With COVID-19 leaving space projects in hibernation, ISRO's contract firms resort to lay-offs

Hundreds of contract engineers and technicians who are an integral part of the space agency's workforce are staring at a grim future

Published: 04th August 2020 06:46 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th August 2020 10:25 AM   |  A+A-

Satish Dhawan Space Centre

Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC-Shar) in Sriharikota (Photo | PTI)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: With the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) going into 'hibernation' owing to the pandemic, all major launch missions have suffered substantial delays, while hundreds of contract engineers and technicians who are an integral part of the space agency's workforce are staring at a grim future.

Over 100 contract employees working with Hyderabad-based Premier Explosives Limited (PEL) that handles operations and maintenance of the Solid Propellant Plant inside Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC-Shar) in Sriharikota have been reportedly laid off in the last couple of days. These employees have not been paid salaries since May.

The New Indian Express has accessed some of the communication letters sent to the laid-off employees by the company. PB Sudhir Singh, general manager (Process), PEL, said the Shar Central Level Review Committee recommended a reduction of total manpower considering the present situation and operational requirements.

"Out of our total workforce, very few who have been tested negative for COVID-19 are attending duty at the Solid Propellant Plant by staying in isolation from their family members at a guest house in Sriharikota. The situation has turned so dire wherein both employer and employee cannot fulfill their contractual obligations. Also, without the consent of Shar, your organisation PEL will be unable to provide work. It is with a heavy heart that the management expresses its inability to pay salaries and to continue your employment," Singh said in the letter sent to an engineer, who served the company for over a decade.

Singh also said it was unclear when SDSC-Shar would lift the temporary reduction in manpower and get back to normalcy. "Going by the curtailed operational requirements, it is hard to guess a tentative date of restoring back to the original manpower strength," he said. He did not respond to calls from The New Indian Express for direct comment on the issue.

The Solid Propellant Plant is a crucial piece of infrastructure handling the GSLV Mk-3 project. According to official records, available with The New Indian Express, a total of 552 personnel work at the propellant plant, of which 142 are permanent staff and 410 contract employees. Of the contract staff, 394 are PEL employees.

After the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the total manpower was trimmed to 254 and the number was further reduced to 200 following a sudden spurt in coronavirus cases inside Sriharikota and other ISRO residential colonies nearby. During the process, PEL employees suffered the most with only 106 allotted work out of a total of 394.

When contacted, senior officials of SDSC-Shar told The New Indian Express that it is an unprecedented situation. "We have to work with the reduced manpower till normalcy returns. Out of the 142 permanent staff, 88 are attending duties at the Solid Propellant Plant. Currently, work on the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is going on," said an official.

Meanwhile, sources said the Department of Space is paying contract firms at minimum wage rates (19 days per month) which is as per the guidelines issued by the department for reviewing the existing contract manpower deployment so as to regulate it based on the present launch manifesto and operational requirements.

It's not just contract employees working at the Solid Propellent Plant who have been put to hardship. Several other firms like Quess which deployed close to 300 employees at the Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant (SPROB) and Liquid Propellant Storage and Serving Facilities (LSSF) are contemplating lay-offs. Quess has not paid wages for the last two months.

Employees who spoke to The New Indian Express allege that these contract firms get paid about Rs 60,000 per engineer, but they pay a paltry Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. "Now, under such trying circumstances, they are refusing to pay even that. We want at least a subsistence allowance to feed our families. When questioned, our work managers are saying ISRO did not clear the bills since June. We want ISRO to intervene and bail us out," said an employee.

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