Freelance Textile Laborers Seek Protection, Benefits in Kashmir
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Abdul Rashid Hajam, 65, smiles like a child when he remembers receiving his first payment for a day’s labor as a 10-year-old at one of the largest wholesale markets in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. The wage, 12 aanas, copper coins no longer in use, equates to less than 1 Indian rupee (2 cents).
“That was a long time ago, when I first came to Srinagar city for work,” Hajam says.
Originally from a village in the Budgam district, he says the hilly, infertile land prompted him to pursue work in the capital as a youth.
“Not much grows,” he says of the land in his village. “We try to grow maize or rice, but the produce is little. This year, we had planted rice, but it failed due to cold.”
With few opportunities to earn a living in the village, Hajam relies on his earnings in Srinagar, where he rents a place to stay. He has been working as a laborer in the Sarai Bala market for 55 years.
Sarai Bala is a series of shops crisscrossing the narrow lanes in the center of Srinagar. A busy hub mainly for textile merchants, the shops sell bales of cloth. Store windows display the colorful, embroidered material for sale.
Outside the shops, huge parcels of goods wait to be unloaded from trucks and transferred to warehouses known as “godowns.” Laborers are needed to unload these goods as well as load them into new trucks after the traders make sales to retailers.
Hajam makes his living loading and unloading the trucks on a freelance basis. He says there are currently 10 to 20 laborers from his area working in the market because of a lack of employment opportunities back home.
“I manage to earn 100 ($2) to 150 rupees ($3) per day,” he says. “I make 2,500 ($30) to 3,000 rupees ($45) every month, out of which 1,000 rupees ($20) are spent on food, rent and other expenses.”
Hajam says he prefers the flexibility of working as a freelance laborer. Although Sunday is his only day off, he can manage his work schedule so he can rest when he needs to.
“Even while working, if I feel my health isn’t right, I go back to my accommodation for rest,” Hajam says, adding that this wouldn’t be possible if he worked for an employer full time.
He says that he can’t work full days because of his health as he gets older. But he will continue working because he doesn’t like to be dependent on anyone, even his children.
“In this work, I get the money in my hand,” he says.
Population growth and industrialization have prompted men from rural areas of Kashmir to migrate to cities for work. Freelance laborers can earn stronger wages in urban textile markets and enjoy flexible schedules, but they and even salaried employees at smaller shops lack access to benefits and protection under labor laws. Employers say even fellow employers required to provide benefits don’t always follow the law and that few laborers know their rights. Labor officials say the government can only guarantee benefits to organized sectors. Those in the textile industry encourage laborers to form unions in order to protect and expand their rights.
Approximately 8 percent of Kashmir’s urban population lives below the poverty line, according to the Below Poverty Line Survey of 2008, conducted by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics under the Planning and Development Department of the Jammu and Kashmir state government. In rural areas, it’s more than three times higher, at 26 percent.
Most of the people living below the poverty line in rural areas belong to landless households who perform labor on others’ farms or have small land holdings, according to the 2008-2009 Economic Survey Report of the Directorate of Economics and Statistics.
The urban poor are an overflow of these rural poor, who migrate to urban areas to work, according to the report. Little is known of their life and labor in the growing cities.
Urbanization and industrialization has created more job opportunities in cities, which has led to migration from rural to urban areas across India and in Jammu and Kashmir as well, says Bashir Ahmad Dabla, a professor in the Sociology and Social Work Department of the University of Kashmir.
He says the introduction of modern technology in agriculture has also created excess manpower in rural areas.
“Modernization of agriculture and the increase of landless laborers also led to the different patterns of migration,” he says. “We have a one-crop season here, and the winter is harsh. This also creates a migration with a time limit of five to six months of unskilled laborers to the cities.”
Sarai Bala market has two kinds of laborers, salaried employees and freelance laborers, says Hajam, who belongs to the latter category.
Like Hajam, Abdul Gani Tantray, 45, also came from the Budgam district to work in the Sarai Bala market as an independent laborer.
Back in his village, the little land he has produces vegetables for his family. To earn an income, he has been loading and unloading goods for shop owners in Srinagar for the past eight years.
For this work, Tantray earns between 3,000 rupees ($55) and 4,000 ($75) rupees every month. He says that construction laborers earn double, 300 rupees ($5.50) per day, but they do not get to rest. As an independent laborer, he says he is able to rest in between the orders he takes.
But Tantray is not able to obtain benefits as an independent laborer. Recently hospitalized with a kidney infection, he had to stay in the hospital for eight days. When his medical bills reached 13,000 rupees ($250), he had to plead for his exit so he could return to work to pay them.
“They said, ‘You need to stay for a few more days,’” he says. “But I couldn’t earn unless I was out.”
The Shops and Establishment Act of 1996 guarantees salaried employees weekly hours off work, 14 days of unpaid leave for emergencies and one month of paid leave a year. But the act only requires shops that employ a minimum of 10 salaried workers to offer benefits.
Habibullah Mir, 50, hailing from the Budgam district, found salaried work with a cloth merchant in the market. But he is the shop’s lone employee, so the state doesn’t require his employer to offer benefits.
A father of six, Mir works from 9.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. or later every day, except Sundays. Without benefits guaranteed by law, he says he is at the mercy of his employer as to whether he can take off for health or family emergencies.
“I had an emergency at home and had to stay a few days there,” Mir says. “When I came back, my employer scolded me.”
Even though Mir is on salary, he says he is unable to properly look after his children with the wages he makes. His salary is 4,700 rupees ($90) per month.
“My daughter wants clothes and shoes, but I can’t get them,” he says. “I can’t help it.”
Food is another expense.
“I have some land, and we plant rice in it, but that doesn’t last the year,” Mir says. “We have to buy rice from the market.”
Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a wholesale dealer of grocery items on the fringes of Sarai Bala, says the laborers prefer to work independently because they can earn more.
“They easily earn 250 ($4.50) to 350 ($6.50) rupees per day,” he says.
Bhat says that salaried workers make up to 8,000 rupees ($150) per month. Mir, though, makes half of this.
Bhat employs just one worker, so he is not obligated to offer benefits. But even employers under obligation don’t always follow the laws, he says. And these laborers aren’t always aware of their rights, such as health benefits, to demand them.
“I don’t think the laborers have thought about that ever,” Bhat says. “If a laborer is injured or something, the shopkeepers pool in money to help. It doesn’t apply to emergencies at home.”
For salaried laborer working for an employer with fewer than 10 employees, issues such as taking leave are between the employer and the employee, Bhat says. The employer decides whether to dock the emoloyee’s salary.
The government has set various provisions for salaried employees of shops under the Shops and Establishment Act, such as bonuses and paid leave, says Syed Altaf Andrabi, deputy labor commissioner at the Department of Labor and Employment. But that is only applicable to shops and establishments with a minimum of 10 employees.
The department also can’t support freelance laborers with no affiliations, Andrabi says.
“We have schemes for laborers who work in buildings and other construction sites,” he says, as these are organized sectors. “We provide financial assistance for the education of their children. But we don’t have any such thing for the independent laborers, as theirs is an unorganized sector.”
Andrabi says the laborers can come to the department if they aren’t receiving wages or are unfairly dismissed.
Tantray says that he and several other laborers have gone to the Department of Labour and Employment to demand an increase in wages, but nothing was done.
Bhat encourages laborers in the market to form a union.
“If they had a union, they would have benefited,” Bhat says.
The laborers tried to form a union once to advocate for these rights, but it didn’t succeed because of a lack of unity, Bhat says. People were more concerned about themselves than helping each other.
Hajam agrees that they should form a union to protect their interests, but competition among independent laborers makes this a challenge.
“If a laborer asks for 100 rupees ($2) for a work,” he says, “chances are more that another laborer will come and say, ‘I will do this for 80 ($1.50) only.’”
Hajam asks his fellow laborers to start considering the welfare of one another. He also asks for more support from the government.
“There should be an old-age pension of 1,000 ($20) to 1,500 ($30) rupees from the government for people like me,” he says. “But everyone is busy looking after himself.”