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29 Jun 2007

The rustication of eight students by Jawaharlal Nehru University, in response to the gherao of JNU’s Registrar by a number of students on 19 February 2007 must be condemned as disproportionate and vindictive. The action of the students cannot be viewed in isolation and ought to be viewed in its proper context – JNU’s blatant violations of the law in its mistreatment and exploitation of contract workers and labourers employed for building construction, mess workers, safai karamcharis, etc. It was the non-payment of minimum wages and other illegalities on JNU administration’s part that had stirred the conscience of students and resulted in a three-month long agitation on campus. It was the hostile response of the administration – tearing down the posters put up by students which revealed the plight of the contract labour and their inaction on the issue of exploitation of contract labour – that led to the gherao itself.

‘Fettered Lives’ – a report released today by People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) – is an indictment of the University’s exploitation of contract labour on the JNU campus. The report gives details of workers being paid as little as Rs. 65 per day, far less than the (then) legal minimum wage of Rs. 127.40.

The report indicts the JNU administration in particular for evading its obligations as ‘principal employer’ with respect to contract labour used by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) for construction of most buildings on the campus. The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 obliges ‘principal employers’ to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act. As per Section 21(4) of the Act, the JNU administration is legally liable for payment of minimum wages to the contract labour employed where the contractor or sub-contractor is not doing so. Similarly, Section 20 makes it mandatory for JNU to provide basic amenities (water, toilets, etc) to workers in cases where the contractor fails to do so. Besides, if found guilty of non-payment of minimum wages, the appropriate authority in the JNU administration is liable to six months’ imprisonment and/or fine under Sec. 22 of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

The report brings out that the JNU administration’s attempts to avoid this responsibility, by claiming that CPWD, and not JNU, is responsible for ensuring labour-rights is completely false. The Supreme Court has clarified that the ‘principal employer’ is the one who pays for the assets, is the beneficiary and makes use of such assets and retains control and supervision over the construction on its premises. [Secretary, Haryana State Electricity Board v. Suresh, AIR 1999 SC 1160] Therefore while CPWD is liable for violations as an executing agency, it is JNU that is violating the Contract Labour Act, 1970 in its capacity as the ‘principal employer’.

In other cases of contract labour – including hostel mess workers, library workers, gardeners, etc – JNU’s liability is more obvious as here even JNU does not dispute its status as ‘principal employer’. The conditions of these workers are not much better though. Although the contracts between JNU and private agencies provide for payments equal to or more than minimum wage, the PUDR report shows that, in practice, safai karamcharis and gardeners employed by Vayudoot received between Rs 75 to Rs 93 for a day’s work as per wage records of Nov-Dec 2006. Similarly, most safai karamcharis of another company, Naya Savera, were paid Rs. 2,785 per month (some as low as Rs 2,000-2,500). These payments are far less than the (then) monthly minimum wages of Rs 3,312 or the daily wage rate of Rs. 127.40 for unskilled labour. Even the mess staff at three hostels, Mahi-Mandavi, Lohit and Chandrabhaga, was paid less than minimum wages. What’s more, many of these workers are made to work all 30 days a month, denied any weekly off, and not paid any overtime for their extra work.

In all the above instances, the JNU administration and the contracting companies are liable for payment of less than minimum wages as also for the poor working conditions. Most stark however is the illegal contract entered between JNU and Chase Detective Agencies for providing library workers. The contract itself violates the Minimum Wages Act and the Contract Labour Act by providing for less than minimum wages! All these violations are unbecoming of an institution that was set up to promote scientific temper and progressive thought as well as encourage students to engage in social concerns.

However, the PUDR report further demonstrates the failure of the legal system in the protection of workers under the Contract Labour Act and other supposedly protective legislation. It is clear that there is no serious examination of labour records or surprise-checks at work-sites. In addition, corruption is common – this is particularly damaging since only labour inspectors can initiate prosecution under the Contract Labour Act. Other applicable legislation including the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 and The Employees’ State Insurance Act 1948, The Employees’ Provident Funds and Misc. Provisions Act, 1952, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 are all often ignored.

‘Fettered Lives’ places the problems of labour in JNU within the broader framework of the contract labour system, itself part of a broader ideological belief system that is hostile to workers in a liberalized and ‘free-market’ driven economy. As in JNU, when contract workers have agitated for even slightly better wages and basic working conditions, they have often been dismissed and replaced. The very contractual nature of their work, the threat of reprisals, and the absence of unionization place such labourers in a precarious position and undermine their capacity to struggle for their rights. Yet, as the PUDR report illustrates in the case of JNU, where there is little interest amongst employers for labour rights and hardly any implementation of the legal regulation machinery, it is only organizing and unionizing by the labour itself that can offer any meaningful chance of an improvement of wages and working conditions.