Madhu*, 40, has been working in a meat processing factory for the past 20 years. While men do the heavy jobs, women are hired to perform tasks like packing, which is what Madhu does. Her job requires her to remain standing for about 10 to 12 hours everyday.
"There is a constant pain in my arms and legs, and my hands and feet swell up often. I think the zero-degree temperature in the packing area is doing this to me." The meager protective clothing - rubber gloves, a plastic cap over the head and a cloth over the mouth - she wears is hardly enough to keep the cold out. Madhu works with Hind Foods' factory in Sahibabad, Uttar Pradesh. She visits a doctor thrice a month and spends around Rs 200 a month on medicines, mostly painkillers.
Madhu's colleagues complain of other health problems. A common complaint is unusually heavy bleeding during menstruation because they have to move heavy packets of meat - weighing between 15 to 20 kg - from one table to another.
Sahibabad, only 15 km outside the capital, Delhi, is an important meat processing centre in India. It has a six, largely export-oriented, meat processing factories (Allana Foods, Hind Foods, M K Overseas, Arihant Export, Mircha Export and Fair Export). Ramashray Tiwari, Assistant Director of Factories in the state Labor Department, Ghaziabad, says, "The total number of laborers in these six factories is around 1,200 - about 200 of these are women."
But Upender Jha, General Secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Unions, Ghaziabad, disagrees. "There must be over 3,000 workers in these factories; about 600 of them are women. Only 180 of these women have their names on the muster rolls. The rest get very low wages. While the minimum wages for the industry are Rs 2,700 per month, those who are not on the rolls get about Rs 1,500. Most workers here are hired by contractors, brought all the way from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. These contractors work like close-circuit cameras, keeping an eye on everyone."
Sunil, a contractor who hires women for Allana, admits that he tells the parents of these women that they will get well-paying jobs in garment factories. "If I told them the truth, Hindu families would never send their daughters to work here." The girls realize that they have been cheated, but have neither the means nor the know-how to return on their own. They have never traveled alone before. So, they work for six months to a year, and then go home with the same contractor. Most never return. "That is no problem. The contractor finds a fresh batch of 20-25 women from other parts," says Narayan Murthy, who works with Allana and was brought here by the same contractor. The contractors are paid hefty amounts to lure hapless workers to these factories.
The laborers in these factories cut and pack meat that is exported to Iraq, the Philippines, Jordan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. The combined turnover of these factories totals several millions of rupees (US$1=Rs45) every year, according to Jha.
Slaughtered buffaloes are brought in from various slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country. The butchers at the factories prepare smaller cuts, de-bone the meat when required, clean it and pack it. Men cut the meat and carry the heavy loads to the packing trays, where women do the actual packing at temperatures close to zero degrees Celsius. "It's much worse for the women," says Jha.
Women who are slow at their work or do not adequately obey an order are punished by their supervisors; they do not get their wages, sometimes they are thrown out. They work for 10 to 12 hours, have no fixed lunchtime, and even drink their tea on-site so that they do not take a break. There is no rest time. The women workers cannot even go to the toilet - let alone step outside the factory gate - without the supervisor standing outside and hollering at them to hurry up. "What can the women do to rest their tired feet but go to the toilet and sit for a while? The supervisors know this and stand guard," says Geeta, a sweeper with M K Overseas.
The women workers of Allana Foods stay in large on-premise dormitories, with 20-25 women packed into a room. Others are packed four-apiece into tiny rooms in localities that are a couple of kilometers from the factory. The male workers, by contrast, are far less dependent on the contractors and make their own arrangements. From their meager salary of Rs 1,800 a month, they have to shell out Rs 500 towards mess charges. They are not allowed outside the factory premises except on Fridays - and then too under somebody's watchful eye, and only if they have 'valid reasons', like buying undergarments or 'bindis'.
Unsurprising in a system that is so exploitative, sexual abuse is a major problem. "We do get some complaints and try to help the victim. We approach the supervisor, the manager and the police. In most cases, none of them cooperate. It is our estimate that at least 20 per cent of the women leave their jobs because of sexual harassment. Many more are so scared of losing their jobs, or of the stigma that is attached to victims of sexual abuse, that they never complain," Jha says.
The factories do not maintain proper records of workers and the labor department is negligent. "Two years ago, the Mulayam Singh government issued an order to the Labor Department not to inspect factories. We are now allowed to go only when we get a complaint. And we have had no complaints since the order," says Tiwari. Clearly, this order was the result of pressure that the factory owners brought to bear on the Uttar Pradesh government.
In 1991, the workers of the Sahibabad's food industry formed a union called 'Khadhee Payuee Padarth Employees' (Edible Items Factories' Employees), which now has 485 members - 180 from meat export units; of these, 150 are from Hind Foods and only 30 from the other factories. These workers are on the muster rolls, and get fair wages, provident fund and overtime after eight hours of work.
It is after this union was formed that employers began seeking the help of contractors to hire migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Says Mohit Bansal, assistant manager of Hind Foods, "These 150 laborers are a burden for us. We don't like having permanent laborers because they take their job for granted, and their efficiency level goes down from 90 per cent to 60 per cent." The impunity with which he says this speaks volumes about the management's attitude and the workers' plight.
(* The names of workers, contractors etc have been changed to protect their identities.)