Gas Leak in Bhilai Steel Plant

An investigating team of AICCTU, affiliated to Centre of Steel Workers, enquired into the accident which occurred in Pump House 2 of the Water Management Department (WMD) on 12 June 2014. Six people lost their lives in this accident: DGM in charge BK Singh, DGM NK Katariya, Chargeman Samuel, Fire Officer Ramesh Sharma, Senior Operator Yad Ram Sahu, and contractual worker Vikas Verma. About 40 people were injured in the accident. Soon after the incident the team members spoke to the workers of WMD, the injured workers at the hospital, and others and inspected the site of the accident. The team included Brijendra Tiwari, Rajendra Parganiha, Muktanand Sahu, Shyam Lal Sahu, and others.
The investigating team was told that on 12 June at about 6 pm a 3 ft pipe broke between header valve 55 and delivery valve 15. This pipe supplies water to Blast furnaces 1 to 6 as well as the gas cleaning plant. Around 40 workers and officers arrived at the spot for pipe line repair (technically called line isolation). During the process of line isolation, the water in the pipe started gushing out and after 15 minutes the leakage of Blast furnace gas started, causing 6 personnel to die and over 40 to sustain injuries. Of the injured, all except one worker have been discharged from hospital.
This gas is carbon monoxide which is odourless, colourless, and tasteless. There were no indicators or alarm devices to warn of the gas leakage. In addition, all the exhaust fans in the area were out of order and had been removed. This pipe line is 11 meters below ground level. This place is not equipped with a lift or with a work space cabin and there is a high level of sound here. Mud, dust, and dirt are not cleaned properly and regularly. The pipe line itself is old and worn down and often suffers breakages but instead of replacing it with a new one, it is just cosmetically repaired by punching and concreting. The valves are not also in proper operating condition.
On the day after the accident some workers were sent to the site to repair the pipe line without proper safety measures, due to which 3 workers were injured. Only after angry protests by the workers were safety measures then put in place. Repair work is still in progress and the Blast furnaces are not yet in working condition.
The BSP management attempted to hush up the death of contractual worker Vikas Verma, whose family members contacted AICCTU. The Union office bearers immediately reached the hospital at Sector 9. On the matter of employment to the victim’s family member, the BSP management tried to get away by giving a verbal assurance, but the family members and Union leaders insisted that they would not allow the post mortem of the body until a written assurance was given, and shouted slogans against the management. Finally, the BSP management gave a written assurance that one member from the victim’s family would be given permanent employment in the Bhilai Steel Plant.
Union Minister for Steel and Mines Narendra Singh Tomar visited the family members of the victims and expressed his condolences, and announced a compensation of 25 lakhs to the families of the permanent employees and 10 lakhs to the family of the contractual worker.

Demands made by AICCTU

1. A high level enquiry should be conducted into the accident, the findings should be made public, and the guilty should be punished.
2. The water pipe line should be immediately replaced by a new one.
3. A proper gas indicator system and alarm should be immediately installed in that place.
4. Vacant sanctioned posts should be filled immediately and proper repair work should be undertaken.
5. Lifts should be installed at this place as well as in other similar places as required in the Plant.
6. Unskilled workers should not be put to work in high risk areas.
7. Safety rules and labour laws should be strictly implemented.

- Brijendra Tiwari

Centre of Steel Workers Protests against Illegal Retrenchment of Contractual Workers

Centre of Steel Workers organized a one day dharna at the main gate of the Bhilai Steel Plant on 19 June 2014 to protest against the illegal retrenchment of 18 contractual workers (semi skilled workers) on 10 June. 11 contractual workers (skilled workers) were already on strike from 10 June in solidarity with the retrenched workers. The meeting was addressed by A Shekhar Rao, Rajendra Parganiha, Shyam Lal Sahu, Muktanand Sahu, Adalat Ali, Ashok Miri, Jaiprakash Nair, and others.

Through the dharna, a delegation from the Union met the DGM (Industrial Relations, Bhilai Steel Plant) Roy Choudhary and DGM (HSCL) Manoj Singh and submitted a memorandum to them. The delegation was given the assurance that all the workers would be reinstated immediately. These workers had been in their jobs for a period varying from 8 to 20 years, working for contractor Westcon engineers Pvt. Ltd., under Hindustan Steel Construction Ltd. (HSCL).They had done a hartal 2 months ago demanding minimum wages, payment slips, attendance cards, PF slips, safety shoes, additional welfare amenities and other issues, as a result of which the contractor was forced to agree to minimum wages and pay slips. On 10 June these workers were removed from work as a retributive step.

Earlier, on June 12 a representative team from the Union had met GM (Steel Melting Shop 2) Sanjeev Nayyar, AGM (Contract Labour Cell) BVN Prasad and Senior Manager (HSCL) N Chandrashekhar, discussed the matter and submitted a memorandum. The delegation consisted of Brijendra Tiwari, A Shekhar Rao, Rajendra Parganiha, Pankaj Murthy and Kamta Prasad Sinha.

As on June 20 2014, the Bhilai Steel Plant (as the principal employer contracting Westcon Constructions) has not yet reinstated the 18 workers as promised on 19 June, giving the reason that these workers are doing unionism and “netagiri’. The workers’ struggle is still on, and the Union has vowed to carry on the struggle till the management keeps its promise and reinstates the 18 workers.

Jute Workers’ Plight – And Resistance

Atanu Chakravarty

The jute industry is in the news nationally – with sensational headlines about a CEO being killed. Unfortunately, the lives of the jute workers and other workers get scant attention unless in the wake of such tragic and unfortunate incidents. Let us take a look at the facts and background of this particular incident.
On 15th June, a workers’ agitation took place at North Brook Jute Mill, which is located at Bhadreswar, Hoogly District. The management took a unilateral decision to run the mill 3 days a week. In this mill, all the labour laws are violated (which is a common phenomenon in all the jute mills of West Bengal) with impunity. The legal dues of statutory leaves were paid in 4-5 instalments, and workers were thrown out of employment at the drop of a hat. All sort of undignified, undemocratic, feudal and exploitative work conditions are prevalent in the mills. The workers were seething with anger and discontent, and the decision to reduce the working days was the last straw. The actual circumstances of the unfortunate death of the CEO are not clear. But as a consequence, work was suspended in the factory, and there have been indiscriminate arrests of local TU leaders and police terror unleashed on ordinary workers – following the same pattern as has been seen at Maruti and Pricol. TMC leaders denied their presence in the mills but the fact remains that the Board of PF Trustees is controlled by a fraction of TMC union.
Even as the Chief Minister points accusing fingers upon the ‘BJP-CPIM nexus’, the ‘owner’ of the Mill, Prakash Churaria blamed ‘some miscreants from outside’ and said workers were not all involved in this incident. Sanjay Kajaria, ex-Chairman of Indian Jute Mills Association(IJMA) squarely blamed both the state & Central Governments for the present crisis in the jute mills.
New Central Jute Mill (NCJM), is actually the only factory in the state which is run by a ‘workers’ co-operative’, located at Budge Budge, south 24 Parganas. In this sham co-operative, the workers and state government have 52 & 42 percent share respectively (some others have the rest), and the Managing Director is appointed by the Industrial Reconstruction Dept of the state government. Interestingly, the present ‘owner’ of North Brook controls the day to day affairs of the NCJM management. After colluding with Ashoke Deb, the local MLA of Trinamool Congress and some Trade Union leaders of the mill, Prakash Churaria forcefully ‘took over’ the affairs of the company. The management, in league with some TU leaders of the mill decided to sell the machines & replace it with the ‘new’ ones, under the pretext of modernisation. The AICCTU-led Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Forum (BCMF), a fraction of CITU and one more union, opposed this move. BCMF organised a massive deputation against this decision in one of its units (Albion).
The news of this agitation spread fast and the workers of another unit (Lothian) struck work, and gheraoed the management. In a shrewd move, the management tried to divert the workers’ ire towards the TU leaders and named a few leaders alleging that they ‘compelled’ him to sell the machines. The next day the workers gave a befitting reply to those leaders, the agitation continued, and all the management staff fled. To foil the management’s attempt to declare suspension of work, the workers virtually took over the mill, peacefully stayed inside their workplace, defying all the threat of the bouncers.
After active intervention of AICCTU state leadership, the SDO of south 24 parganas convened an urgent meeting with all the stakeholders of the mills on the following day. In the meeting, the management was forced to withdraw their notice and was ordered to pay the due wages by 17th June. The management stopped purchasing raw materials and daily maintenance of the machines was ignored. The workers became apprehensive and when wages were not disbursed on the said date, by 10am, thousands of workers blocked the adjacent railway line and GT Road. Despite huge police bandobast, the blockade continued. The top brass of district police forced the management to put up a notice regarding wage payment. After it was displayed, the blockade was withdrawn at midnight. Wages were disbursed the following day.
On 19th June , nearly 1000 workers took out a militant rally from the mill premises and marched through the locality under the leadership of AICCTU & Shramik Suraksha Manch.
The workers of this mill are the lowest paid and the industry-wise wage structure has not been implemented despite repeated assurances, job security of even permanent workers is a myth in this mill after the present management took over, the statutory dues of the retired workers are not paid. The Secretary of BCMF’s union was refused work for leading the agitation a month before. Only after the Labour Directorate intervened, the management was forced to back track.
The workers of the Finishing Department of Victoria jute mill of Bhadreswar, Hooghly, ceased work when the management refused to give scheduled jobs to 10 workers of that department.
Auckland Jute and Waverly jute mills of north 24 Parganas declared suspension of work w.e.f 17th and 18thJune respectively, after the workers’ agitation. The workers of Auckland jute were demanding reimbursement of their deducted wages on the day of LS election.
Why have things come to such a pass?
This century-old labour intensive industry employs more than 2.5 lakh workers directly in the mills. These are now owned & controlled not by the industrialists, but by the raw jute suppliers, promoters and intermediaries who have found a happy hunting ground in all these jute mills. The wages of the jute industry are governed by industry-wise tripartite agreements, which the present owners want to dismantle. The jute owners are trying to introduce daily wages, sans fringe benefits. Gradually, unregistered, casual-contract-voucher workers have outnumbered the permanent work-force and the ultimate goal of these owners is to transform the composite mills into smaller units .The present owners are only interested to extract huge profits within the shortest possible period without reinvestment. The textile ministry in their report has mentioned that the annual turnover of jute industry is more than 10,000 crores, but data reveals that, between 2007-2011, the industry spent Rs 274 cr, a paltry 2.7 % of the annual turnover, on modernisation and technological upgradation. All the statutory laws (PF, ESIC, Gratuity) are violated. The Factory Act is not followed and the workers are forced to work under suffocating, highly uncivilized, medieval working condition. The staggering amount of PF default , as on 31.03.2013 is a telling example. Let’s cite a few examples:

MEGHNA JUTE ( Arjun Singh, TMC MLA from Bhatpara assembly segment is a de-facto owner of this mill) 308.24 lacs (Labour in West Bengal, 2012-13).

Under the Jute Packaging Mandatory Act,1987 (JPMA),the industry enjoys a sheltered market and JCI purchases the jute bags meant for packaging food grains. Of late, the National Fibre Policy, 2011 has already recommended on phasing out protection, sheltered market and subsidy to jute sector through JPMA, 1987. Widespread use of synthetic bags have told upon this sector. The Central Govt has cut down the previous guaranteed order of jute bags, resulting in a market crunch.
The Mamata Government introduced the Industrial Policy in 2013 which is termed as Industrial and Investment Policy, 2013. The thrust of this policy was to revive Jute and Tea industry, but no meaningful steps have been taken yet to stem the rot. In the above-mentioned policy, the State Government declared its commitment towards a ‘No Bandh’ regime, and the policy statement says “there has been a significant decline in number of mandays lost due to strike in the state. Mandays lost drastically reduced in from 65,80,000 in FY 2010-11 to 5,200 to FY 2012-13’’. But, on the contrary, mandays lost due to lockout in the FY 2012-13 was 99.97% (according to Labour In West Bengal, the annual report of the labour department)! The shameless pro-employer industrial policy has helped the management to unleash an unprecedented attack upon the workers & employees of the State.
All the operating Trade Unions of the Jute mills submitted a fresh charter of demand (COD) after expiry of the previous one on January 30, 2013. Till date, the State Government has miserably failed to settle the COD, which has led to widespread discontent among the jute workers in general. Without delving deep into the problem, the State Government is describing the situation as a breakdown of law and order within the jute industry.

Lockout at Stump, Schuele, and Somappa

A Citizens’ Fact-finding Report

Stumpp, Schuele and Somappa Springs Private Limited (SSSPL), a leading manufacturer of springs for cars, two-wheelers and commercial vehicles, declared a lockout at its Hosur Road factory for its contract workers on 1st March 2014, and five days later, also for its permanent workers. All these workers who were also union members were suddenly rendered jobless. Concerned about the lock-out incident, a group of citizens formed a team and decided to undertake a fact-finding investigation; the following are the details from the report.
In order to understand what exactly brought about the lockout since March 6th, one has to look at the work conditions of contract workers in the factory vis-à-vis work conditions of permanent workers. In the factory, there are only 88 permanent workers, while there are 620 contract workers (this includes various kinds of workers such as casual workers, and trainees). According to the workers, although contract workers, permanent workers, and workers designated by the company as ‘engineers’ do the same work on the same machine, the differences in their remuneration are huge, ranging from Rs.6000 for contract workers to Rs.12 – 15000 for permanent workers and Rs.20000+ for workers designated as engineers. Contract workers are also denied benefit of many of the 14 components of wages given to permanent workers.
In order to fight this blatant imbalance in the remuneration among different workers, the union felt the need to bring together the contract and permanent workers and create a common union. In September 2012, the union filed a petition before the Labour Commissioner seeking payment of the same wages as the permanent workers for contract workers as per Rule 25 of the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, as both the workers were doing the same work. The union was told by the management to keep out the contract workers from the Union and withdraw its support to their demands. When the Union stood by their demands, the Management declared a lock-out for 240 contract workers on 1 March 2014, and refused to allow them into the factory to work, and refused to come forward for any talks. In solidarity with the contract workers, on 6th March 2014, the permanent workers issued a notice for a tool down strike to the Management seeking for them to come for negotiations. However, enraged by the support given by the permanent workers, the Management declared a lock-out on 6th March 2014.
In the meanwhile, a surprise inspection, by a team of officials from the Revenue Department, found that the management after declaring a lockout illegally brought in more than 100 workers from other states and northern districts of Karnataka. The team found that they were being made to work under ‘inhuman conditions’ and were treated like bonded labourers.
The Labour Department then initiated a conciliation to resolve the crisis, but it failed due to the obstinate stance of the management, and the matter was referred to the government. The Labour Secretary referred the dispute to the Labour Court and passed an order on 7th April 2014, prohibiting the lockout by the management.
On 10th April 2014, the management stated that only the permanent workers would be allowed inside the factory; when the union protested, they assured the Union and the Deputy Labour Commissioner that they would be willing to allow the contract workers to resume work within a short period. With this understanding, the permanent workers were allowed to resume their work on 11th April 2014.
However, currently, the management is still adamant about refusing to lift the lockout for the contract workers, even though the workers are willing to negotiate and ready to resume work.

Findings of the Report

a) The contract workers and the permanent workers perform the same work, but their wages and working conditions are extremely different and arbitrary, in violation of the law.
b) As per the Contract Labour Act Regulation and Abolition Act, 1970, only seasonal, non-core activities can be contracted out. However, in SSSPL, almost all the workers are engaged in core and full production.
c) The lockout was used as a tool of intimidation by the management to suppress the just struggle of the workers despite workers clearly stating that they wanted to work.
d) The lockout by the Management has resulted in the loss of livelihood of around 240 contract workers, their families having to face grave financial difficulties.
e) Despite receiving information about labour malpractices in the company, the Labour Department failed to conduct inspections and take action. The inspector from the Labour Department who visited the premises after the lockout suppressed information about the actual number of workers on the premises.
f) The demand of the management– that the existing Union should only have permanent workers as its members, and that it cannot represent the contract workers–is illegal, unconstitutional, and violates the fundamental right of the workers to collective bargaining.
a) The lockout must be lifted immediately for the contract workers also in order to end the hardships faced by the workers and their families.
b) All contract and other temporary workers should be regularized and receive the same benefits as the permanent workers, commensurate with qualifications and experience.
c) The management should abolish the contract labour system in perennial and core nature of work in SSSPL.
d) The Union and the workers must take all trust-building steps to wipe out the trust deficit with the management and be responsive to the efforts of the Management towards a meaningful dialogue.
e) The Labour Department must ensure that SSSPL complies with the lockout prohibition order, and all contract workers are allowed to resume work.
f) The workers must discharge their roles with efficiency to ensure the success of the company.
g) The Labour department must on a suo muto basis conduct regular inspections, and the Labour inspector who filed false reports during the lockout must be immediately suspended and disciplinary action must be initiated.
Members of the Factfinding Team : 1. Dr. Ramdas Rao (People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka), 2. Shakun M. (Vimochana), 3. Arul Selva (People’s Union for Civil Liberties-Karnataka), 4. Pushpa Achanta (Journalist), 5. Gopika Nangia (Student and Member, Concern), 6. Dr. Kishor Bhat (St. John’s Academy of Health Sciences), 7. Partha Bopaiah (Student, Bangalore University), 8. Dr. Kaveri R I (Inspire Fellow, Hyderabad Central University), 9. Rajesh Srinivas (Sangama), 10. Ashok Kaliamurthy (Activist).
Note: Since the report was published, of the 240 locked-out contract workers, 55 were taken back, but the remaining are still locked out.