Society for Abolition of Bondedness vs. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors.
Society for Abolition of Bondedness filed a Public Interest Petition against the violation of rights of workers employed in rice mills in the state of Tamil Nadu in general and Thiruvalluvar district. Following a report in the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ that described the condition of more than 1000 families working as bonded labourers in rice mills in Thiruvallur district, members of the Society conducted a study in the area which revealed terrible working conditions, non-payment of minimum wage and a situation of bondedness. Representing the Society, lawyers of HRLN Chennai filed a petition bringing to the notice of the High Court the deplorable working conditions and violation of several laws meant for the protection of labour. In addition to the registration of rice mills, the petition seeks payment of minimum wages, regularization of working hours, release of bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu and their rehabilitation.
Mr. K. Chandrasekar, Secretary of the Society visited the rice mills in Thiruvallur district and presented the following information regarding the situation:
The debt trap
1. The employers/owners of rice mills go to the drought affected villages in and offer affected workers an advance amount ranging between Rs.2000/- to Rs.10000/-. Already impoverished, these workers in the agricultural sector on receipt of the advance move in to the rice mills with their families.
The living conditions & tasks
2. As housing, the rice mills provide 8″ x 10″ asbestos roofed quarters and a common toilet for 3 or 4 families.
3. Starting at 3.00 am each day, their job includes soaking the paddy in tanks, washing it, changing the water, steaming it them in a boiler and then drying them continuously for three days. After the paddy is completely dried the same must be filled in gunny bags and kept ready for transportation. When the vehicle arrives, the dried paddy must be loaded onto the vehicles. The entire family, including children are involved throughout the process. Children however, are not expected to load the gunny bags. Thus, the tasks which begin at 3.00 am continue until 6.00 pm. As the residential quarters are located within the rice mills, the work area is extended to their residences.
The mathematics of bondedness
4. The job of soaking, boiling and drying the paddy is paid for on a piece rate basis. For one gunny bag Rs. 8/- is paid to the family. On an average a family can complete 50 gunny bags in one stretch, the said process taking 3 full days to complete. For processing 50 bags of paddy Rs.400/- is paid as wages to a family for 3 days of employment. One family on an average comprises at least 3 members. Therefore one person gets: – Rs.133.35/- as wages for 3 days; – Rs.44.45/- as wages for an approximate 15 hours of work everyday; – Rs.22.25 for 8 hours of work
5. Since this work is of seasonal nature, during the monsoon they are left without any employment. During this phase they are often left with no choice but to borrow money, which will be added to their outstanding dues. Unless the dues are cleared, the workers are not permitted to go out as a family.
Violations at every level
6. The workers are not given weekly off or compensatory off; no concept of bonus; no over-time wages; no medical allowance or Employees State Insurance facility; no provident fund deduction or contribution from the employers.
7. The families do not have a ration card and are forced to purchase food grains in the commercial market. They do not have the benefit of the public distribution system.
8. These units are not registered under the Factories Act, 1948; Employees State Insurance Act, 1948; Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 or provided benefits under Tamil Nadu Industrial Establishments (National and Festival Holidays) Act, 1958; Payment of Bonus Act, 1965; Payment of Wages Act, 1936.
Despite several representations to concerned authorities no action was initiated against the employers for the violation of the labour laws. The workers are not even paid minimum wages. Hearing the case, the High Court of Madras ordered that a High Level Committee investigate the situation and report the findings to the Court which would then pass appropriate directions.
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