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Fire lights spark of protest
- Workers march in sweatshop zone's first rally

Calcutta, Nov. 23: Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights…. That’s what 19-year-old Shahidul Islam did a day after a blaze in a sweatshop destroyed 10 lives.

Topsia witnessed a never-before spectacle as he led over 600 workers through narrow lanes and bylanes, demanding a fair deal, shaken out of their misery by the scene of their fellow men being swallowed by the fire because they were prisoners in a leather factory whose gate was locked.

“We are treated like bonded labourers and remain locked even when we are sleeping,” said Md. Zahid, who has been working in the leather bag-making industry for over eight years.

A “skilled” hand, the 17-year-old boy from Sonarpur in South 24-Parganas had not the faintest idea that child labour was wrong — and that the government had recently banned it everywhere — and brought his two brothers, one 9 and the other 11, last year to work in the same factory.

“It was difficult for me to feed everyone back home and so I brought my brothers here,” said Zahid. “Here” is a lane adjacent to 33C Topsia Road, where his fellow workers lost their lives in the third-floor blaze.

Shahidul was not acquainted with any of the dead men who worked in the building next to where he toiled, but the image of people in flames, crying for help from behind a locked gate and then their charred remains have made him stand up and speak.

“I would have been dead had our factory caught fire,” he said, marching through Tiljala-Topsia-Tangra, home to the city’s unorganised leather industry.

In a rare display of fellow feeling, the workers came out of the sweatshops and walked to the building housing Tenex Exports that had caught fire. Compensation for victims’ relatives, better working conditions and a probe into the blaze — these were the demands of the workers, most in their first rally.

“I am working here for over five years, but there is no way I can prove who my employer is. There is no pay structure and we cannot even afford to fall sick,” said Zahid.

But while Shahidul and Zahid led the rally — organised without any political backing — it was business as usual in most other units.

Mohammed Firoze, employed by Crescent Exporters, was one of them. “I am still learning the job and so is my younger brother Mohd Afroze,” said the 14-year-old.

Firoze gets three meals a day against 15 hours of labour. His skilled co-workers earn between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500 a month and the only document they get from their employers is a job-chalan, which does not even bear the name of the company. Almost all the sweatshops in the illegal buildings of the area follow the same practice.

The administration and political parties, till now oblivious to the working conditions in the area, have woken up after 10 deaths.

“I have called an all-party meeting on November 30. We will launch a drive to demolish some illegal constructions,” said Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, the mayor.

Labour inspectors, who visited the site, found that the factory was illegal. “We have filed a case against the owners. We will lay down guidelines for other factories,” said labour secretary Subesh Das.

The owner of the building and the promoters of Tenex Exports are still absconding.

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