income. What to do?”
“Are they married?”
“Yes” said Kusum. “I have four grandchildren.”
“Do you stay together?”
She nodded to say ‘yes’.
“So, seven adults, three sons, their wives, four grandchildren and you stay in your home.” This took me back. The slums have homes which barely allow space, not to mention privacy. Indubai’s story was not different. She had set up a small hut made of bamboo and ‘chatai’ – kind of curtain made of bamboo sticks. A pucca house followed much later.
“How do you manage expenses?”
There was long silence. Kusum had lost her husband long ago. “I have somehow brought up my family. I can’t describe how I did it. Remembering those days brings tears to my eyes. I want to forget those days. I have lost my job now. What should I do?” Kusum was in distress.
Everybody fell silent. We resumed conversation when she regained composure. Yes, she had lost her job. It fetched her statutory minimum wages. Nothing more than the minimum wage. That meant her purchasing power remained unchanged throughout thirty years of service – in theory at least. We are presuming here that consumer price index is calculated in scientific way which is a controversial subject. How does one justify no improvement in real wages even after working for thirty years?
“Many textile workers receive compensation, though late…”
“He did not.”
“Sir, he had a job for a while. Our husbands did not have a regular job at all.”
“Did you withdraw provident fund?”
Indubai intervened. “Dr. Monteiro tells us not to withdraw provident fund while in service. The fact is that we withdrew it whenever BPCL changed the contractor.” BPCL under the directive of the Supreme Court was not allowed to change the housekeeping contract workers, though they could change the contractor.
“Why did you not follow Monteiro’s advice?”
“We needed funds for daughter’s marriage, it is a big expense. We needed money for education of children. There were so many expenses, we had no savings.”
“How much rent do you pay?”
“For this home Rs 5000 per month. Saraswati had a place of her own, but she had to sell it to repay loans. Now she stays in a rented place. The rent is concessional as she stays in a house owned by a relative.”
“What work does your son do?” I asked Saraswati.
“Casual work. No regular job.” She had two sons; one died some time ago. Her three daughters were married. She had to take the responsibility of managing the family because her husband deserted her. He returned but after a long gap. And died soon thereafter.
“When did you form union?”
“In 1989. We did not receive our pay regularly. The contractor was one Jacob Sheth. Our pay would be in arrears for a few months. We had also approached the officer of BPCL to increase our pay by one rupee – our pay was nineteen rupees, we asked for twenty rupees per day. But he insulted us, he said ‘I will not give you even ten paise.’ But the same officer had to sign a settlement which gave us pay of Rs. 29 per day.”
“We met a few committee members of the RCF’s union. [Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers. Their manufacturing site is close to the BPCL colony]. We explained our situation and they took us to Dr Monteiro. We then formed a union affiliated to CITU.”
“Do you get benefits?” Actually, I was embarrassed to ask this question.
“We get fifteen days leave.”
“But they would not give us festival holidays. We went on a fast to protest. They relented. We get four festival holidays in a year.”
“When did that happen?”
“Seven years ago.”
“So, you did not enjoy festival holidays for twenty-three years!” I observed.
“Are you paid house rent allowance?”
“But there is a law in Maharashtra which requires payment of 5% of wages as house rent allowance.”
“We have always been paid only the minimum wages. Now they have a machine to clean the colony. It is called ‘Mr. Clean’. They pay Rs. 22,000 per day for it. Have they saved any cost?”
“We were a group of thirty-five workers. We have been removed and Knight Frank is given the contract for housekeeping. The workers of Knight Frank are paid Rs. 15,000 per month whereas we drew a wage of Rs. 12,000.” (Perhaps she was referring to her ‘take home’ pay. The minimum wage applicable was Rs. 583 per day and they could earn for 26 days in a month. That makes it approximately Rs. 15000 pm. However we do not know if Knight Frank was also employing their workers as Contract workers! That would be another story!!)
“That too after thirty years of service.”
Everybody joined the discussion. “BPCL is a government company and so also HPCL. [Burmah Shell, the international company, was nationalised in 1976 and renamed ‘Bharat Petroleum’ while ESSO (Now Exxon in USA) was nationalised in 1974 and named ‘Hindustan Petroleum.’ They are popularly called BPCL and HPCL by the initials of their names.] But HPCL quickly settled the dispute with its contract workers and they get Rs. 7000 more than the minimum wages.”
“This is true. And additionally, HPCL workers get Rs. 100 per day as conveyance allowance which makes the overall compensation of Rs. 22,000 per month. RCF contract workers get about Rs. 24,000 per month.”
“When all these three companies are owned by the Government why can’t they follow the same policy toward contract labour?”
“What’s the issue?” I asked Dr Monteiro while in his office. He explained the facts in detail. Soon after forming the union in 1989, the workers demanded permanency. In a dispute raised by CITU Union, the High Court of Bombay ordered that those workers be made permanent. BPCL approached the Supreme Court against this order. The Supreme Court decided the SAIL case  while the BPCL matter was pending before it. In 2004 the Supreme Court rescinded the judgement of the Bombay High Court. It had ordered that those workers be made permanent. The issue of contract labour was raised then before Contract Labour Advisory Board, but the union is not pressing its conclusion as the counsel for the BPCL has assured that no contract labour will be removed, and their employment will be continued. So BPCL has a court protected group of contract workers. These court protected workers get replaced by new workers who are not being paid even minimum wages. CITU has posted a complaint on the Central Government portal stating that minimum wages are not being paid. This is now pending before the Commissioner of Labour. All the workers who complained that they were not being paid minimum wages have been removed in 2018. Their service ranges from 5 to 10 years. This is not the court protected group of workers. And contractors have also been changed. Some of the court protected workers crossed 60 years of age, so BPCL terminated their service.
While BPCL rules state retirement at the age of 60, there is no such service condition for the contract workers. This matter has also gone to the Supreme Court. In another matter, the contention of the BPCL was that the housing colony of the employer company is not an ‘establishment’. This contention was rejected at CGIT and High Court.
In November 2018, they were removed from service. So, the CITU Union says the BPCL must pay gratuity. Since the contractors have defaulted payment, BPCL must pay gratuity. They have filed the necessary papers and will knock the doors of higher authorities to seek justice. Supreme court issued a clarificatory order [06.05.2019] which states that, ‘Having heard the learned counsels for the parties, we clarify that the order dated 24.11.2014 will have no application in the case of employees who have crossed the age of 60. Superannuation benefits due and payable shall naturally be made available forthwith, in accordance with law.’ In other words, gratuity should have been paid.
The case of BPCL housekeeping workers is not unique. Recently BARC removed sixty housekeeping workers in a similar manner. Dr Vivek Monteiro has taken up their cause too. I have covered the plight of contract workers and temporary workers earlier.
But let us stop here and think: Why the overall financial status of these women remained unchanged for the last thirty years? Why their real wages showed no increase? Why does final resolution take more than twenty-nine years? They have knocked the doors of justice in 1990 and it is not finally settled as yet. About seventy workers approached the court in 1990 and about 25 of them have died so far. Do we realise that the issues are getting settled by the intervention of death? Why couldn’t these women educate their sons? Who is responsible when a worker’s standard of living does not improve even after working thirty years continuously? Who is responsible to the untold misery of these contract workers?
Here are four women who fought for their rights at workplace. They almost single-handedly raised their families. While they say they did what they could for their families, there is a deep pain and regret. They wonder if they will live the remaining life with respect and honour; they know the answer to that doubt. In one day they have moved from being an earning member to being dependent on their children who too do not have a regular income. Without gratuity, they have nothing in bank!
There are many unanswered questions. But in final analysis there is one question and its answer stares in our face: Are we sensitive to people who work with us? BPCL has failed that test! And as a society we have failed too.
Vivek S Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”