Fighting for the rights of workers in the informal sector
To supplement her family’s meager income, Preeti took a day job at a utensil manufacturing unit in Sonipat, Haryana last December. Despite repeated requests, the business owner did not pay her salary for three months. Bad luck followed her when her five-year-old daughter fell from the roof and was seriously injured. Her child’s treatment resulted in heavy medical expenses and further plunged the family into financial hardship.
Yet his calls for payment of unpaid dues had no impact on his employer until India Labourline, a helpline run by a Working People’s Coalition (WPC), stepped in to resolve the issue and got the dues.
The WPC, a coalition of around 150 provincial and local organizations of informal sector workers, had launched the hotline with its headquarters in Mumbai in July last year to provide legal aid and mediation services to workers, especially migrants. The Labourline has offices in five states, including Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and provides free aid to workers in any state.
Ms Preeti’s husband, Sunny, who works as a supervisor at a manufacturing unit in Koshambi near Ghaziabad, had come across the helpline number while seeking contacts of non-governmental organizations who could help. in the case of the non-payment of his wife’s salary. .
“I shared the details of my wife’s work and her unpaid dues and within a fortnight she received the sum,” he said. Before Mr Sunny called the helpline, the couple had also gone to Kundli police station, but were told the matter was with the Department of Labor and they declined.
However, following a call from the helpline representative to the business owner, Ms Preeti received 60% of her dues within minutes and the balance of ₹3,390 was paid within a fortnight. Mr. Sunny told this reporter that they had lost all hope of getting the money, nor were they able to fight a long legal battle. The helpline rep was a godsend.
In another case, Giteshwar Prasad, 27, worked for a Mumbai-based solar panel installation company for three months in 2020. The owner stopped answering his calls and texts when he asked for his salary. His employer had persuaded Mr Giteshwar to pay the salaries of the staff working under him as well as the building materials and safety equipment they used at work. He promised to reimburse all expenses incurred by him.
“The total dues including my three months salary was around ₹80,000. It’s a huge sum and I’ve often cursed myself for being so gullible. It also caused me depression,” he said. Almost a year later, his sister, a volunteer paralegal, introduced him to a lawyer who told him about India Labourline.
Thereafter, a few calls were made and an email was sent to the owner of the business, after which he agreed to make partial payment within a week. “He paid me ₹25,000 and cited his financial difficulties. I accepted as he was unable to pay the full amount,” Mr Giteshwar said.
The hotline has received 2,342 complaints from across the country since its launch. Of these, 788 cases were resolved with the collection of dues amounting to ₹1.34 crore. The helpline office in Delhi alone managed to recover 8.46 lakh of unpaid wages in less than a year and resolved almost half of the 332 complaints it received.
Its Delhi coordinator, Arshad Ahmed said The Hindu that the hotline is the first initiative of its kind to help workers in the informal sector with their work-related problems. “Formal sector workers can go to the Department of Labor with their grievances, but informal sector workers are not covered by the labor law. The only recourse for them in the event of wage theft (non-payment of contributions by the employer) is to hire a lawyer at full price and file a civil complaint. At the help desk, we try to solve the problem through mediation,” Mr. Ahmed said.
Violence against workers
Although the majority of complaints received at the helpline relate to wage theft, there have also been complaints of violence against workers, particularly domestic helpers. In two of these cases, the Delhi team compelled the employers to write up apologies and reinstate the complainants.
The helpline team faces challenges when employers block their representatives’ phone numbers or delay payment of dues.
“In such cases, we go to the employers’ offices or homes and talk to them directly. It works especially when we warn them against civil action with the help of our network of lawyers,” Mr. Ahmed added.
To publicize the helpline, the WPC has so far contacted 25,000 workers through its worker outreach programs, through hoarding and murals, and autorickshaws that circle JJ clusters. and unauthorized settlements by making regular announcements on the helpline. . Efforts are underway to intensify the awareness campaign.