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Often, “talking” is more difficult than “fighting”: The struggle of contract workers in Chhattisgarh

But the contract workers of Chhattisgarh did that too…and inked a remarkable settlement.

22nd January 2016 marks a watershed in a 25 year long struggle for contract workers in the ACC Jamul Cement Works (now LafargeHolcim), Chhattisgarh when their union the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS) signed a settlement that is exceptional in many ways.

For the past more than 25 years PCSS, a deeply rooted and militant union affiliated to the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee), has been fighting a long battle in the streets and in the courts against the hard conditions of work and life of contract workers in the cement plant of ACC Jamul, in violation of the industry-wide Cement Wage Board Agreement. In 2006 the Union won an order for regularization of hundreds of contract workers, which was partially upheld in 2011 by the High Court limiting the relief to about 120 workers still in service. But an intransigent management that refused to even recognize, far from negotiate with the PCSS, and which grew even more powerful as it was incorporated into Holcim and then LafargeHolcim; a callous and toothless labour department; and a hostile pro-corporate right wing government ensured that the High Court order could not be implemented. Despite strikes and dharnas the matter was dragged back into court, and was pending before the Division Bench of the High Court of Chhattisgarh.

In the year 2012 two things happened. On the one hand, the PCSS getting support from global federation IndustriALL and solidarity from Solifonds and Unia, filed a complaint against Holcim before the Swiss National Contact Point (NCP) of the OECD in Berne, Switzerland, alleging that Holcim was disobeying the guidelines for multinationals by violating Indian labour standards and court orders, by refusing collective bargaining in good faith, and by violating the rights of the surrounding farming communities. On the other hand Holcim began constructing a huge, highly mechanized, state-of-the-art new expansion plant in Jamul that was to have several times more capacity. It fondly imagined that after closing down the old plant and getting rid of its 1200 odd workers (and of course their Union too!) it would run this plant with some 90 highly trained outside workmen. Right from the inception of this plant, PCSS began agitating for local employment and intervened several times for the rights of the thousands of construction labour engaged there.

After many fits and starts, discussions actually began between the top management of LafargeHolcim and the PCSS on the directions of the Swiss NCP, first in Berne and then from 2014 onwards in India. It soon became clear that it was a difficult choice before the Union – either the benefits of regularization and arrears to a small group of workers as directed by the High Court; or negotiating to minimise the retrenchment that was being proposed. At this point the High Court beneficiaries showed remarkable collective union spirit in giving up those benefits to push for maximum deployment of existing workers in the new and old plants with better working conditions; and the maximum compensation package with alternative livelihood support to those who were to lose jobs. Despite some discouraging rounds and many not-so-calm debates, the PCSS team led by its chief negotiator Ashim Roy of the NTUI, and the management led by Behram Shirdewala, Chief People Officer, were able to persist with maturity towards a settlement. This was despite the opposition of the local political class and vested interests such as the 22 contractors and their 60 supervisors who were also to be rendered irrelevant.

The settlement provides that out of 932 contract workers, 536 of them would be deployed in the new and old plants – 212 of them at Cement Wage Board rates (about 4 times minimum wage), 196 at 50% Cement Wage Board rates (twice the minimum wage) to be enhanced to full wage board rates in 2 years; and the remaining at 25% above minimum wages – to be enhanced to 30% above minimum wages after a year. (These workers were selected through a skill assessment process by the management which the union tried to keep as fair and transparent as possible.) The remaining surplus workers have been awarded 3 months of wage for every year they worked as compensation (in addition to their gratuity and other legal dues), thus getting packages ranging from over 20,000 for a worker who has worked for a year right upto around 4.5 lakh rupees for older workers. About 200 of these workers have put in less than 5 years, and another around 75 workers are over 55 years of age. Each such unmapped worker would be entitled to nominate one person from his family to get industrial training from the company’s training centre and support in placement. For contract workers this is quite unprecedented.

No doubt both the Union and the workers cannot be happy losing jobs, particularly when it means venturing out of the protective umbrella of the Union into the jungle of labour law violations that our industrial areas are. But painful and protracted consultations confirmed that the other alternative of legal retrenchment with a month’s pay after endless legal battles was probably more painful. And of course, no one leaves the Union, which would be there through thick and thin to ensure promises and to help multiply more unions in the industrial areas. The larger political issue of whether such labour – displacing technology is really needed, or should be permitted, needs to be fought for by the larger working class movement of which we are only a tiny and not very powerful part.

For PCSS, this is the beginning of another round of struggle. To organize contract workers in other units of the cement industry and in other industrial areas; to give the toiling people a place to come to for solidarity in all situations – slum evictions, farmers agitations, atrocities against women or communal incidents; and to develop a centre for political education and a co-operative society to save workers from the goonda money lenders….. a lot is to be done.

We would fail if we didn’t recall all those who helped us in these long years, for the struggle was not ours alone. The women and men of the working class bastis of Bhilai & Raipur and villages of Baloda Bazar of who stood in solidarity with us to brave lathis and share jails and lockups; our friends amongst unionists, lawyers, journalists, students, social activists, film makers, and intellectuals in Chhattisgarh and all over the country, who supported us morally and materially; our comrades of IndustriALL, NTUI and Solifonds who through international solidarity made negotiations possible – to all of you, we say a very big thank you.

We also are humbled to remember those who are no longer with us – Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi and the martyr workers of Bhilai – who remind us of larger political goals and dreams, still a very long and hard way away. We hope that today’s gains strengthen our resolve to fight economism and to move towards such goals.

Duniya ke Mazdooron Ek Ho!
Looteron ki Jageer Nahi, Chhattisgarh Hamara Hai!
Inquilab Zindabad!
Bansi, Lakhan, Ramakant, Rajkumar, Kaladas, Saraswati, Kaushal, Neera, Shalini, Rinchin, Shreya, Mahesh, Sudha
Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karyakarta Committee


Timeline of the Struggle in Holcim:

  • 1989: Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (PCSS), affiliated with the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), is constituted and the first struggle against the mechanization of coal loading-unloading takes place. Com Niyogi sits on hunger strike. The coal loading-unloading workers are permitted to also do “process jobs” in the company at Cement Wage Board rates.
  • 1990-91: Demand raised for regularization of all contract workers in cement production, and Cement Wage Board rates of wages for all of them in ACC Jamul as per the 1978 Award.
    Contract workers in the engineering industries of the Bhilai Industrial Estate invite Com Niyogi of CMM to lead them in a struggle for living wage and regularization. (CMM with its powerful red-green union of iron ore miners, a centre of power and solidarity for the toiling people, with alternative institutions of health and education, was attracting workers from other industrial areas.)
    An epic struggle of contract workers erupts in the Bhilai Industrial Area, 4200 workers dismissed from 16 units of 5 major industrial houses. Contract workers of ACC also join the movement.
  • 28th Sept 1991: Com Niyogi assassinated a mere fortnight after he petitions the President of India with 50,000 signatures in support of the Bhilai struggle.
  • 1st July 1992: 17 workers killed in police firing on a Rail Roko Satyagraha including 3 workers of ACC Jamul Cement Works.
  • 1996-97: 2 Industrialists of Simplex Group and their henchmen convicted for the murder of Com Niyogi by the Trial Court. A year later the High Court acquits all.
  • 1997-98: The Modi Cement Company at Bhatapara becomes Ambuja Cements Ltd.
  • 1998: The Judicial Enquiry Commission on the Bhilai Police Firing holds that the main cause of the Bhilai agitation was the bogus contract system which is a mere paper arrangement by the companies to avoid providing wages and benefits on par with regular workers. Recommends cases of regularization to be referred.
  • 1999-2000: Ambuja Ltd acquires stake in ACC Ltd.
  • 12.06.2000: Government refers dispute regarding regularization of 573 contract/ casual/ transport workers of ACC Jamul to the Industrial Court, as recommended by the Judicial Enquiry Commission.
  • 2001: Union files its statement of claim before the Industrial Court alleging sham and bogus contracts.
    72 drivers and helpers of trucks carrying slag for ACC and covered by the Reference are dismissed. All except 2 accept VRS in dire economic situation.
  • 03.11.2003: PCSS files an application in the Industrial Court to restrain ACC from changing service conditions of workers covered by the Reference.
  • 03.08.2004: Industrial Court passes an order allowing this application.
  • Upto 2005: Despite the above order, in the name of the so-called contractors, group after group of workers is illegally separated from work by the ACC Company. Out of 573 workers nearly 350 are thus coerced to take VRS. This includes about 120 directly employed casual workers.
  • 2005: Holcim takes over ACC and Ambuja companies.
  • 28.02.2006: Industrial Court gives an Award of regularization of all 573 workers from 12.06.2000, including reinstatement and regularization of the 350 who had been coerced into taking VRS, with arrears to be paid in two installments.
  • 25.04.2006: Despite efforts of the Union to implement the Industrial Court Award, Holcim appeals it in the High Court. The High Court passes an Interim order (under Section 65(3) CGIR Act analogous to 17-B of the ID Act) to pay full wages last drawn to all those who had been directed to be reinstated.
  • 2006-2010: Holcim does not comply fully with the interim order, giving only 3-5 days of wages to the workers, since they had been given only that many days of work in their last month of work, instead of full wages last drawn. Many applications are filed in the High Court for compliance with the Interim order. A final application for proper compliance with Section 65(3) is dismissed by the Single Judge. Union appeals against this before the Division Bench.
  • 29.06.2010 PCSS supports villagers of village Bhadrapali affected by the illegal encroachment of Ambuja Cement to file a complaint before the authorities. It also supports villages of Pounsari against effects of blasting, and land losers of Village Rawan to raise their demand for permanent jobs under their local organization “Udyog Prabhavit Kisan Sangh.”
  • Sept-Oct 2010 52 union members of PCSS refused work in Ambuja Holcim. PCSS prefers a complaint with the ALC (State) against this dismissal and the exploitation of contract workers including non-payment of minimum wages, grant of statutory documents, and deductions for shoes and helmets.
  • 07.09.2010 Division Bench passes an order refusing to interfere with the Order of the Single Judge rejecting compliance of Section 65(3) CGIR in the ACC case. Union appeals this Order before the Supreme Court.
  • Nov-Dec 2010 PCSS files complaint with ALC (Central) with regard to grievances against Ambuja Holcim.
  • 28.12.2010 Total strike at Ambuja Holcim. Minimum wages begin to be paid. Security officers brandish pistols to threaten workers.
  • 04.01.2011 A young girl is crushed by a dumper of Ambuja Holcim. 8 union activists including Bhagwati Sahu and Lakhan Sahu are picked up and released only after hundreds of villagers protest at the police station. Another trade union activist Ashwini Sahu detained illegally for 7 days.
  • Feb 2011 Contractors and Ambuja representatives do not come for the meeting called by the ALC. The ALC fixes the next meeting for
  • 25.03.2011 and seeks an explanation why the license of Ambuja should not be revoked.
  • 04.03.2011 Once again management and contractors do not show up before the ALC. Again the ALC issues a show cause notice to Ambuja why its license should not be revoked and fixes date for 25.03.2011.
  • 06.03.2011 Security officers of Ambuja – YP Singh and Nandlal Choubey file separate FIRs that both have been assaulted and robbed in the same market within half an hour of each other, implicating 4 union activists each including leaders Bhagwati Sahu and Lakhan Sahu.
  • 22.03.2011 Single Judge finally decides the Writ Petition of the ACC appealing against the Award of Industrial Court. It does not uphold the reinstatement of the workers who had accepted VRS. But upholds regularization of about 120 who are still in service..
  • 18.05.2011 Bhagwati Sahu arrested in Baloda Bazar.
    Upto Aug Union makes all efforts for implementation of the High Court Judgment including dharna and strike.
  • 27.06.2011 Holcim appeals the Judgment of the Single Judge in the ACC case before a Division Bench. Finally the Union also files a cross appeal.
  • 15.08.2011 Three workers die on Independence Day in ACC Holcim in an industrial accident.
  • 15.11.2011 Delhi High Court okays the amalgation of Ambuja Cement with Holcim India.
  • 07.01.2012 PCSS files a complaint about violations of the OECD guidelines by Holcim group before the Swiss NCP. Complaint is soon joined by ICEM (now IndustriALL).
  • Feb-March 2012 Bernard Fontana, then Holcim CEO, proposes Joint Mission to ACC and Ambuja plants. PCSS objects to the fact that the Mission is not meeting any of its representatives at the plant sites, but meeting other unions. IndustriALL supports the PCSS position and pulls out of the Joint Mission leading to its cancellation.
  • April-May 2012 PCSS representatives meet the Swiss NCP in Switzerland and along with Solifonds attend the Annual GBM of Holcim in Switzerland. ICEM (IndustriALL) and BWI meet Bernand Fontana and demand withdrawal of cases by Ambuja Security Officers against 8 PCSS union activists and the Rs. 82 lakh civil suit against PCSS post bearers in ACC Jamul as a confidence building measure.
  • 18.05.2012 First anniversary of Bhagwati Sahu’s arrest observed with total strike in Ambuja. Ambuja management including YP Singh and Nandlal Choubey assure PCSS representatives that they will withdraw false cases.
    June 2012 Swiss NCP accepts the PCSS complaint.
  • 07.07.2012 Bhagwati Sahu finally granted bail after 13 months of jail. But criminal case is not withdrawn by the Ambuja company.
  • 16.09.2012 ACC Holcim withdraws its civil suit against PCSS post bearers for Rs. 82 lakhs compensation.
  • 31.01.2013 Five workers of Ambuja Holcim die in collapse of a structure. The NTUI and BWI carry out a fact finding.
  • 23.09.2013 Outcome Document prepared by the Swiss NCP
  • 08.01.2014 Lakhan Sahu and 6 other PCSS activists arrested.
  • 24.01.2014 On the directions of the OECD, meetings between PCSS and Holcim begin in India. In the first icebreaker meeting, a decision is taken to dialogue on 3 main issues (including cement wage board & implementation of the high court order) and 3 connected secondary issues.
  • 26.03.2014 In the second meeting it is decided that a mechanism would be proposed for granting revised payscale to the contract workers, possibility of reinstatement of Bhatapara employees, possibility of out of court settlement for the High Court, and manning plant would be shared on 17th April 2014. Wages of 26 workmen whose cheques had been stopped since April 2011 are released but none of the other commitments are abided in the next meeting.
  • 28.04.2014 A contract worker is crushed under a tree in the quarry area of ACC Holcim. PCSS agitates for compensation and a job for his wife.
  • 17.05.2014 The ACC Management proposes a skill assessment of contract workers before revealing manning. Union insists that the assessment should be fair, credible and non-discriminatory.
  • 26.06.2014 In the first meeting of PCSS with the management of Ambuja Holcim, no progress is made since the management claims that there is a difference in the lists being provided now and earlier, but does not substantiate the same.
  • 01.05. 2014 Demonstration for the release of Lakhan Sahu and others on May Day at Baloda Bazar.
  • 07.05.2014 Lakhan Sahu and 5 others get bail from the High Court.
  • 29.07.2014 IndustriALL and BWI reps meet Willie Smit, CEO Holcim to express their dissatisfaction at the slow progress of negotiations.
  • 20.08.2014 PCSS writes to the NCP expressing dissatisfaction that neither the manning plan has been shared, neither an out of court settlement arrived at nor wages revised.
  • 01.09.2014 PCSS requests the ACC Management that it wishes to visit the ultra-modern Wadi and Chanda plants. Management agrees in principle but does not organize the visit.
  • 22.10.2014 With great effort PCSS representatives travel to Switzerland for another meeting before the NCP. Initially Holcim refuses to talk on the grounds that the public meetings planned with Unia and IndustriALL violate confidentiality of the OECD process. The company is still reluctant to give any timeline for providing manning details.
  • 02.12.2014 Final outcome of the meeting is published by the Swiss NCP which is very mild but recommends continuation of dialogue till resolution of issues. It also recalls that a period of 14 days had been given to Holcim to respond regarding negotiations on deployment of the workers in the new and old plants.
  • 13.12.2014 PCSS writes to Willie Smit to comply with the recommendations of the NCP.
  • 19.12.2014 Final statement of the Swiss NCP issued asking for 6 monthly reports of progress of talks .
  • 09.01.2015 Dharna is carried out at gates of new expansion plant at Jamul by the families of the PCSS members. They protest that despite their efforts to talk to the management for the past two years, right from Jamul to Berne, Holcim was refusing to resolve serious issues. It was clearly not believable that after investing crores and completing around 80% of the expansion of the plant, the company still did not have the figures for manning the plant. The PCSS demands tripartite negotiations in the presence of a senior representative of the government. At 4.30pm hundreds of workers from the old plant also join in for a huge general body meeting at the site itself ..
  • 28.01.2015 A supervisor of Haji Baba Contractor, engaged in the New Expansion Plant at ACC Jamul hits and abuses workers demanding wages upon which workers beat him. Following this there is chaos with contractors and bouncers beating workers and workers retaliating. Finally the police resorts to lathicharge injuring several workers.
  • 23.02.2015 Matthias Hartwich of IndustriALL meets Willie Smit regarding compliance with the Outcome recorded by the Swiss NCP.
  • 01.04.2015 Lafarge Holcim merger takes place.
  • 13.04.2015 IndustriALL protests at the Holcim share-holder meeting – No merger without workers rights.
  • 28.04.2015 Global day of action, held to say – No merger without worker’s rights – to LafargeHolcim , is observed at ACC Jamul.
  • 28.05.2015 Negotiation meeting between PCSS and Lafarge Holcim. Management stresses on alternative livelihood, the Union insists on maximising employment.
  • 01.07.2015 1st July Shaheed Divas is observed by the PCSS by a massive rally and public meeting.
  • 18.07.2015 PCSS and other unions observe day of solidarity with Maruti workers.
  • 02.09.2015 A call for General strike is given by central trade unions to protest anti-worker changes in the labour laws. Historic strike by contract workers in the Bhilai Industrial Estate and in the Bhilai steel plant, with PCSS as one of the main organisers.
  • 27.09.2015 Violence in new expansion plant as workers demanding wages are fired upon by the personal security officer of the Cluster Head. Workers go on the rampage destroying property. PCSS members in the old plant demand action against the security officer and protect the workers.
  • 28.09.2015 PCSS observes martyrdom day of Shankar Guha Niyogi
  • 16.10.2015 Meeting of Matthias Hartwich with Feliciano Gonsales, new Head of LafargeHolcim.
  • 26.11.2015 Finally LafargeHolcim shares the manning pattern of the new and old plants of ACC Jamul with PCSS. Dec-Jan PCSS carries out a process of intensive consultations with union members to debate the consequences of the proposals of the management.
  • 22.01.2016 Settlement signed.

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