Report on field visit to BSNL contract workers

On the 22nd of January, comrade Adhiraj and Pushkar of the New Wave made a visit to a team of contract workers who attended our Open Forum on the 7th of January.

They were engaged in work of line repair for BSNL underground cables. The workers have told us that they have been at this work since morning at 9 and had spent 7 hours at work by the time we arrived. During our stay there we did not see any supervisor nor technician on the spot to guide the workers in this work, although the line man ought to be present.

When we asked about the nature of the work and the support from the company or contractor, one worker was quick to point out that “There is no support from the company or contractor, if we injure ourselves there is no accident insurance either. Despite the fact that the work we do is of a hazardous nature”. They also pointed out to us an earlier incident of a colleague being injured while on duty.

Later on we discussed about the core demands which the workers would look forward to. They were all unanimous in stating that their main concern is getting proper payment of wages. One worker among them told us “The contractor disburses the payments, and he always pays us less than the minimum wage. We don’t get ESI *( Employee’s State Insurance) payment or Provident Fund payment, but a much smaller amount” . Incidentally it was in most cases less than the stipulated minimum wage for the state of Maharashtra and far below the minimum wage guaranteed by the latest order by BSNL itself.

When asked “are you satisfied with the minimum wage of around Rs. 10,000?” the workers unanimously stated that the wage must be at least Rs. 12-15,000 especially so given the rising cost of rent and transport. Most of the workers we interviewed live in the outskirts of Pune and have to travel distances of 50 or more kilometres to arrive at the office, from where they are assigned different areas of the city to work in. The pressure for transportation drains out most of the monthly income from the workers, which we found were in most cases around Rs. 5000 . A pitiable amount considering the house rent and cost of transport. Even here, though workers have complained to us about arrears in payment and delays in payment. We were told by one worker, that two months’ payment of wages had not yet been given to him.

We asked him later on about how long he has been working in BSNL and what were his motivations in joining the company. He explained to us : “I have been working in BSNL for around 12 years at least. Right after completing graduation I joined the company. We were told that BSNL was a growing and reputed government company. All of us who joined expected the stability of a government job. I hoped that after two or three years my employment would be regularized, but nothing of the sort happened. In the last 12 years I have seen no change it has been as bad as it is now. I have two parents, a wife and a child in my family, and so far, we’re surviving only on my father’s pension. I haven’t been able to contribute a single rupee to the family because my wages are too little and aren’t paid in time.”

All workers we discussed with were more than willing to come out in struggle for their basic demands, however, they did not find the necessary support. The main trade unions in BSNL had not raised the issue of contract workers on their agenda till the New Wave Bolshevik Leninist initiated its Open Forums. The main fear in the minds of the workers however, was the constant threat of retrenchment which the contractor keeps repeating. Absence is punished with pay cuts and the workers are forced to attend on weekends including Sundays and other statutory holidays. Even Independence Day and Republic Day are not spared and their names are written on the muster rolls even when they do not attend. That day’s pay is cut from their monthly salary.

Comrade Adhiraj Bose later on answered the doubts regarding the legal structure in place for contract work. In particular, the duties of the contractor and the management in the event that the contractor fails to do his duty. The position of the contract worker is legally synonymous with a ‘workman’ in the Industrial Disputes Act which entitles him to all benefits which any permanent worker enjoys including ESI payment and Provident Fund. Not only that, but makes it mandatory on part of the contractor to provide for this. A discrepancy in payments by the contractor would invoke punitive sections in the Abolition and Regulation of Contract Workers Act, and would also put burden on the company management to make good any arrear in payment to the worker. Neither company nor contractor is performing their legally binding duty in this case. Equally significant to note, that when a worker is employed in a job of a continuing nature, that entitles him for regularization. Most of the workers therefore, would be entitled to regularization.

At the end of the meeting the workers were keen to know about the next step in the Open Forums initiative. We have resolved to continue the organization of the Open Forum and use it as a fighting force for the rights of contract workers. The next step we decided is to investigate into grievances of contract workers within Pune district and investigate into contractors who have indulged in illegal abuses.


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