“Who will take care of our children?” Padma Damor asked, pointing to a gaggle of her toddler nephews and nieces playing with discarded pieces of plywood strewn outside her hut. “This way at least we can look after them during shifts too.”

Damor, 33, was on her lunch break, in the middle of a 12-hour workday. She would hurriedly serve food to her husband, have some herself and return to the boiler room of the factory where she has been working for nearly three years.

The factory, which also employs Damor’s husband and her four sisters and brothers-in-law, is one of over 2,000 small, medium and large textile and garment manufacturing plants in the Narol-Vatva industrial cluster in southeast Ahmedabad. It is a major node in India’s $152 billion textile and apparel industry, with production facilities for top foreign brands such as H&M, Ann Taylor, Wrangler, Chico’s, and Target.

Damor’s task is carrying basketfuls of coal to the factory’s boiler, which generates steam and hot water for pre-processing, printing, dying, and, in the final stage, removing wrinkles from fabric. There are an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 boiler workers in the Narol-Vatva cluster, most of them Adivasis from Dahod and Panchamahal in Gujarat, Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, and Dungarpur and Banswara in Rajasthan. Damor is from Jhabua.

The factories, to save costs, run the boilers round the clock, since it takes around 12 hours to generate steam from a cold start and nearly as long to douse the fire. The workers, therefore, are compelled to clock in nearly 84 hours each week, far above the 48 hours mandated by the Factories Act of 1948.

The work is back-breaking, as Scroll saw during a visit to several factories in February. The women unloaded coal from tractors into baskets, which they carried on their heads to the boiler room, where the men fed the fuel to the furnace. The workers did not have any safety gear. They walked barefoot on factory floors and fired the boilers by hand without gloves, goggles, or helmets. Temperature inside the boiler room went up to 45-50 degrees Celsius, yet there was hardly any ventilation, safety sensors or even drinking water available.

“It gets very uncomfortable, especially in the summer months. But this is the only work we know, so we continue doing it,” said Kirtiben Baria, 25, who has been working in a Narol garment factory for nearly five years. Her husband brought her to the factory from their village in Dahod.

Generally, Baria said, workers are brought to Narol and Vatva by a relative or a neighbour working there. They are introduced to a factory staffer who doubles up as a contractor and pays them in cash to ensure they are not on the owner’s payroll.

An investigation carried out by the factory workers’ collective Karkhana Shramik Suraksha Sangh found that this arrangement allows the contractor to pay the workers less than Gujarat’s minimum wage. The most exploited are the women.

As against the minimum wage for unskilled workers in municipality areas of Rs 11,752 per month, the investigation found, female boiler workers in eight textile factories in Narol and Vatva earn, on an average, Rs 8,785 per month. The men make Rs 11,075.

“Workers’ shifts go on for 12 hours and they work under hazardous and inhumane conditions. Even though they work for 12 hours, the overtime wages are denied,” the collective pointed out in a recent letter to the labour department’s Director of Boilers in Ahmedabad.

The directorate, responsible for ensuring safe functioning of boilers, does not concern itself with boiler workers, however. According to an assistant director, their responsibility ends with the appointment of boiler operation engineers and attendants.

“In our dictionary, they are helpers, not workers,” the official, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, said of boiler workers. “We see to it that boiler attendants are present at all registered boilers and that they are inspected at least once a year.”

The welfare of the workers, he said, would be the responsibility of the industrial health and safety department or the Labour Welfare Board.

An assistant commissioner at the Labour Welfare Board said that his department has left the job to its field officers who organise camps to enumerate unorganised workers in Gujarat’s industrial estates.

Since these camps are held in places where a considerable number of unorganised workers are believed to live, they largely leave out boiler workers, who are usually housed within factory premises. They get a parcel of land and scrap material from factory owners and contractors to build temporary shanties, which families like Damor’s and Baria’s end up living in for years.

The workers are compelled to live in squalid shelters on factory premises. Credit: Megha Jhawar

Factory owners keep their workers on site to get round-the-clock labour. “There is no space in this factory but we have housed our workers on the premises of another of our factories nearby,” said the owner of a small garment factory in Narol. “We send for them whenever there is a need.”

As for the workers, worksite housing, though squalid, seems to be the least-worst option. “We work 12 hours. We use this place only to cook food and rest,” explained Padma Damor’s brother-in-law Ganesh Damor, 35, who has been a boiler worker for nearly four years. “Moreover, reaching the factory early in the morning or late at night would be difficult if we stayed somewhere else.”

Such a living arrangement also makes it easier to look after their children, Ganesh Damor added. “We need to care for our younger children between shifts. Living here helps us do that,” he said.

The Affordable Rental Housing Scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is supposed to provide decent accommodation with basic amenities to urban poor and migrants employed in the industrial sector as well as the non-formal urban economy. It envisages roping in private developers to turn vacant, government-owned housing complexes into rental housing. As it stands, however, the scheme has little relevance to boiler workers in Ahmedabad. “They do not have the paying capacity,” said Ashim Roy, co-founder of Asia Floor Wage Alliance. “They won’t be able to pay the rent even if a complex were to come up near their workplaces.”