Working towards their rights
Assessment of the unionization of Jodhpur mine workers
By Rathindra Kuruwita Jodhpur, December 2011

Ram Chandra, a mine worker from Jodhpur, Rajasthan is 30, but he has been hospitalized several times for lung related issues and complains that he will not be able to keep working for long. Considering that he works more than10 hours a day in the scorching sun, inhaling the fine sand stone dust particles that rise from the drilling machine, without any safety gear, one can understand why miners like him have a short shelf life.

Ram Chandra is only one amongst the thousands of human tragedies of the mining community that unfold each day in Rajasthan.

A history of exploitation 

Rajasthan is the second biggest resource of mineral wealth in India after Bihar and is famous for its sandstone and marble.  Sandstone from these mines has been used extensively in many of India’s landmark buildings, including the Parliament building.

However, the mines of Rajasthan also have a long history of harsh working conditions, exploitation and neglect. The miners work in arid conditions, using dry drilling techniques that leave almost every single worker with a permanent illness by 45 of age,without safety equipment for a minimum wage.

According to Rajendra Kumar, a local activist, the lack of unionization among the labourers is the main reason why they have been unable to make their employers adhere to the recommendations made by the government regarding their entitlements.

Although several legislations including Mines Act 1952, Trade Unions Act 1926 (Amended 2001) and Minimum Wages Act 1948 assure Indian workers of certain rights, many researchers have pointed out that most of the workers are not entitled to the assurances guaranteed by these legislations. And mine owners do not feel the need to enforce these rules because there is no external or internal force pressurizing them to do so.

Unionization and workers rights

Incidentally, it is only in the mines where the labour is unionized that the workers have been able to win certain rights, after years of neglect by mine owners.   

“Right now four unions have been established, Makrana Mines, Magore; Salt Mines, Bermer; Jodhpur Sandstone; and China Clay and have over 5000 members, among whom 23% are women,” said Rajendra Kumar. He added that the workers in the above four mines have won some of the most essential of their rights and see this as the first step towards fighting their own battles, without the aid of an external force.

“If the workers are organized and are aware of their rights they will stand up for themselves. That will make things move much faster and lead to reforms that are long overdue,” he added.

Meanwhile Soma Ram Ji, Union Leader Khan Mazdoor Maha Sangh stated that their union has managed to influence mine owners into making significant changes regarding the minimum wage, bonded labour and safety measures taken. 

“We have been working on issues like minimum wages and eradicating the practice of bonded labour which is when a person pledges him or herself against a loan. We have managed to achieve victories in certain sections. We have better remuneration and the bonded labour system has been eradicated to a certain extent,” he said.

He added that the Indian government ordered a ban on dry drilling which exposes the workers to fine dust particles, a major cause of silicosis and other lung diseases among mineworkers. However in many mines, owners are blatantly ignoring directives which make wet drilling methods which reduce health risks, mandatory.

This non-compliance is directly linked to the non-implementation of the rule that a labour enforcement officer is supposed to inspect the mines on a quarterly basis.

Failure of agriculture

On the other hand, the repeated failure of agriculture in Rajasthan itself as well as in the neighbouring states has resulted in the migration of a significant number of individuals. Thus, given the excess supply of labour, the workers are exploited in different ways.

In his ‘A Report of an Investigation into Welfare Facilities Available to Mine Workers in Rajasthan’, Dr. B. Joseph details the following legislations that cover the Indian mine worker.  

“Laws related to industrial relations e.g. Trade Unions Act 1926 (Amended 2001,) Laws related to wages e.g. Minimum Wages Act 1948, Laws related to working hours, conditions of services and employment e.g. Factories Act 1948, Mines Act 1952, Laws related to social security e.g. Workman Compensation Act 1923 (Amended 2000), Employees State Insurance Act 1948 (Amended 1996,) Laws related to labour welfare e.g. Limestone and Dolomite Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1972, Laws related to employment and training e.g. Apprentice Act, 1961” and adds that “one of the most important problems facing the workers in the natural stone mining industry is that they are as yet unorganized. This is not surprising given the fact that less than 10% of the labour force in India belongs to the organized sector.”

Breaking the cycle of dependency

Many have pointed that the lack of implementation of laws and the penchant to ignore mine workers in legislation regarding workers have made the workers depend heavily on the mine owners and low rung government officials.

For example the Mines Act has a chapter on the “Health and Safety” provisions to be made for the workers in the mines. However, the laws are only applicable to a ‘factory.’ In addition the workers cannot avail themselves of six of the crucial benefits of the Employees' State Insurance(ESI) Act, namely Medical Benefit, Sickness Benefit, Maternity Benefit, Dependants’ Benefit, Disability Benefit and Rehabilitation Benefit.

Therefore it is up to the workers to negotiate the terms of employments with the owners and it is of utmost necessity that the workers themselves are aware of their rights and the need for organization.

However many are reluctant to join trade unions fearing the backlash of the mine owners who are extremely averse to any such measures which would weaken the strong hold they have on the lives of their employees.

“Sometimes the mine owners try to discourage workers from joining us but still people are joining despite their inane fear of losing their job. They fear that unionized labour would be harder to exploit. We began the union only in July and in the last six months we have won more victories than what we have achieved in decades. The more we know about our rights and knowing that an organization is behind us, we are less afraid to fight and win our demands,” he added.