The verdant hills of Nagaon District, the main centre of stone quarrying in Assam, mask a web of labour exploitation. Visits to the quarries reveal workers clearing the ground of trees and bushes, digging out boulders, manually crushing them into smaller stones and loading them into large boxes. All of this takes place under the blazing midday sun. Meanwhile, the quarries have no shade for rest or shelter. Infants and toddlers are left to care for themselves on the ground due to a lack of crèches, while slightly older children work alongside the adults. With no canteen or even drinking water provided for, workers bring their own lunch and water, walking anywhere from two to five kilometres up steep hills in the early morning so that they can fill as many boxes as possible – boxes of stones being the unit of measurement for the disbursement of daily wages in these areas.
While specific statistics are difficult to come by, Nagaon supplies more than a quarter of the stones being used in construction projects across Assam. These stones are extracted through hard labour, under extremely hazardous work conditions, by a largely informal and non-unionised workforce. A powerful network of owners and managers, including former members of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), as well as relatives of the ruling Congress and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) parties, and members of the mercantilist class with a stake in the quarries, have been able to regularly thwart efforts at unionisation, and ensure that the exploitative system remains in place. The lives of workers in Nagaon are, quite literally, boxed in. Workers receive an average of INR 40-45 per box, and a single adult can fill roughly a box a day. This leaves labourers to receive wages significantly less than the prescribed daily minimum wage of around INR 75. In addition, the method by which wages in Nagaon are calculated is also illegal, as per both central and state legislation. “When workers spend their time clearing the area of foliage and digging for boulders, they get paid still less, because they do not have filled boxes to show for their work,” explains Arup Mahanto, general-secretary of Grameen Shramik Sanstha, which has been trying to organise the quarry workers. “This is illegal, as the managers are extracting work for free, like slave labour.”
Mahanto says that incidences of labour violations in the stone quarries exceed even those in the tea industry, well known for its oppressive work environment. In addition to a lack of water, protective equipment or first-aid provisions, the quarries also lack proper sanitation facilities for women workers. This, despite the fact that women constitute up to 60 percent of the workforce, and are said to be preferred by managers because they are considered easier to exploit. Mahanto notes that almost all incidences of verbal, physical or sexual abuse go completely unreported due to the tight hold the owners maintain over the quarry workers.
6x3x1 (or more)
The boxes that Nagaon quarry workers fill are large – six feet long, three feet wide and a foot deep. With no real government standards, managers can easily get away with enlarging the boxes by an additional foot or two, without any increase in wage. Said one worker, “Since there is no payment for half-filled boxes, all of us, including our children, frequently work 11-12 hours or more, six days a week, in order to fill up as many boxes as we can.” Indeed, child labour is extensively used in Nagaon, and was witnessed in every quarry that this writer visited. Children as young as eight are put to work crushing stones and filling boxes. In this way, quarry work has become a family affair.
All quarry labourers work in extremely dangerous conditions. But even in case of on-the-job injury or death, they receive almost no compensation – certainly nowhere near what regulations promise. By law, workers should be receiving a bare minimum of INR 80,000 for injuries, along with funeral expenses in case of death. Instead, if a quarry worker is critically injured or dies on the job, owners generally hand out just INR 2000-3000 as token compensation. If there is a death, they pay for a small, traditional funeral. Workers say that around ten deaths have occurred in the quarries of Nagaon over the past year alone, and at least a hundred major injuries.
In once instance, after a boulder fell on a worker, both of his legs had to be amputated. “Soon after the operation,” said one co-worker, “due to complications and lack of medical help, the worker died. The quarry manager only paid 2000 rupees to the family, while the family had to bear the rest of the medical and funeral expenses, totalling 20,000 rupees.”
Having to pay such a large sum, compounded with the loss of a breadwinner, can completely devastate any poor, rural family. This is doubly so in a quarry, where a full family can, if they are lucky, pull in INR 100 to 120 per day, or INR 3000 to 3500 per month on which to scrape by. Of course, this is only if three or more family members are able to work full time. The loss of family members has led many families into usury, after being forced to borrow money from moneylenders.
The quarry workers of Nagaon are mainly from Adivasi, Tiwa, Muslim and Karbi communities. Most often, they are recruited by contractors employed by the quarry managers, with each village in the area having its own contractor. The exploitative situation is complicated by the fact that insurgent groups in Assam often extract ‘taxes’ – frequently exceeding a lakh or more – from the quarry owners. This, in effect, causes the owners to take further unfair advantage of workers in order to try and make up for the lost profit.
A government official in Assam, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that gross violations of labour laws are occurring in the state’s stone quarries. He felt that one of the main reasons owners feel emboldened in their neglect of labour welfare laws is that, even in the rare instance of prosecution, the court case can drag on for years. If a verdict favouring the worker is ultimately given, the punishment meted out is generally very mild – a nominal fine of a few thousand rupees, which hardly constitutes a financial setback for the owners.
As a result, despite the severe work environment and dismal wages, few workers take it upon themselves to demand better working conditions. This anxiety is only compounded by the former ULFA managers who tend to be hired by the quarries, who are essentially strongmen hired to maintain order. Such was the environment of fear that, while being interviewed for this story, quarry workers were often reluctant to reveal their names, or even the names of the quarries at which they worked. Buddheswar Timung, an activist in Bamuni Karbi, a village near several of the Nagaon quarries, pointed to the lack of unionisation as being the industry’s key problem. Any attempt to organise the quarry workers has been met with either violence (against activists and workers) or threats of dismissal. He said, “None of the identity-based insurgent movements in the area offer any assistance, as they appear to only be interested in extorting money from the owners, rather than fighting for labour rights.” Timung also pointed to the corrupt ties that quarry owners often have with political parties and bureaucrats, causing the state to turn a blind eye to legal violations.
Those on the ground all noted the malevolence of corruption. The government official mentioned earlier referred to numerous cases of business owners bribing high-ranking bureaucrats, including a former assistant labour commissioner, as well as many judges. “Incidences of corruption are highest with regard to the Workman’s Compensation Act, which guarantees compensation for the families in case of a worker’s injury or death,” the official said. “The owner simply bribes both the Labour Department official and the judge, rather than compensate the worker’s family.” Of course, in the event of honest officials, business owners simply go over their heads – straight to the political bigwigs whose campaigns they fund.
The situation surrounding the quarries of Nagaon is not an intractable one. To begin with, the state bureaucracy must crack down on businesses that are guilty of labour abuses, and also punish corrupt state officials. Greater power needs to be vested in the Labour Department to achieve these ends, including the ability to penalise errant business owners, and to see prosecutions to their conclusion.
Assam also needs to properly implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which since 2005 has guaranteed work to one member of all rural families at a prescribed minimum wage. One of the main reasons that families work in the quarry industry, after all, is simply the lack of viable alternatives. If rural families had the option of being employed under NREGA – as they legally should – then not only would they be guaranteed minimum wage and certain benefits, but there would also not be the current glut of available, and desperately poor, labour to exploit.
An effective application of NREGA would also result in an increase of the market rate for wages. Workers would have no incentive to work in the quarries, or in any other informal sector, unless the wages were better than those under NREGA. An example can be seen in Tamil Nadu, which was fairly successful in implementing the NREGA scheme in many districts in 2006. This has since resulted in an increase of wages across the board in the informal sector, bringing them on par with NREGA rates.
Finally, under NREGA it also becomes easier for workers to unionise, including the opportunity to build class alliances with others across the informal sector. Unionisation would also allow for a dramatically increased opportunity to break the corrupt nexus between state officials and business owners. This is where groups such as Grameen Shramik Sanstha, and activists such as Mahanto and Timung, can play a particularly important role. Indeed, even as workers were being interviewed for this article, Mahanto and Timung, who accompanied this writer to one of the quarries, spoke to workers to set up a meeting to discuss unionisation in the quarry. The obvious enthusiasm of the workers aside, forming unions in the stone quarries of Nagaon will clearly not be an easy task. How this push fares, however, will be a key indicator in gauging the success of the ongoing attempt to end labour exploitation in India’s informal sector.
~ Sriram Ananthanarayanan is a resercher and activist focusing on issues surrounding labouor, gender and disenfranchisement in ares of conflict. He is currently based in the Indian Northeast.