Labour unrest

Workers riot at two work-sites, in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana

Even as the number of strikes across India has gone down, militancy by workers is increasing.

In two separate incidents, workers clashed with employers and contractors at work sites on Saturday morning in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

In Haryana, more than 3,000 factory workers rioted at a factory owned by Orient Craft, one of India's top two garment-maker and exporter. The workers set fire to the fabric store inside the plant, overturned vehicles in and around the unit and set fire to them. They were responding to rumours that four workers had been electrocuted in an elevator in the plant that morning. It later became clear that Pawan Kumar, who attached attaching price tags to garments, had received shocks but had not died. Kumar was being treated at a private hospital in Gurgaon.

Four hundred kilometers away, at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, construction workers building the branch of the Indian Institute of Technology killed four security guards hired by a labour contractor. The construction workers, affiliated with Centre of Indian Trade Unions of the CPI(M), had been on strike for five weeks demanding their May wages and their provident fund dues. On Saturday morning, when the workers began a rally, the security guards fired at them. The workers attacked the guards, who were migrants from Punjab, with sticks and stones, leaving four dead.

Describing the guards as goons hired by the contractor, Rakesh Singh, the Himachal Pradesh Vice President of of the  Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said that the previous day, on June 19, the workers had met the district collector. They had informed him that the guards hired by a labour contractor at the site were using weapons to intimidate them. District Collector Sandeep Kadam confirmed that the workers had met him on June 19 but denied that he had any information about the guards possessing illegal arms. He said he had asked the sub divisional magistrate and the labour inspector to visit the site. “They were to visit the site on June 20, when this incident happened,” said Kadam.

These incidents of violence occurred even as the number of strikes in factories are declining across the country. The 1970s witnessed almost 100,000 strikes each year. But as per Labour Bureau reports, there were 240 strikes in 2008, 167 in 2009, 199 in 2010 and 179 in 2011.

Strikes across India 

The day after

At the Orient Craft plant in Gurgaon, more than 150 policemen were stationed around the factory on Sunday, a day after the riot. Several of the glass windows had been broken. The remains of the burnt cars and motorcycles had been removed. The charred walls in the front of the building were being painted.

Orient Craft, one of India's largest garment exporters, is a Rs 1,500 crore-company that has been set up by businessman Sudhir Dhingra. It has 21 manufacturing units producing 200,000 garments a day for international brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, Macys, Ann Taylor and others. Pawan Kumar, the 27-year old migrant from Etawa in Uttar Pradesh, who had received electric shocks on Saturday, was one of Orient Craft's 25,000 workers.

Several workers had gathered at the gates. The air was still thick with rumours. “I hear four workers have died,” said Vikas Kumar, an 18-year old migrant from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, who had worked at Orient Craft folding garments till two months ago. Vikas had worked from 9 am to 8 pm every day folding 3,500-4,000 garments every day for a salary of Rs 6,000, he said.

Sanjay Jha, who has worked for six years as a supervisor at the company, said that half of the 6,000 workers inside the plant had been employed through contractors. He said Pawan Kumar had joined the unit last year and that Kumar's uncle worked at the unit as a  supervisor. He said it was at 9 am  when he heard that a worker had died. Soon, there was another rumour that four workers had died. Next, he saw workers gathering outside the factory, and that a few workers had begun to set fire to objects lying around.

A senior manager who identified himself only by his last name Luthra said that the violence resulted "from workers' confusion". He claimed that "outside elements and miscreants may also have had a role”.  Aman Kumar, an apparel manager, recounted that officials locked themselves up in a room for four hours while the workers went on a rampage outside. “There were thousands of workers pelting bricks and stones and breaking any thing they could find," he said. When he came out at 2 pm, he saw that his car had been broken.

Walls being painted fresh at Orient Craft factory on Sunday.

Almost all of the Gurgaon police ‒ more than 1,000 personnel ‒ had to be called out, said an official at Kherki Daula police station. The police commissioner also went to the scene.  Assistant Sub Inspector Brahm Prakash,  the investigating officer in the case, said an FIR had been registered against eight workers for instigating their colleagues in the canteen. The charges against them include attempt to murder.

Police officials and workers said the workers had attacked supervisors and managers, slapping and hitting them, though no one from the management reported any injuries.

Orient Craft has six factories in the Gurgaon industrial area. While the maximum damage occurred in the plant Pawan in which worked, the glass panes of other plants had also been shattered. Sonu Kumar, in his late 20s, who worked in an adjoining plant of Orient Craft, said a worker in the plant had informed him of the workers' death's news. By 11 am, all six factories of Orient Craft as well as nearby units had stopped production. “After work stopped, I came here and saw two cars lay burnt and overturned and several glass windows had been broken," Kumar said. "I felt a sense of satisfaction that if the workers have done this to get the body of another worker, tomorrow if anything happened to me, they will do the same for me.”

An official for Orient Craft said the company was unable to respond to press queries immediately since senior officials were  busy in dealing with the aftermath of the violence.

Saturday was the third time in three years that workers at Orient Craft have rioted. On March 19, 2012, thousands of workers went on a rampage after reports that Naseem Ahmed a worker in the hosiery unit in Sector 34 had been stabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors by a labour contractor at the unit.

Last year, on March 28, workers in Orient Craft's plant in Udyog Vihar on Delhi-Haryana border rioted after Sunil Pushkar, a 35-year old tailor from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh died while working at his sewing machine inside the plant. According to the postmortem reports, he had died of a cardiac failure. Workers alleged that he had got electrocuted and that the company was trying to whisk his body away to avoid paying any compensation. For several hours, the workers pelted stones and clashed with the management.

Other incidents

It is the second such riot in Delhi and Haryana in three months involving garment workers. Earlier this year, on February 12, workers from several factories in Udyog Vihar on Delhi-Haryana border had attacked factories after a rumour that Sammi Chand, who worked as a quality-checker on contract in Richa Garments, had died after being beaten by security guards of the company. Over a thousand workers went on the rampage, setting fire to cars, burning documents and files inside the plant. Sammi Chand registered a First Information Report against the company saying he had been removed from work and had suffered injuries after being beaten by the company's guards for being a few minutes late to work.

Trade unions' leaders in both Himachal Pradesh and Haryana said workers' turning to violence indicated rising discontent. They blamed both government's neglect of enforcement of labour laws, as well as increasing work pressure. They pointed out that workers were toiling long hours, but got paid a very low wages.

Rakesh Singha, the vice president of CITU Himachal Pradesh, said the government officials had failed to enforce to enforce labour laws despite workers' complaints. "A day before the firing incident, the workers had met the Mandi district collector and informed him that one of the contractors on the site was showing his muscle. He had hired goons as security guards to threaten the workers, that the contractor's men had arms with them."

Satbir Singh, Secretary of CITU in Gurgaon said in Haryana's manufacturing hubs, while companies were pushing the pedal on production, they were indifferent to workers' suppressed real wages, long hours of work, and poor living conditions.  In addition, he said, companies and government officials discouraged workers from forming trade unions

“There is anger among workers against repression," Singh said. He spoke of the July 2012 clashes in Manesar between Maruti workers and management, in which a manager was killed. "Like Maruti, Orient Craft is one of India's largest companies, at least paying wages to workers on time. But there is no concern among the government or the factory owners over what are workers' wages, hours of work, and living conditions."

He added, "Workers' dissatisfaction is not finding an outlet in non-violent agitation, or strikes as most factories discourage formation of trade unions."

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