The Story of Suja Abraham in Ravi Fisheries
09 / 2001
Suja, a nurse by training, began her work in the fish processing industry in 1995, when she was in her early twenties. Deserted by her husband, she left behind her baby girl with her aged mother. In May 1996, she joined Ravi Fisheries in Thane, Maharastra, for a salary of Rs1400 per month. But the money she got in hand was merely Rs200-400 a month since the employer deducted food and staying expenses from the salary.
The working conditions were typically those faced by all migrant women workers in the fish processing industry. The work involved standing in damp and cold conditions for 14-16 hours a day without any protective equipment such as warm clothing, gum boots or gloves. This typically leads to a lot of skin ailments, numbness and other diseases related to cold. Fatigue, malnutrition, stress, separation from families, family problems, hazardous working conditions and outbreak of seasonal viruses and infections are common problems. Overtime work has almost become compulsory.
The women live within the factory premises in quarters that have been described as inhuman and marked by congestion, poor ventilation and inadequate sanitation. Women who dare to object or articulate their demands are sent back home. Around 250 women were sent back to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in March 1997. Women are scared to rebel, also because a select few work as informers within the group whose job is to spy and report `indiscretions’ to the management. This also leads to disunity and suspicion among the women workers.
Suja’s case is unique because she attempted to escape and had to face various consequences. Once, in November 1996, she escaped and began working in a neighbouring processing plant. She was forcibly brought back and subjected to physical and mental torture. On 14th November 1996, Suja was admitted to the hospital with serious injuries and multiple fractures following a fall from a height of 32 feet. After surgery she could stand on her legs with the help of crutches but she could not work as before.
On the issue of compensation Ravi Fisheries disclaimed all liability. On 26 February 1997, giving an account of her fall, she stated that she had been pushed from the third floor of the factory by a male co-worker. She also stated that earlier she had been unable to reveal this as she was still under the ’care’ of the management, who had two women posted with her in the hospital.
Meanwhile the District Collector of Thane raided three units of Ravi Fisheries where they found 21 girl children working illegally, as well as some other discrepancies. There was a lot of media publicity and Trade Unions and women’s organizations gave their support. Cases were registered under the Indian Penal Code for wrongful confinement, unlawful compulsory labour, intentional provocation and criminal intimidation. There were demonstrations and ’dharnas’ outside Ravi Fisheries. Intimidation by the management authorities continued even in the hospital premises.
In July 1997, Suja was paid a paltry sum of Rs12099 as compensation in the name of another company to avoid future legal problems. However, when it was realized that Suja would not be able to earn a livelihood for her family, trade unions contacted Ravi Fisheries for a final lump-sum compensation to be paid to her. The company then claimed that Suja had never been an employee of their company.
A writ petition was subsequently filed in the Mumbai High Court against 8 respondents, including the District Collector, the Deputy Labour Commissioner and the Industrial Health and Safety Directorate. The petition addressed the issue of working conditions in the fish processing industry in general and demanded a total compensation of Rs.12lakhs for the injuries suffered by Suja to enable her to support her family in her native place. It also called for random inspections to assess the treatment meted out to workers as well as a report on the working conditions prevailing in these plants. The court decided in favor of the petitioners and directed Ravi Fisheries to pay Rs2500 per month to Suja till the lump-sum amount was deposited in her account. She has begun to receive the amount although the lump-sum amount has not been deposited by Ravi Fisheries as yet.
Prior to Suja’s case, women workers in processing plants were unaware of their rights. Now they are politically more aware and no longer live in such fear. Their faith in law has been restored. The success of Suja’s struggle has given fishworkers the courage to narrate their grievances, verbally or through anonymous letters, to the Bhartuya Mahila Federation (BMF), which has been directed by the Court to have access rights to any work place where women work and reside. Workers can openly express their fears, problems with residential arrangements or working conditions, safety issues, and other insecurities. There is resistance to this from the management, which claims that the BMF had no ’locus standi’in the matter and therefore should keep out. BMF is, however, in touch with the Deputy Labour Commissioner on these issues.
National Campaign for Labour Rights, There is a way out ...The Story of Suja (India), 49