Delhi Almond Workers strike completes two weeks

Strike continues under the leadership of Badaam Mazdoor Union
Thousands of Workers uncompromising on their demands

The historical strike of almond workers of Delhi completed its two weeks on December 30. As is well known, almond workers of Karawl Nagar area of North-East Delhi are on strike since December 16 under the leadership of Badaam Mazdoor Union, with the demands of implementation of labour laws and granting formal status to this completely informal almond processing industry worth millions of rupees. There is an extensive almond processing industry in the Karawal Nagar area in which 60 almond processing godowns are functioning. Nearly 20 thousand workers are employed in this industry who are presently at strike. This whole industry is linked with the global market as the almonds processed in it come from USA, Australia, etc. The unprocessed almonds are imported by the importers of Khari Baoli, which is the largest dry fruits market of Asia. It is located in the Old Delhi. These importers give these almonds to the petty contractors of Karawal Nagar on contract for processing. Due to this strike, the big importers of Khari Baoli and the petty contractors of Karawal Nagar are facing a crisis of existence, as 80 percent of almond supply has stopped. As a consequence, the rates of almond in the markets have shot up by 30 to 40 percent.

The workers are demanding that the contractors of almond implement the minimum labour laws. Presently, they are being paid Rs. 50 per bag of processed almonds which is Rs. 50 less than the minimum wages which are in effect in Delhi, because a skilled almond worker can process at most two bags of almonds if he or she works for more than 12 hours. That means that his/her day wage equals to maximum Rs. 100 per day. Apparently, this kind of wages is not sufficient for livelihood. As a consequence, the workers have to employ all of their families into this work which often includes children. Besides, these unprocessed almonds come to processing after being soaked in acid due to which workers have to face a lot of health hazards, for example, their hands become badly bruised, nails start melting, and also various kinds of lungs conditions arise. Going by the law of minimum wages, these workers should be given Rs. 80 for every bag of processed almonds. Reportedly, the godown owners get Rs.125 to Rs. 150 per bag of unprocessed almonds. And yet, the contractors are insisting that they would not give more than Rs.60 per bag. However, the workers are not ready to work below Rs. 70 per bag. Ashish Kumar, convener of Badaam Mazdoor Union, contended that if almond processing industry has to continue functioning in the Karawal Nagar area, the contractors will have to pay Rs. 70 per bag of processed almonds. Firstly, these godowns are functioning illegally in this area, and secondly, they are laughing away all labour laws. In such case, either these contractors will be forced to close their godowns and would not be allowed to open godowns in any area of Delhi, or they will be forced to grant the rights of labourers, to which they are entitled under the labour laws.

After the beginning of the strike, the contractors used all kinds of means to break the unity of the workers. First of all, on December 17, the goons of contractors attacked the workers and their leaders and then getting the Police administration into its pocket, got F.I.R. lodged against Union leaders themselves. Three union leaders spent two days in Jail and then got released on bail. But, this, in spite of breaking the unity of workers, strengthened it even further and the strike which involved 60 percent of workers, now had 90 percent of total workers in its support. Following this, the owners tried to run their godowns under Police protection, but the picketing teams of women workers agitated militantly and got these godowns closed and took their labourers in the support of strike. After that, one of the owners, Mr. Vasudev Mishra, who also contested in the MCD elections last year as an independent candidate, attacked the women workers with a stick, but in retaliation women workers beat him up and got him arrested by the Police. However, as is usual with the arrest of owners, he was released after a few hours and no case was lodged against him. Frustrated with the failed attempts, now the owners tried to outsource their work to other areas of Delhi, however, they had to incur huge losses, because unskilled labour of some other areas, ruined a lot of almonds during the processing. And lastly, now the owners have resorted to the old technique of spreading rumours through various kinds of brokers among labourers to break their resilience. But this attempt, too is being foiled by the internal organization of the workers and Union leadership. The workers are unrelenting and demanding that either they will work on Rs. 70 per bag, or the whole almonds processing industry will be vanished from the face of Delhi. They themselves will take legal initiative to get these unauthorized and illegal godowns closed down: within Karawal Nagar and beyond it.

Some of the godown owners are RSS cadre themselves and the RSS is constantly slandering against this workers’ movement. Today, everyone in Delhi knows that this almond workers’ strike is unique and unprecedented in every sense of the terms. Notably, these workers do not belong to a single factory or a few factories, who could be organized through old Trade Unionist methods. These workers are scattered across an extensive area. They cannot be found under one roof or in one area. This strike is proving to be the largest strike of completely unorganized workers in Delhi, involving more than 20 thousand workers’ families. It has shaken the roots of the globally-linked almond processing industry of India. This huge movement of workers till now has not received any kind of support from any electoral party. On the contrary, all the local political leaders of these electoral parties are trying to sabotage this movement in every possible way. Despite all, these the workers have refused to succumb.

Yogesh, member of Badaam mazdoor Union said that the workers have prepared themselves that either their demands are met or this whole industry will be closed. They understand the fact that they are not dependent on their employers for their livelihood, on the contrary the employers are dependent on the workers. Police administration in face of the militant workers, is now reluctant to take any open offensive against the movement, however, it is trying to cut off the Union leadership from the workers secretly. They are propagating among workers that the Union people are “outsiders”. Replying to this slandering, Yogesh of the Union, said that the Constitution of India gives every citizen of India the right to fight for the legal rights of any section of society including workers and he/she can help, support or even lead that section in the struggle for legal and constitutional rights. If the workers’ rights activists of the Union which also include respectable researchers and students of Delhi University, are “outside elements”, then Gandhi Ji was an outsider for the peasants of Champaran, Medha Patkar is an outsider for the people of Narmada Valley. This whole logic is promoted by the administration when it has to defend the ‘privileges of the employers. Police officials are saying that the Union leadership is causing law and order situation in the whole area. But they are not telling, how are they doing so? Are they breaking any law? They are just trying to organize workers for their just demands. However, this indeed creates a “law and order situation” for the employers and hence, the “nation” and the “country”, which obviously does not include the working class! Apparently, the Police administration’s conception of “nation” and “country” is exclusive of the workers and peasants.

Abhinav, workers’ rights activist, a researcher in Delhi University and correspondent of workers’ monthly Bigul, said that every working class movement in this country is making it more and more obvious and apparent that all the instruments of the State, for example, the Police, military, judiciary, bureaucracy, etc, are working for the protection of the profit machinery of the capitalist class and the property of the propertied class. If there is a just struggle for the legal rights of the workers and it becomes a menace for the smooth functioning of this exploitative machinery, the whole administration creates a hullabaloo of “law and order, unrest, anarchy, chaos” and embarks upon the suppression of this movement. The almond workers have staged a heroic struggle for their legal rights. But this struggle does not stop here, rather it starts from here. They will have to link their struggle to the working class struggles going on in this country and brace themselves for a struggle of systemic change. The problems of workers can be solved permanently only by this way.

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