Around 5,000 almond workers are on indefinite strike in the Karawal Nagar area of New Delhi. The vast majority of them (almost 90%) are women workers, demanding better wages, regulated working hours, improved sanitation, and essential health and safety equipment such as masks and gloves. They also voice concern over the instances of physical assault and verbal abuse by business owners. Organised as the Karawal Nagar Mazdoor Union, they have been on protest since March 1, and say their wages have been kept stagnant, at Rs 2 per kilogram of almonds, for the past 12 years.

Situated in northeast Delhi, Karawal Nagar is one of the biggest hubs of almond processing in the area. Yet none of the godowns here have been licensed because they are situated in a residential area and not the demarcated industrial one. Work is performed in the basement of the business owner’s house, which is used as a godown. The workers shell, clean and pack California almonds imported from the United States and transported to Karawal Nagar for further processing.

“If you walk in the lanes of the godowns you will not be able to tell if any labour work is going on. Even permanent residents of the area, living some distance away from the godowns, do not know about it,” says Yogesh, coordinator of the KNMU.

The nuts are transported from California orchards to the prominent entrepreneurs conducting business in the Khari Baoli area of the national capital. These entrepreneurs then sign contracts with warehouse owners in Karawal Nagar to have their almonds processed, including shelling, hulling, cleaning, sorting, and packaging. Subsequently, the warehouse owners employ workers – mainly men for operating the shelling/hulling and packaging machinery, and women for the cleaning and sorting tasks – and pay the men Rs 5/kg, while paying the women only Rs 2/kg.

Within these godowns, the almond workers face dire circumstances.

Ruby Devi, in her mid-twenties and from Bihar, shares the tough reality of working in the almond industry. “We’re locked in the godown from 3:00 am to 11:00 pm, without breaks for food or even to use the washroom.” With three kids and no husband, she is struggling. “I haven’t been paid in full for three months. How are we poor people supposed to manage our lives?” She also mentions the lack of safety gear like masks and gloves, and how the owner’s constant harassment and use of slurs make it more difficult for women workers to work. “We aren’t provided with any protective gear while handling chemicals. It’s tough dealing with skin irritation and cuts without proper gear, and the racial insults from the owner only make our situation worse.”

Safolite, a compound of sodium salts and hydroxymethane sulfinic acid, is used to bleach almonds, enhancing their freshness. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet from Silox India, its primary domestic manufacturer, safolite can cause skin irritation, serious eye irritation, and respiratory issues on exposure. It is also thought to cause genetic defects and harm to unborn foetuses if exposed. Although they handle chemicals like safolite in the course of their work, the owners of the almond businesses here do not supply the workers with gloves, protective clothing, eye masks or facial protection.

According to Usha Devi, a worker in her 40s who has worked in the industry for the last 15 years, “The washrooms have poor sanitation, and we’re forced to work in locked godowns. Dust from the machines blocks our noses and causes congestion, sometimes bleeding.” She links her declining health to these conditions and the prolonged working periods without rest – in this case, stretching back to Diwali.

There is also a lack of accountability from factory owners in the event of accidents. “Even if a labourer sustains injuries while working, the owners refuse to take responsibility or provide compensation,” says Usha Devi.

To intimidate the protesters and force them to end their strike, the owners turned to violence. Goons hired by the business owners pelted stones at the protestors and chased them through the lanes. Usha Devi, showing her wounds, states that, “The owner resorted to violence against protesters on March 10. To break our spirits and call off the protest, the owners, along with goons, attacked us. They tore the clothes of women protesters, abused us, and used slurs to demoralise us.”

She mentions the deception that preceded the attack. “Initially the owners released posters stating that they were reducing the price from 2/kg to 1.5/kg when we demanded a wage hike.”

“We must stay in the worksite in any situation. We have to complete the work irrespective of our health conditions. We cannot even attend to our sick children at our home. Doh rupay par ghulami karwata hai,” (They enslave us for 2 rupees) says Chandeshwari Devi, who has worked here for the last 18 years. “We spit up almond dust whenever we cough… Despite all this we have to work for our family,” she explains. “With prices being raised, finding bread and butter for the family is still a question for us. Who will look after the family if I don’t go out and work?”

Goons allegedly hired by the business owners have attacked the protesting workers three times to date but still the strike is going on full swing. “We are on the right track and have gained partial victory in our mission. The owners who were once threatening to reduce the wages to Rs 1.5/kg have agreed to increase wages, and are calling us to negotiate on wages,” says Vishal, another coordinator from the KNMU. “The owners are also hesitant to provide masks and gloves to workers, claiming that they are not comfortable using it and prefer to use their own gamcha or saree to cover their nose and mouth,” he adds.

The employees remain sceptical of the assurances made by their employers and are seeking written guarantees from them. They are concerned that once their strike concludes, the owners may renege on their promises and they would be back to square one, with no improvement in their working conditions.

The protesting workers also visited the Labour Court on March 18 and submitted their demands to the Deputy Labour Commissioner. So far they have received no response. “We are trying to build pressure through the Labour Office to regulate the working hours, but there has been no intervention,” says Vishal. “Also, we need more perseverance from the workers to meet those demands.”