The condition of daily wage workers has always been a point of discussion with various protests seeking proper wage and working conditions. However, the ground reality is that the workers continue to toil under harsh, unsafe, unsanitary and manipulative conditions.

At Delhi’s Wazirpur Industrial area, there are many such stories of exploitation, which remain underreported. It is the story of workers who have lost their limbs while working in these factories.

Located under North East District of Delhi, Wazirpur Industrial Area is one of the oldest industrial areas and is famous for its steel industry particularly the utensil making industry. Wazirpur is one of 29 industrial areas spread across Delhi-NCR.

Thousands of workers are employed by private companies in the area. Rama Shankar worked in one such factory before an accident changed everything.

Standing outside his new job at a steel factory, Shankar, who is in his mid-30s now, works as a security guard that pays him a meagre Rs. 10,000 per month. “I have no other choice. After my injury, I had to sit home and was not able to do anything,” Shankar said.

Shankar, who hails from Bihar shifted to Delhi in 2005 when he was just a teenager. “I started working in a steel factory right off the bat and rented a small room here. It is here that I built my whole life,” he told The Citizen.

However, in 2017, Shankar lost half of his left hand as the machine at the steel factory malfunctioned. “I was working when suddenly the machine started malfunctioning, and before I could do anything, my hand was stuck in the machine,” Shankar recalled.

Shankar fainted, and was rushed to a nearby government hospital. He said that his company owners took no responsibility for his medical bills. “From getting admitted to the medicines, I did everything by myself,” Shankar said.

Shankar used to work for 12 hours a day everyday and got R. 12,000. Even if it was not enough, he was able to get by.

The area of the Wazirpur-Badli JJ camp, appears to have been ignored by the state. There is little or no access to basic amenities. There is no social and economic protection for those who work there under precarious circumstances, with difficult living conditions.

The Citizen had reported how people in the areas are still struggling for basic amenities like clean water and roads.

At the steel factories, meanwhile, the workers scarcely make the minimum wage, especially after the effect the pandemic had on industrial activity, not that the pre-pandemic situation was all that bright.

For Shankar and many like him, this is a reality of life. “Losing a limb is a big thing. When it happened, I was angry. But what happened after that broke me. I was for one year without any job and my wife had to start working here and there,” he said.

Rama Shankar shows the impact of his injuries. Photo: Nikita Jain

Shankar is a father to three children, all of whom are going to school. He said that in 2022, he found a stable security job, which he has been working at ever since.

“I got no compensation, no help. I am not educated so I do not know the way things work. My supervisor at the factory took advantage of that. The owner of the factory too did not do anything,” he said.

Shankar said that, despite going through what he did, he was threatened by the factory owner. “My old father also came to request and beg those people for help but they turned him away as well,” he said, getting emotional.

It is a story told many times, but goes unheard.

Just a few kilometres away from Shankar, 18-year-old Sahil Kumar (name changed on request) is standing shyly. Forced to do child labour due to the family circumstances, Kumar was working at a factory in 2020.

One day, while working, the machine malfunctioned, while the material got stuck inside. “I was trying to get the material out but forgot to switch off the machine. As I was trying to do so, my hand got stuck and I lost part of my finger,” he said.

Hesitantly he showed his frail hands. Part of the middle finger of his left hand is missing. “I was taken to the hospital, but the factory owner left without doing anything. They just paid for the admission,” he said silently.

Kumar, even at a young age, realised what he went through was injustice and knocked the gates of the court. “I was threatened, and my father who owned a slipper shop could not continue because of the case expenses. Till now the case is pending. But I have given up all hope for justice,” he said.

For both Shankar and Kumar, fighting for justice was a different struggle. With no help from anyone, they had to forget about their cases and start finding work.

“I do not know the reason why it happened. I was also angry for a long time but I need to fend for my family. My father is old as well, and I have to take care of everything,” Kumar added. A class 8 dropout, Kumar said that he now does labour work wherever he can find it.

Once employed, factory workers are made to go through eight to 12 hour shifts. They work with heavy machinery (such as power presses and roller machines), six days a week.

In small-scale steel factories, workers press, cut and polish steel. Work conditions are hazardous and many workers develop chronic respiratory issues.

Sahil Kumar after his injuries. Photo: Nikita Jain

In return for their efforts, workers receive around Rs 5,000 – 8,000 per month for eight-hour shifts. Most, however, insist on working overtime, pushing the duration of their shifts to 12 hours and adding an extra Rs 2,000 to their salaries.

Monthly rent for one small room, for a family of four, can go up to Rs 3,000, including electricity bills. Thus, these workers have to spend a third of their salaries on rent, leaving hardly any money for additional expenses, let alone hospital bills.

“My rent was increased from Rs. 2500 to Rs. 3000. I have to manage my house, my children’s education and other expenses with this money,” Shankar said.

Speaking to The Citizen about the condition at Wazirpur, Delhi based lawyer and activist Surya Prakash said despite the area being at the heart of the national capital with government offices at every corner, the workers’ plea for compensation after an accident, proper pay and good working conditions go unheard.

“Both the Central and the State have shut their eyes to the struggle as well as the problems of the workers and people there. None of the rules are followed by the factory owners nor the government,” Prakash said.

He further said that the workers are not compensated for their injuries, nor do many are able to avail Employees' State Insurance (ESI), Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) or Employee compensation facility, due to which things become more difficult.

“The workers don’t have any sort of safety equipment and no kind of compliance is followed. The workers are forced to sell their labour and the government does not pay attention,” Prakash added.

A report by Centre for New Economic Studies (CNES) detailed the living conditions of the workers and how those who meet with an accident are denied any kind of care and compensation leaving them in difficult conditions.

“Some factors owners and, more importantly, contractors (most of whom stay in and around the slum area) try to project an image of ‘caring’ for their workers into the community. Many factory owners have also set up CCTV cameras to ensure the safety of women workers specifically.

“The presence of a relatively inclusive worker community, without any organisational agency or unionised presence, was interesting for our team to observe. Many workers, as a result of being part of a ‘cared for’ community, prefer to live in the slum of Wazirpur as opposed to other industrial areas like Bawana and Narela, where many feel isolated and alienated,” the report stated.

Workers press, cut and polish steel to create tumblers, bowls and plates. Overlooking safety concerns, they operate polishing, rolling and cutting machines using a ‘naked hand’ without any protective gear.

Both Shankar and Kumar said they were never given any protective gear by the company. “You have to be on alert in these companies, but at times when the machine malfunctions, who shall be held responsible,” Shankar asked.

Working under minimum wage, the workers hardly get an off. In 2023, the Arvind Kejriwal Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led Delhi government issued an order for the hike in the monthly wages of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers.

According to the Delhi government statement, the new rates of minimum wages are: monthly wage of skilled workers increased from Rs. 20,903 to Rs. 21,215 by Rs. 312; monthly salary of semi-skilled workers increased from Rs. 18,993 to Rs. 19,279 by Rs. 286; and Rs. 260 increased in the monthly wages of unskilled labourers from Rs. 17,234 to Rs. 17,494.

The Kejriwal government also said that the benefit will also be given to the employees of the clerical and supervisor class. The employee category includes non-matriculation, matriculation and graduate employees.

However, the implementation leaves much to be desired, since the reality is far from what was promised.

Delhi houses many industrial hubs like Wazirpur, Mayapuri, Okhla, and Sahibabad, industrial workers, where the conditions are the same.

Wazirpur, however, is the largest factory area. The majority of stainless steel workers are Dalits, who migrated from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states.

Mukul Sharma, a Professor of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, wrote that the Dalit labourers entered Wazirpur factories in the 1960s.

“They laboured hard in factories, and tried to learn basic industrial skills. I met second and third generation dalit labourers, originally from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana who started working in factories since the late 1960s. Some opened their own tea, grocery and other small shops, enrolled children in schools and bought permanent dwellings in slums and resettlement colonies,” Sharma stated.

He wrote that Dalit labourers became engaged in factory production and subsequently became involved in urban life. “Industrial areas represented a conglomerate of local formations — small settlements, regional clusters, social organisations — and continued spatial expansion providing labourers selective mobility.

“The city represented an existence of choice and a reservoir of resources for material production. Utilisation of existing potentialities and skills of migrant labourers have also resulted in an ongoing aggregation of their work zones. Still, the expansion of work life remained limited because they were constrained by economic resources, social stigma and selective skills,” the paper said.

For Shankar, finding a better life was the only reason why he chose to come to Delhi. “Unlike other people who have lost their limbs and have gone back to their villages, I do not have that option. I have nothing back home,” he said.

Shankar lost his mother seven years ago, his ailing father lives with his older brother. “I have nothing there. We have no land, no shop and there is no work. Since 2005 I have built a life here, I cannot go back,” he said.

Kumar too hails from Uttar Pradesh and said that he does not go back to the village often. “My father keeps going but I focus on finding work. My goal is to find work like I used before the accident. I don’t have permanent work and that creates a menace,” he said.

The labourers are hired on temporary and contractual employment, due to which they have no proper paperwork.

“Identified as low-skilled hot iron workers, they had few possibilities of getting work outside steel factories. At the same time, they were not only separated spatially in the factory premises, they also became the sole bearers of darkness, crowding, noise, pollution and health hazards,” Professor Sharma stated in his paper.

In and out of the factories, tired workers can be seen smoking or taking a break in between their hectic schedule. Their faces rimmed with dark powder, their frail body only shows the manipulation of the workers.

Wazirpur is also a hub of child labour with only last year, around 30 children working in various business establishments were rescued from the Wazirpur industrial area. Many factory owners hire children to do heavy machinery work. Just like Kumar was doing back in 2020.

Meanwhile, according to a recent report by the ‘Times of India’, the number of underaged workers rescued has almost tripled in 2023 compared with 2022.

The report revealed Delhi Police data showing that it rescued 311 children until June 2023 in contrast to the 107 rescued from different areas of the city in the same period 2022.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are the top three states with the maximum number of children trafficked between 2016 and 2022, while Delhi has seen an alarming 68% rise from pre to post-Covid times, according to a new study by an NGO.

These statistics have been unveiled in a comprehensive report titled ‘Child Trafficking in India: Insights from Situational Data Analysis and the Need for Tech-driven Intervention Strategies’, jointly compiled by Games24x7 and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF), founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi.

The report, released in 2023, to mark the ‘World Day Against Trafficking in Persons’, painted a troubling picture of the child trafficking crisis in the country.

The report showed that Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh are the top three states with the maximum number of children trafficked between 2016 and 2022.

Delhi has witnessed a 68% increase in child trafficking cases from pre to post-Covid times.

In the top district in child trafficking, Jaipur City emerged as the hotspot in the country, while the other four top slots in the list were found to be in the national capital.

The data gathered by Games24x7's data science team draws from KSCF and its partners' interventions in child trafficking cases across 262 districts in 21 states from 2016 to 2022, providing a comprehensive overview of the current trends and patterns in child trafficking.

During this period, as many as 13,549 children under the age of 18 were rescued who also form a sample size of some of the analysis.

The report revealed that 80 percent of the rescued children fell within the age group of 13 to 18 years, while 13 percent were aged nine to 12 years, and over 2 percent were even younger than nine years of age.

Shankar said that he does not want his children to meet the same fate. “I work all seven days and have no days off. I don't want my children to have the same life. I need a better job but I don’t have education or access. I also know for poor people like me there is no justice. So, for now moving on and focussing on my job is the priority,” he said.

All photographs Nikita Jain.