Working Class
Contemporary Working Class Issues and Struggles

(In view of the approaching May Day 2008, we have a brief overview of some of the ongoing trends in the working class movement, and an account of some recent struggles.)

The relentless onslaught of the policies of liberalization notwithstanding, the Indian working class is showing its resilience and its determination to struggle.

With increasing contractualisation and casualisation of the workforce, the ruling classes hoped to divide the working class, pit the permanent workers against the contract workers, and make the latter more insecure and so less willing to risk a struggle. Even the Supreme Court has facilitated this process. While earlier orders of the Supreme Court had unequivocally held contract labour to be an exploitative system and upheld the right of contract workers to automatic absorption, a later judgement of 2001 overturned this position and ruled out automatic absorption. As a result, contract labour exploitation in CPSUs, even in banks and insurance companies and government services in many departments is assuming mindboggling proportions as is evident from the last two Central Government Employees Surveys. But contract workers are showing a determination to organize and fight back all over the country. The recent successful three-day strike in Bokaro (see accompanying report for details) is an encouraging instance, and contract workers in CPSUs promise to emerge as a new area of militant struggles.

There have also been a series of struggles by government employees, contractualised and underpaid health and education workers and the like. In March 2008, frustrated by the Jharkhand state government’s refusal to respond to their demand for Central payscales and other rights, four fourth grade government employees attempted self-immolation at the state’s secretariat building; one of whom sustained critical injuries. Angered by the criminal callousness that had driven their colleagues to such a step, Jharkhand employees launched a determined and militant struggle. The Jharkhand Non-Gazetted Employees’ Federation, the revolutionary trend within the employees movement, played a central role in this movement, in which hundreds of fourth grade employees sustained a strike for ten days, gheraoed the secretariat and State Assembly, and brought Government offices to their knees.

In Bihar, likewise, 33,000 non-teaching staff of nine universities and 250 constituent colleges went on a week-long strike from March 10, against the Bihar Government’s failure to fulfil the terms of agreement reached in 2007. This agitation comes as a sequel to other significant struggles in recent times – that of para teachers, temporary nurses and para-health workers in hospitals and rural ASHA workers, many of which have faced repression and lathicharges in the past few months.

The Airport Employees Strike is another recent major strike action (see accompanying article). Meanwhile Air India employees announced a strike against the non-implementation of agreements related to their wages and cadre policy, but deferred it. In February, there were reports of thousands of employees of the State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) of Jammu and Kashmir staged a protest demanding immediate payment of their salaries which had not been paid for four months and immediate release pending instalments of their provident fund.

In Tamilnadu, the ‘Mangal Sutra’ scheme in spinning mills is rampant (in which young single women garment workers are transported from villages to live on sweatshop campuses where they are held virtually captive). Even the State Government of Tamilnadu had been forced to recognise it as an illegal system of semi-bonded labour and had set up a monitoring committee, which has however proved to be little better than eyewash. AICCTU has consistently campaigned for abolition of this practice, under which women were always prone to underpayment and being laid off or retrenched without compensation. Now, this phenomenon of pay-offs without compensation is being aggravated on the pretext of rupee appreciation and the resultant yarn price hike, and thousands of young women workers are victims of it. Agitations demanding intervention of the Central and State Governments to safeguard the rights of garment workers are likely to intensify in the days to come.

The army of unorganised workers is another section which promises to be a major force of struggle. Indian workers in the US and the Gulf countries have long been agitating for minimum wages and against inhuman living conditions, and the Government in spite of promises to intervene, has not taken any effective steps to ensure these rights. But closer home too, the Government is quite unconcerned as to the appalling conditions in which construction workers and other unorganised sector workers live and labour. Recently, there have been reports of large-scale deaths by disease and accidents, Dickensian living conditions as well as denial of minimum wages, of construction labourers in Delhi in prestigious projects like Commonwealth Games Village and Delhi Metro. Surveys have found a mere 1% of construction workers in Delhi are registered with the Welfare Fund. The UPA Government has introduced the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Bill in Parliament last year, but it seems to have been put on the backburner, with the entire question of social security now being reduced to a circumscribed notion of health insurance in the form of the Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana. This scheme is said to offer health insurance for all BPL households of agricultural labour, poor peasants and unorganised poor, and is to come into effect on April 1. On closer examination, it turns out that the Central Government would start this scheme for 1.2 crore households only and cover only 6 crore households in five years, covering only 75 percent of the total annual premium of Rs.75, while the rest is to be met by the State Governments. The record has shown that the poor have had to wage fierce struggles to figure on BPL lists or get job cards and work – the story is not likely to be any different with the Bima Yojana. The days to come call for militant mobilisations (as AIALA has launched for implementation of the NREGA) to demand that Governments in question deliver on the question of unorganised workers’ rights – from registration of Delhi construction workers in the Welfare Fund to implementation of the Bima Yojana scheme to cover all BPL households.

Tea garden workers all over the country have been left to starve in the wake of closures and non-payment of wages, and the reluctance of governments to take action against the defaulting companies. Recently, the Supreme Court heard a PIL on the question of tea estates and tea gardens, spread over several states in the country, which have taken Rs 4000 crore during the last eight years towards paying dues to 60,000 workers, but which, in collusion with governments, have managed to avoid paying any of the dues till date. The Supreme Court has directed that the tea companies too be impleaded in the cases along with the Governments. In West Bengal, managements of tea gardens continue to brazenly refuse to pay workers’ dues and start work despite repeated promises to do so. The West Bengal Government has threatened to take over these gardens, but is remains to be seen if it will make good this threat. As we go to press, there is news that an “AEZ” (Agricultural Export Zone) is being set up in the Darjeeling hills covering 87 tea estates. Ironically, tea gardens are the colonial prototype for the infamous SEZs – enclaves in which workers are exploited and starved, and protests punished – and now it seems that this character of tea gardens will be given a new lease of life in the name of AEZs.

Similar is the story with jute mills in West Bengal, where jute managements, when directed to pay workers’ outstanding dues, threatened closure this March; and closure of mills has routinely meant robbing workers of their dues. The AICCTU-affiliated Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Federation held a protest on February 21 at the State PF Department, demanding settlement of the PF and pension due to workers of the closed Gauripur Jute Mill, holding of elections to the Trustee Board (the present Trustee Board is responsible for large scale PF scam) and other demands.

At Pondicherry, workers under the AICCTU banner held a three-day hunger fast from 19-22 February against retrenchment, demanding confiscation of land and freezing of accounts of fly-by-night factories that have closed without payment of workers’ dues. The Labour Commissioner of Pondicherry intervened and assured action. Following that, on 19 March, there was a joint demonstration at the Labour Commission by AICCTU, CITU, AITUC, HMS, and UTUC on the same demands.

At the SIDCUL industrial estate in Uttarakhand where workers under AICCTU have been agitating for the past year demanding the right to unionise, the struggle continues in the face of continued open violation of labour laws. While the dharna at one factory gate had to be called off following police repression, the dharna at another factory gate continues since June 2007, in spite of the fact that the management has repeatedly undermined the legally mandated conciliation process, has re-opened the factory with the Government’s connivance and is joined by hthe district administration in pressurizing the regular workers to join work again as casual labour minus Trade Union rights. At yet another factory, despite all union formalities being complete, the management is refusing to register the union. Meanwhile, the State Government continues to crack down on CPI(ML) leaders: the latest instance is the arrest on fake charges of leading district-level CPI(ML) organizer Viren Haldar. In protest, the CPI(ML) is launching a state-wide campaign against state repression, where the pretext is Maoism but the real intention is to disallow people’s protests and allow a free hand to corporates. 


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