For Aligarh's Lock Workers, Rising Costs, Low Wages Primary Concerns in Polling Season

Both factory workers and owners are feeling the brunt of first demonetisation and then the COVID-19 lockdowns, and believe the government is ignoring them.

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Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh): Tahir Khan is a 35-year-old lock worker in Aligarh. He is among the thousands of workers bearing the brunt of COVID-19 lockdowns and what they call government apathy towards workers.

He is currently employed under Saud Aijaz, whose family has been running a small-scale lock factory operation over four decades in Eidgah.

Tahir has been a daily-wage worker since he was 15. He now lives in a house that Saud provided because of difficulties faced during the lockdown.

He works in a precarious setup without safety precautions, where serious injuries are common. His shift also involves intensive work for at least ten hours a day.

The staircase to Tahir’s house leads to a two-room structure with dilapidated walls. A big machine used for lock fittings in placed just near the door.

He has been earning around Rs 300 per day for the last two decades. However, his expenses keep rising.

“How much can one do with Rs 300?”

During the lockdown, he was forced to be without any work. He is still repaying a loan of Rs 15,000 that he incurred at the time.

He has three daughters and one son, all under 14. None of them are currently enrolled in a school.

A few years ago, Tahir had admitted his son in a school but took him out after some months as the cost of the course material was too high to bear for the family. The monthly fee of Rs 500 was also too much.

Tahir’s son now works in the factory with him. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

“How much can one do with just Rs 300?” Tahir asked.

Three members of the family, including Tahir’s 14-year-old son, are employed in this industry. While Tahir and his son work in the factory setup, Reshma, his wife works from home. She makes Rs 200 every week.

She works overtime on the big machine known as a handpress to earn enough money to send her children to a nearby coaching centre, which is much cheaper than sending them to the school.

Reshma. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

As she sits on the machine to start the day’s work, her four-year-old daughters clings to her. “I wish to educate my children so they don’t have to go through this,” Reshma said.

Reshma wants to educate her three daughters. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

Land of locks

Aligarh is known for its century-old lock industry, employing over two lakh workers. The city is referred to as “Tala Nagri (Land of Locks)”.

The over Rs 4,000-crore industry has been facing a slump because of two big blows – demonetisation in 2016 and the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020.

Many kids are also employed in the industry, mostly in packaging. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

Aligarh is said to produce tens of lakhs of locks everyday, and the legendary lock industry accounts for almost 75% of production of locks in the country.

The lock industry is so infused in the old town of Aligarh that one can see tools scattered inside people’s homes, as many women make locks from inside their homes.

Many women are employed in the lock-making industry. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

Even an MLA candidate from this area is the owner of one of India’s biggest lock brands, Link Locks. The former MLA, Zafar Alam, is contesting once again for the upcoming Uttar Pradesh polls on a Samajwadi Party ticket.

One of the main reasons for the discontent among factory owners is the ever fluctuating rates of raw material, which mainly includes scrap material from cars and trucks such as steel, iron and zinc.

The first biggest blow to the industry came in 2016, with the demonetisation, when the industry came to a sudden halt, with more than 80% of the production affected.

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, the industry was once again forced to shut operation.

Who will buy locks during a pandemic?

The multiple rounds of lockdowns resulted in the suffering of both the factory owners as well as the workers. During the devastating health crisis, a lack of demand like never seen before seeped through the market.

During the second wave of the pandemic, the economic fallout was so intense that most workers came to work despite the virus to save themselves from being pushed into abject poverty. Most of them had already been out of jobs for a year.

While smaller factory owners were more severely affected than the big industrialists, workers across the industry were financially crippled.

Among the lock workers, the only thing that binds them is poverty. The common problems such as poor infrastructure, drainage and sanitation issues are most severely felt by people from these low-income groups.

The Shah Jamal area, which lies alongside a graveyard, is one of the poorest localities in Aligarh.

The small-scale industries were also affected by the technicalities of the Goods and Services Tax guidelines introduced in 2015 by the government with the view of streamlining tax collection in the country.

The big companies, however, were able to afford financial advisors to assist them with the GST complications.

Gig economy-like conditions

Labour laws surrounding this industry outline the employer’s responsibility of paying a provident fund as well as providing health insurance for employees. While the big industrialists can fulfil these formalities with ease, small factory owners struggle with these criteria due to low profit margins.

This results in most factory owners being hesitant in giving workers full-time employment. Instead, they employ more people on a contractual basis, resulting in uncertainty for the workers.

A woman works in one of the lock-making factories. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

This means that there is no job security, nor are there fixed salaries.

One of the small factory owners told The Wire that just ten big factories dominate the market, though there exist thousands of smaller ones.

There is also a disadvantage for the employers who have unregistered workers on their roll – the workers can move to any other factory for a better opportunity (even though in reality, such opportunities are hard to come by).

Chamar lane, Eidgah

In a narrow lane, overflowing sewage from the nearby drains is collected in a row by the roadside. What looks like a row of houses is actually one of small-scale workshops and factories. Inside, workers are engaged in different stages of making a lock.

A small-scale factory for making locks. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

The industry maintains a weekly payment cycle in which workers are paid their dues on Thursday, a day before their weekly off on Friday.

Thirty-year-old Saud Aijaz is a third-generation owner of a small-scale lock factory called Grip Locks. Under him, close to 80 workers are employed in multiple such factory setups. A majority of them live in the same mohalla.

Saud sits in his office with his father. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

His family has been running this operation over four decades. Apart from generating employment for the uneducated in his area, he has also provided houses to some of his workers who were most affected by the pandemic.

Like many of his counterparts in the cottage industry, he sources his raw material from Pune, Maharashtra.

The lock-making process involves steps such as purchasing raw material, cutting it into smaller parts, assembling them with hammers, putting in the necessary fittings, and packaging.

Then it is distributed to wholesalers and hawkers. The biggest profit is earned by the retailers, who might even earn as much as Rs 800 on a premium lock.

Because of the public health crisis over the past three years, the customer base shrunk, due to less demand in the local market and reduced export orders.

“There was too much uncertainty in the days following the COVID-19 pandemic,” Saud said, referring to the policy changes dictating the functioning of such factories.

Saud describes how most of his workers only had savings of less than Rs 10,000 when was the lockdown was announced.

These sums can make the difference of whether they will be able to arrange a marriage function for their daughters’ weddings.

The economic fallout of the loans incurred during the lockdown, when these workers were out of work, can still be seen in their lives. This, Saud says, had led to a rise in drug abuse among workers.

Most of these workers don’t own any property and live in rented houses.

BJP supporters disillusioned

In Taala Nagri on the outskirts of Aligarh lies another lock-making hub, much more advanced and with large-scale factories run by big industrialists.

Akhilesh Gupta is the owner of Akhilesh Business Exporters, which is involved in exporting hardware material including locks across 22 countries.

He claimed to be a diehard supporter of the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in UP. Despite that, he says that the industry is in the doldrums and the government is not paying it enough attention.

Vote bhi de rahe hai, note bhi, aur chot bhi le rahe hain, ye kab tak chalega? (We are giving our votes, our notes, and incurring losses – how long will this last?)” he asked.

Further, he said that workers under him have been reduced to being dependent on subsidies and freebies. But the government is not focused on providing sustainable options to these workers through better employment opportunities.

A big factory. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

Chandra Shekhar Sharma, who participated in the campaign of BJP candidate Anil Parashar from Koil constituency of Aligarh in the morning, agreed.

He said that he has also held positions in the BJP for more than a decade in this district. He believes that law and order has improved immensely, but asked that the use of that is if people don’t have enough to eat.

“We can only save our wealth from thieves only if we have wealth,” he added. He said that India’s image is declining overseas.

BJP core supporters are now disillusioned with the party. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

He owns Krishna Art & Company, where he has had to reduce the number of workers from 100 to 25 after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pramod Kumar Sharma, one of the workers in that factory, said that inflation has really affected his life. He is the main earner for his family of 12, including his siblings and parents.

Workers are usually from low income groups from all communities. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

He earns about Rs 12,000 per month, Rs 4,000 more than workers in the small-scale industry setup.

All three of these men said that they will vote for the BJP in the upcoming elections, but this will be the last time if the condition of the industry doesn’t improve.