Interview with Hijam Kavita Devi, Consultant to Labourers’ Welfare Association in Manipur

Terrible exploitation and oppression of contract workers of Food Corporation of India

Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL) recently interviewed Hijam Kavita Devi (KD), a consultant from Manipur, for the Consumer Affairs Food and Public Distribution Labourers’ Welfare Association (CAF & PDLWA). Here are some excerpts of the interview:

Manipur FCI contract workers protest
Manipur FCI contract workers protest

MEL: Recently it was reported that the Deputy General Manager (DGM) of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) launched a murderous assault on you. Please tell us about this incident.

KD: On October 21, a delegation of the Consumer Affairs Food and Public Distribution Labourers’ Family Association went to submit a memorandum to the FCI headquarter in Imphal. I led that delegation. There were 45 more women with me. All these women are members of our union, CAF & PDLWA.

Our Family Association has as its members, not only the women workers and their families but also the wives and other family members of the male workers. The male workers engaged in loading-unloading work are paid so poorly that it is very difficult for their families to make two ends meet. Many of the family members participate actively in our struggle. This is how our Family Association was formed.

When we arrived at the office of the FCI headquarters, the DGM was not there. One of his assistants accepted our memorandum. After some time the DGM returned and we went to his office.

There were 3 other women with me. I explained to him about our problems and demands. He began to speak in English and asked us to “get out”! My companions objected to his arrogant and rude manner. Suddenly the DGM pulled out his pistol and aimed it at me. I grabbed his hand, in order to save myself and my companions. I tried to resist for about half a minute, after which he fired at me. In the ensuing tussle, I had managed to turn the barrel of the pistol towards the roof of the room, so the bullet got lodged on the ceiling. Hearing the sound of the gunshot, other workers came into the room. The police and media followed. The DGM was arrested. He was released on bail on October 25.

Now the DGM, S.James, and his colleagues are pressurizing our Union to withdraw the charges of murderous assault. But our Union is demanding that he should be suitably punished.

MEL: What were the demands in your memorandum to the FCI?

KD: Our main demand is equal pay for equal work. We are demanding that the contractor should stop outsourcing the loading-unloading work. The goondas hired by the management, to intimidate the Union activists working in the warehouses, should be thrown out. We want an end to corruption in the FCI.

MEL: Tell us more about your Union.

KD: Earlier, there was no trade union for the contract workers in FCI and CAF & PD. Minimum wages, compensation, provident fund, gratuity – all these were unheard of. For example, in the biggest warehouse at Sangaiprou, a worker is paid Rs. 4 (for loading-unloading) per bag of 50 kilogram weight. After the contract workers began to get organized under the banner of the CAF & PDLWA, they fought and were able to get Rs. 8 per 50 kg bag. Even today, those contract workers working in the FCI warehouses, who are not affiliated to the Union, get paid only Rs. 1.50 for the same work.

At the FCI warehouse at Jiribam, the workers were paid a mere Rs. 3000 in the month of September. This, despite the fact that Manipur state laws stipulate a minimum daily wage of Rs. 390. A person working for just 20 days a month would earn Rs. 7000, according to the statutory requirements. So, you can imagine the extent to which we are being looted and exploited.

MEL: How many warehouses like these are there in Manipur?

KD: There are two kinds of warehouses in Manipur. The first are the central government-run FCI warehouses. The second kind are the warehouses run by the state government under the CAF & PD. In many places, both the warehouses are located side by side. FCI warehouses are located at Sangaiprou, Ukhrul, Jiribam (biggest warehouse affiliated to the Railways), Koirengeyi, Senapati, etc. The warehouses at Swongbung and Bishnupur are inoperative. CAF & PD warehouses are located at Sangaiprou, Jiribam and Chuda Chandrapur. Loading-unloading operations are carried out at these warehouses. Our Union is active in three places – Sangaiprou FCI warehouse, Jiribam FCI and Rail Head Jiribam warehouses. These warehouses are located close to each other. In Sangaiprou, there are about 154 workers in both the FCI and CAF & PD warehouses, together. Both the warehouses in Jiribam have a total of more than 100 workers.

MEL: Tell us about your conditions of work.

KD: The conditions of work in these warehouses are terrible. The bags have to be taken down from a height, then loaded on to trucks, then similarly unloaded from the trucks and placed at a height. This is very physically exhausting work, which is severely affecting the health of our workers. Their bones are getting weak. The residue from the bags, which the workers are forced to continuously inhale, causes asthma and TB. In many cases, workers suffer internal injuries. They receive no compensation for all this.

MEL: What difficulties did you encounter in organizing your Union?

KD: The warehouses are often located very far from each other. The authorities of the FCI and CAF & PD are hand-in-glove with the contractors. They are extremely arbitrary in their dealings with the workers. There are 4 contractors in all. Both the central government and the state government are partners in this loot. The workers are being deprived of their legal rights. We also have to deal with the geographical complexities of Manipur and the political problems in the state. We are trying to get workers from more of the warehouses to join the Union.

MEL: Thank you for giving our readers all this information about the terrible exploitation the workers are facing. We wish your struggle all success.

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Nov 16-30 2019    Struggle for Rights    Rights     2019   

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