Datta Sonawane, 57, who was the President of the Indian Airports Employees Union expired on 13th June 2020 of Covid 19 at the ESI Hospital at Kandivli, Mumbai.

Datta was a contract worker at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport at Mumbai in its trolley department. He joined work at the airport in the year 1993, And by 1994 he and his unit of over a 100 workers joined the union. The union was then at the peak of its activities of organising contract workers at the airports at Mumbai. Workers from Airports Authority of India, Air India, Indian Airlines and Pawan Hans were everyday getting organised in their thousands in those years.

Datta joined the union in the heat of these struggles, with the demand to stop paying “hafta” or extortion money to the contractors from the workers wages on pay day.This was a widespread practice those days in the AAI and carried out openly. To stop this practice was the main struggle of the union then and no amount of petitioning the authorities had the slightest effect. It was their numbers and their unity across airport terminal building, ancillary buildings, workshops, plants, runways, roads and workers colonies in the hundreds of acres of contiguous airport lands that could achieve it. These workers included loaders, sweepers, canteen workers, malis, security guards, bird chasers on the runways, carpenters, masons, plumbers, pump operators, electricians, mechanics, helpers, store keepers, clerks etc etc and they were variously termed contract, casual and temporary workers. They were all doing work of a permanent nature. Of course they received nothing but a part of their wage and were dressed in ragged coats or dungarees of very bright colours so they could be spotted easily anywhere. Removing them from the job just meant grabbing away their airport pass. Beatings were a regular phenomenon then. All this stopped once the workers united and learnt to fight back. The airport was pock marked with contractors. Somewhere the contractor had a hundred and over under him and somewhere he had a single worker in a plant. Once the organising started , it took on it’s own momentum and the workers everywhere came forward to take charge not just for their own units. but across units and companies. Workers who had been working alongside each other for years but did not know each other as they were under different contractors, now became comrades in arms in the struggle.

Its a long story. The majority became permanent workers over the years, by court orders and also through settlements, but always through struggles. These managements did not implement supreme court orders till they were gheraoed at the headquarters at Delhi where the workers refused to leave till they got it in writing right there. But some like Datta still remained so-called contract workers but could retain their jobs for the past 25 years through the union.

Then Mumbai Airport was privatised and the majority of those who were permanent workers refused the option of joining the private company MIAL and remained with AAI. The private company which took over the airports filled all these posts once more with new contract workers.

Datta was active from the day he joined the union. He was a son of a mill worker, a jobber in Kohinoor Mills. He grew up studying in his village school as a boarder. He did his 11th and 12th in Dadar Ambedkar college. After the mills closed his family of 6 members were entirely dependent on his salary as he took a job as a press worker in Dadar. In the press too he formed a union and fought for the workers.
Datta, who was called Dada or elder brother by all the workers, didn’t just work for workers in his own Union. Wherever he went he would get into the problems of workers, be they of another union or the unorganised. For him it was the working class and the poor and injustices against them that mattered. He was short tempered and would often fight with the ones he was closest to , but not a single worker minded it because he knew he was worried about them. He would work long hours at the union office and in organising at the airport or elsewhere, including travel out of town for union work if necessary. Whatever the work, be it sweeping the office and filling water or writing a letter, leaflet or poster, addressing the workers, encouraging others to participate in all the unions work, carrying out agitations or propaganda, showing solidarity with others, he understood the position of the Red Flag. In unorganised workers unions hardly a day passes without problems. Wherever there was any injustice by the management or the contractors he would fight militantly and principally carrying the workers with him. He didn’t care about himself, he was always thinking about others.

He felt a deep solidarity with the workers and the poor everywhere.He was a true proletarian.Datta cannot be replaced in the union.He will be missed everyday and we will remember his contribution to the union and our lives forever. He left an example to follow.

In these Corona days when the governments are shamelessly using the opportunity of the lockdown and the pandemic to attack the workers, peasants and all working people, by stripping them of all their legal rights, even their right to form a union, more than ever it is a time to make fighting unions with leaders from rank and file of the masses. Many Dattas will continue to be born from the proletariat. The working class will hold aloft it’s red flag, It will strike back!

On the problems faced by the workers in the Airports during the corona days and lockdown

As we well know, Covid 19 has been brought to India from abroad. And it came via air. So the International Airports of the country have been the gateways to corona. After the lockdown the airports were shut down, except for a few flights. The workers were asked to stay home from March 25 up to 25th of May when they were called back to work. During the period of the lockdown wages due on the 1st of the month were inordinately delayed for up to 10 to 12 days. At first workers were paid less than their monthly wages, but later they were reimbursed for amounts after the union raised it with the management.

When Corona first started in March some of the workers (not all) were issued with a mask and a pair of gloves. Later nothing was given. The temperature machine is never working. It shows temperature way below normal. The public and staff toilets are not maintained in sanitary conditions. Most of the time they do not contain soap and the taps are to be manually operated so one is bound to touch them. Sanitisers are not provided. Though in March the use of the bio metric attendance machine was stopped now after the reopening on the 24th of June they have been restarted and workers are forced to press their thumbs against it to mark their attendance. Something banned for regular workers.

On the domestic flights being restarted on 24th May night, workers were called back to work and as per a roster put up they are to attend work on alternate days. All willing workers reported to work, but suddenly on the 9th of June the workers aged above 55years were prevented from doing their duties by changing their duty roster to exclude the 55 year olds.No written notice was issued to these workers who have been refused work. The management keeps all its options open, by putting nothing in writing.

Deepti Gopinath, For Indian Airports Employees Unions


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