As a newspaper and organisation that is partisan to the workers and toilers, we have been asking the leaders of the working people as to how the toilers of India view the reforms that were started 20 years ago. Whether the working class and people have benefitted from these reforms or have suffered? In the 16-31 October issue, we had begun this series with an interview of the General Secretary of the Communist Ghadar Party of India, Comrade Lal Singh. In previous issues, we have published interviews with the leaders of the unions of the banking and port sectors, loco pilots and other railway workers, interviews with Insurance, Central and Western Railway Motormen’s Association, Postal Employees, and a Trade Union leader of Thane District.
The conditions of artisans in the leather industry
The leather industry is a becoming an important part of the Indian economy. This is an established export-oriented industry. According to the 1999 figures, the leather industry in India employs close to 7,00,000 workers. According to their skills, the workers take up work like flying, curing and carcass recovery, tanning and finishing, shoes and shoe uppers, slippers and sandals, leather goods and clothing, etc. Prominent centres of leather and leather goods are located in Ambur, Ranipet, Vaniyambandi, Trichy, and Dindigul in Chennai; Kolkata in West Bengal; Kanpur and Agra in UP, Jallandhar in Punjab, Bengaluru in Karnataka, Delhi and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.
In this issue, Mazdoor Ekta Lehar reports on the conditions of the artisans working in the leather garment export industry of Delhi. According to non-official figures, there are about 1.25 lakh leather garment artisans in Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad. For working in the leather garments industry, an artisan has to be skilled and experienced. He must not only be skilled in stitching but also in pasting. Through the use their tools – the sewing machine and hammer, these artisans are able to transform ordinary leather into beautiful items. Most of the production is for exports. To throw some light on the conditions of the artisans, the correspondent of Mazdoor Ekta Lehar met with the President of the Delhi Leather Artisan's Association Comrade Ateek. An excerpt of the interview is printed below.
MEL: You are yourself a leather artisan and organiser, in your experience what kinds of problems are faced by leather workers?
Com. Ateek: The biggest problem in front of the leather workers is that there is not enough work for them. The piece rate for making a garment is constantly coming down. On top of that prices are rising steeply. With falling incomes, increasing hours of work, lack of social security, it has been difficult for the leather workers to make two ends meet.
The policy of globalization through privatization and liberalization has made the above problem even more complex. The capitalist export oriented big companies in leather garment production are getting their work done through contracts and subcontracts. Every contractor (fabricator) fixes his per piece profit and drives down the per piece rate for the workers.
For example, an export company signs a contract for thousands of pieces of leather full skirts at the rate of Rs. 2,400/- per piece from a foreign buyer. The exporting company gets this done from a subcontractor (fabricator) for Rs. 720/- per piece including material. These fabricators get the full skirt made by giving the leather garment worker just Rs. 90/- to 120/ per skirt. Ultimately, the foreign buyer sells this garment for Rs. 11,250/-*
MEL: What is the monthly income of a leather garment worker?
Com. Ateek: We can only guesstimate this since most of the leather garment workers work on the basis of piece rate. On an average they would be earning about Rs. 3,000/- to 3,500/-.
MEL: So little?
Com. Ateek: In this field, work is mostly done only in four to five months of the year. Those who have full time employment, are not paid even the minimum wages.
MEL: Where are the leather garment units in Delhi located?
Com. Ateek: These are spread around in Okhla Industrial Estate, Govindpuri, Sangam Vihar, Khanpur, Deoli, Modalband, Tughlakabad Extension, Durgabuilder, Badarpur, Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi. In the West it is Kapasheda. In the North, it is Mangolpuri, Mayapuri, Sagarpur, Naraina, Vazirpur. In the East it is Shahdara, Ghonda, Jafarabad, Dharmpuri and New Seelampur, etc. Apart from Delhi, there are several other cities in the country where leather garments are made.
MEL: What products are mainly made in this industry?
Com. Ateek: They are mainly ladies and gentswear – jackets, coats, long coats, vests, pants, skirts, shirts, etc. These are made from suede, sheepskin and cowskin leather.
MEL: What kind of safeguards exist under the labour laws for workers in this industry?
Com. Ateek: More than 75% of the production units are run from residential areas. Most of them are small units with 20 to 30 machines. These are simply a large room or a hall. There are no records of workers working in such units. The work is completely on piece rate. Only about 25% workers work in companies located in industrial areas. Only 8% workers will have any benefits of social security and ESI Hospital service under the labour laws; the rest of the workers, even in the industrial areas, are kept as temporary workers. In such circumstances, safeguards under the labour law are beyond anybody's imagination.
MEL: What are the problems for which workers wage struggle?
Com. Ateek: The first demand is for increasing the piece rate. Workers who approach our organisation are mostly those who have been expelled, or whose salary has not been paid or whose factory has been locked out. We take cases from the labour department to the courts. But in most cases, workers do not get justice.
MEL: What happens when workers strike work to press for their demands?
Com. Ateek: While it is true that the strike is the last weapon in the hands of the workers, it is not a permanent solution. For example, suppose the leather garment workers unite and strike work to press for their demand to hike the piece rate by two rupees. Even if the capitalist owner grants him this increase, what improvement can come in the lives of workers? In my understanding, there will be no change because the price rise will be reclaimed from the worker. We certainly have to fight. But what is important for the workers is to understand the real problem with the system – why is it that after toiling so hard, workers and their families are deprived of a good life.
MEL: What does your understanding tell you?
Com. Ateek: In my understanding, this system runs only in the interest of the capitalists as they are its masters. The whole system is based on the exploitation of the working class. The struggle of the workers should not be limited to their immediate demands. They will have to struggle all the way to establish the rule of the working class.
 This data is taken from a report published by PUDR in 2004 entitled "Behind the label"