Railway workers bear the brunt of India’s labour reforms


Recent labour reforms by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government have increased the power of Indian employers to practice contract labour.

Principally, by raising the threshold for the registration of contractors from 20 to 50 employees, the principal employer and contractor are even less accountable for larger swathes of the Indian workforce.

Following the government’s lead, Indian Railways – which is India’s largest employer with around 1.31 million permanent staff – is gearing up to outsource even more of its services into private hands.

Over 23 million passengers use Indian Railways every day. And serving them are hundreds of thousands of contract workers hired by labour brokers and recruitment agencies.

It is difficult to get exact figures but KN Sharma, the national vice president of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BJP’s trade union wing) told Equal Times that a conservative estimate would be 400,000 contract workers on Indian Railways, although the true figure is suspected to be much higher.

Besides the cleaning of the trains, platforms and railway tracks, another major category of contract worker is those who supply, wash and maintain the bedding on sleeper trains.

During any long distance journey in an air-conditioned (AC) carriage, attendants are on hand to provide passengers with two bed sheets, a blanket, a pillow and a face towel for use during the journey.

Working as a coach attendant has never been particularly well-paid – even permanent staff employed by the railways only get a maximum of about 20,000 rupees (US$330 a month).

But what used to be a relatively pleasant job is fast-coming a place where workers’ rights are abused, particularly as the work is increasingly being outsourced to private companies.

“I’ve been an attendant for many years, and I can tell you, things have gone from bad to worse,” Rajesh [who declined to give his surname for fear of losing his job] told Equal Times.

“We work for days on end with hardly any sleep and are abused by the passengers and our employers alike,” he says.

Only four to six attendants are on hand to serve hundreds of passengers on every journey and attendants work for an entire journey – even the long distance ones.

In the case of those working on the Vivek Express (comprising four routes, one of which is the longest train route in India at 4236km), shifts can continue for days on end.

“Our journey is for five days and we work for 80 hours continuously,” said one worker.

“The condition of the contract worker is pathetic,” says Rajesh Nimbalkar, state secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in Maharashtra.

“Most contract workers are aged between 20 and 25 years old. They are paid about 4500 rupees (US$70) per month. While on the train, they are provided with meals but on halt days, before embarking on the return journey, workers have to fend for themselves.”

And if any of the stock goes missing, the attendants are held responsible.

“A missing blanket costs us 850 rupees (US$13), a sheet or pillow costs 300 rupees (US$5), and each missing face towel costs 75 rupees (US$1),” says one contract worker who asked to remain anonymous.


The workers’ plight

According to Nimbalkar, contract workers on Indian Railways are not paid any medical allowance nor are they covered under any health insurance policies.

Agencies lure new recruits with promises of free food, free travel and easy work but the reality is quite different.

“It’s far from truth”, says Jiju, a bedroller.

“Since passengers board from all stations, we have to be awake throughout the journey. We do not have a specific place to sleep, but we share the space outside the coach with the mechanics team. Sometimes we have to sleep in the linen cupboards near the toilets,” he said.

Train passengers often complaint about the poor service provided by bedroll attendants and the poor standard of the linen, which is sometimes stained and torn.

“We can only give what we have. The contractor says they cannot afford to replace the linen regularly, so it gets old quickly,” says Dudu, another young recruit.

If any passenger money or property goes missing during a train journey, again, it is the bedroll workers who are held responsible.

“I was accused of stealing money from a passengers berth,” said one worker called Chandran.

“He claimed to have left the money under his pillow while going to the washroom. The case is still pending.”

If found guilty, Chandran will lose his job.

But the bedroll workers do not feel they have a choice but to accept things the way they are.

“We are an unorganised workforce, with no one to air our concerns to,” says Jiju. Recently, a group of workers from Kerala that attempted to unionise their workforce were fired, sending a very clear message to other Indian Railway workers.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. While presenting the railway budget for 2014-2015, India’s then Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda (now replaced by Suresh Prabhu) announced plans to improve the housekeeping services which are currently operational on around 400 trains.

Bedroll workers are hoping that this will translate into more job opportunities, better contractors, and improved salaries.

But not everyone is optimistic.

“The contractors work hand in glove with the administration but we will keep fighting to get justice for contract workers and to see that they are regularised,” says Vishnu Kona, international secretary of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR).

He adds: "We do not have any hope with the ruling government. The central government, following in line with the western countries, intends is to contractualise all work — except for the core jobs like running the trains. This will only serve to worsen the situation of contract workers”.