Almond workers on Strike in Karawal Nagar, North-East Delhi
Almond workers on Strike in Karawal Nagar, North-East Delhi

‘Enslaved’ Almond Workers Demand for Basic Rights and Daily Wage in Delhi

Over 3,000 women laborers are staging the strike. They are pivotal in the global almond industry, contributing to 60 factories in Karawal Nagar.

New Delhi: India has a dismal record of low pay, unsafe working conditions and deaths at workplaces. These issues are particularly prevalent in the informal or unorganised sector. Majority of these workers are daily wagers or contractual laborers who are not eligible for social security or other benefits.

In the Karawal Nagar area of North-East Delhi, almond workers, unified under the Karawal Nagar Mazdoor Union, commenced their strike on March 1 to advocate for the implementation of their demands.

These workers, who play a pivotal role in the global almond industry, represent a supply chain extending from California to traders in Khari Baoli. More than 3,000 women labourers, who predominantly migrated from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, contribute their efforts to over 60 almond factories in Karawal Nagar.

The workers are allegedly given no offs during the week and are forced to work for fourteen hours a day.

Yogesh Meena, the coordinator of the union, talked about the severe exploitation faced by these female workers.

The activist said that the workers lack formal registration, fixed minimum wages, identity cards, or proper safety equipment. Despite filing complaints with the deputy labor commissioner on multiple occasions, the union has received no response, prompting them to declare an indefinite strike which has been going on since the last 12 days.

“Workers are not treated with respect but merely as slaves,” he told The Mooknayak.

The activist further revealed a grave fact, “One fact that is frequently brushed under the carpet is that one-two workers die annually.”

Yogesh emphasized that due to the sawdust, a worker succumbs to serious health issues like respiratory problems too.  The sawdust and shell scabs enter their system, leading to severe health complications.

According to the Material Safety Data sheet published by Silox India Private Limited; Safolite, the sodium salt of hydroxy methanesulfonic acid, is utilized to bleach almonds, giving them a fresh appearance. This chemical, commonly employed in various industries, serves as a discharge agent in textile printing and a redox catalyst in the polymerization process for manufacturing polymer/synthetic rubber.

A report by The Wire stated that the working conditions in such godowns are so harsh that even the owner cannot endure standing near those machines.

On March 1, the workers organised a rally, collectively urging the owners for a wage increase. Faced with silence, the workers initiated a protest.

On March 3, they formally submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister's office, outlining their grievances and seeking intervention. Simultaneously, communications were sent to key Delhi government authorities, including the chief minister, the labour minister and the labour court, urging attention to their concerns.

On the sixth day of the strike, women workers courageously confronted intimidation attempts by factory owners, persisting in their rallying efforts. Vishal from Bigul Mazdoor Dasta addressed a union meeting, highlighting the challenges posed by stagnant wages for almond workers amid rising inflation.

Additionally, the workers had scheduled a rally and cultural program on March 8, International Women's Day, aiming to garner support and raise awareness. This planned event underscores the resilience and determination of these women labourers as they fight for their rights in the almond industry.

Demands

The comprehensive demands put forth by the union include the crucial aspects aimed at improving the working conditions and livelihoods of almond workers. 

These demands include:

Implementation of minimum wages: The union is advocating for the enforcement of minimum wages, ensuring that almond workers receive compensation that reflects fair remuneration for their labour.

Standardized working hours: Seeking a more structured and reasonable work schedule, the workers are pushing for standardized working hours.

Provision of creches: Recognizing the challenges faced mainly by the women workers with families, the demand for creche facilities will create a supportive environment for working mothers.

Improvement of toilet facilities: Basic amenities such as proper toilet facilities are crucial for maintaining a hygienic and dignified working environment.

Substantial increase in almond sorting rate: A significant part of the demands revolves around economic considerations. The workers are seeking a substantial increase in the almond sorting rate from Rs 2 per kilo to Rs 12 per kilo, aiming for a fair and just compensation for their labour-intensive work.

Elevating machine-assisted almond crushing wages: Acknowledging the use of machinery in almond processing, the workers are advocating for an increase in wages for machine-assisted almond crushing, which will recognize the additional skills and effort involved.

Timely wage payments: Ensuring that workers receive their wages promptly between the 1st and 15th of each month is a critical demand.

Establishing a minimum monthly wage: The demand for a minimum monthly wage of at least Rs 25,000 reflects the workers’ aspiration for a more sustainable and dignified standard of living.

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