On the eve of 46th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) Narendra Modi had said that the tripartite consultations are a good system. Certainly it is. But only when the government heeds the points raised in such meetings by the workers’ representatives! Not when the Government’s rhetoric is belied by an all out effort to attack on every right of the worker, withdraw every legal protection, snatch away every kind of democratic freedom and every respectable means of dignity and livelihood. Most of the demands raised in the all India general strike apart from rising prices, disinvestment, FDI and unemployment, have been raised in consecutive Indian Labour Conferences by the central trade unions. If the government was serious it could have heeded those demands: the Strike was needed because the Government did not.
In face of a determined united assertion of the working masses, the Modi Government spread lies, confusions and false claims to undermine the genuine demands put forth by the Central trade union organisations through their 12-point demand charter.
The workers gave a fitting rebuff to the propaganda that tried to brand the General Strike as being “anti-development, anti-progress,” causing “economic losses, inconvenience to public” and so on, by making the Strike a huge success.
The inter-ministerial Group of Ministers formed to negotiate and discuss the demand charter with the representatives of trade union organisations tried to spread false claims and arguments. After trade unions’ meetings with the GoM, the government claimed that 7 of the 12 points raised will be addressed. This was a lie as the Government agreed to none of the concerns and demands. On the contrary what transpired in the GoM meeting amounts to disrespecting the statutory, legal and constitutional framework as the government tried to bargain and negotiate on some of the existing legal provisions instead of simply agreeing on firm implementation of them.
For instance, the Government did not agree to the issue of equal wages to the contract workers as per the rules under Contract Labour Act; on the contrary saying that all contract workers will be paid minimum wages! But this is already guaranteed by the law. This only exposes government’s tacit acceptance that workers are not being paid as per the existing minimum rates by the employers and its keenness to continue with this illegality, in order to allow corporates to loot the hard earned wages of workers! This is utterly shameful on the part of an elected government.
BMS, the ruling BJP-affiliated trade union center, abstained from the General Strike saying it was satisfied with the Modi Government’s assurances and promises! All India General Strikes have become a regular feature ever since neo-liberal policy regime was started in India in early 90s. There have been nearly twenty countrywide working class mass actions against anti-people policy regime on issues ranging from opposing WTO to price rise to employment and wages. BMS used to align with the working class only to establish the political agenda of its parent organisation among them. It had remained aloof from the all India strike of 7 September 2010 too when strike call was being received very enthusiastically by all sections of the workers. The BMS was part of the joint central trade unions’ general strike initiative and spoke against the unilateral labour reforms and disinvestment and FDI, but after the persuasions by the Modi Government, its president BN Rai said publicly “so far, the perception was, government is not ready to listen to trade unions and that has changed. Now, even PM is serious and ready to listen to resolve issues. Two, after two or three meetings with the group of ministers, you may see improvement in the relationship between unions and government”. And BMS issued a call to postpone the strike.
BMS remained part of the strike actions in Feb. 2012 and Feb. 2013 when peoples’ resentment against UPA Govt. was on a high; thereby helping the BJP and Narendra Modi come to power by creating an illusion that the BJP was opposed to anti-worker pro-corporate policies. To understand the BMS’ strategic participation and abstention, we should remember RSS founder Golwalkar’s words: “We know this also that some of our swayamsevaks work in politics. There they have to organize according to the needs of work public meetings, processions etc., have to raise slogans. All these things have no place in our work. However, like the character in a play whatever role has been assigned should be portrayed with best of capability. But sometimes Swayamsevaks go beyond the role assigned to a performer (nat) as they develop over-zealousness in their hearts, to the extent that they become useless for this work. This is not good.” [Golwalkar, Guruji Samagar Darshan, volume 4, p. 4-5.] Golwalkar was talking about RSS’ role in the freedom struggle. But the same holds true now: when RSS outfits held public meetings and processions against FDI in retail or when BMS participated in Strikes, they were merely being ‘nats’ – performers – to fool people!
Trade Union organisations are demanding minimum Rs. 15,000 as wages per month which by any standard cannot be said to be an exaggerated sum in today’s context, and which is far below Rs. 20,000 per month, the approximate amount arrived at through the formulae prescribed by the 15th, 44th and 46th Indian Labour Conferences. Instead the government preferred to undermine issue of minimum wage even as a conceptual framework, and arbitrarily suggested a floor level wage of Rs. 7,100 per month and that too will require a final nod from ‘other stakeholders’ (read employers). This is being propagated as readiness of the Government for an “appropriate legislation for making formula based minimum wages mandatory and applicable”.
The Government’s bid to undermine and amend labour law amendments despite widespread opposition and resentment is a betrayal of its promises made before the general elections. It is moving forward to snatch away rights of the workers and to systematize the ongoing loot of wages and slave-like working conditions by providing a legal framework to legitimize the exploitation of the corporates and big capital. Hence the GoM declared that “Labour laws reforms will be based on tripartite consultations as already stated by the Prime Minister”, but there is no assurance that consensus alone will be the basis of such reforms.
The Prime Minister had tacitly expressed his mind in last ILC in July when he has said that ‘obsolete and unnecessary laws’ needs to be changed. Then he had tried to cleverly pit workers against their unions by saying that “there is a thin line that separates the interest of the workers and the interest of the labour union.” This was accompanied by his advice to the unions to nurture innovation among the workers to become entrepreneurs! He sermonised that combined efforts of the labour unions, the industrialists and the Government would be in the interest of the nation’s economy, and laws alone could not bring the desired objective. He did not utter a single word to assure that the rule of law will prevail and workers will get what is legally due to them, leave alone reflect the deeply felt need to realign labour laws more towards the workers.
The Government’s approach reflects the RSS philosophy: its slogans of Shramev Jayate (dignity of labour) and workers as "Vishwakarma" pose a veiled threat to workers political assertion, their identity as producers and builders of society, their rights and their fight to secure an equitable and just place.
The governments have in effect adopted an unsaid policy of forcible denial of any implementation of labour laws. Labour departments in all the states have been rendered ineffective by lack of initiative and willingness to address labour problems and also by lack of required manpower. The BJP-ruled states have already gone far ahead on the road towards anti-labour Labour Reforms, proving the Central Government’s promises of ‘tripartite consultations’ hollow.
This is proved by the GoM’s refusal to recognize lakhs of Anganwadi, Mid-day meal, ASHA, Para-teachers and others as ‘workers’. When they have been denied even their right of statutory minimum wages, and allocations of funds for those schemes has been slashed in the last budget, the Government’s claim of ‘expanding social security’ to these workers is only a lie.
One important point in the Demand Charter was of removing ceilings on calculations and payment of Bonus. There is no ceiling on the profits of the corporations and employers; what then could be the logic of putting a ceiling on payment of Bonus? While the government continued with ceilings, it has only revised the limit of calculation of ceiling to Rs 3500 and eligibility wage limit to Rs 21,000, which is highly inappropriate and unjust as a response to the TUs’ demand of total removal of ceiling limit and an enhancement of formula for calculation.
The Government would have us believe that there is no issue like ‘price rise,’ now no matter how hard it has become for a common worker family to survive amidst scanty wages and sky-high prices of all essential commodities. As far as employment scenario is concerned, all the GoM could offer were the various Modi regime ‘jumlas’ of Mudra Yojana, Make in India, Skill India and National Career Service Portal. These schemes basically put the moral burden and accountability of employment generation on the unemployed themselves and Government’s role becomes only to sermonise and criticise.
The Government is hell bent on retaining the policies of the disinvestments and even FDI in retail which the BJP had claimed to be against whilst in Opposition. The Modi government has made it clear that the course of anti-people policies will continue, even more aggressively. Implementation of labour laws, issues of workers’ wages, jobs, social security – all these are now alien to the current pro-corporate scheme of things.
With the immense success of the All India General Strike, the workers have given the Government a fitting answer. The Strike can start a countdown for those now in the seat of power.
I was with the workers of the Wazirpur Industrial Area in Delhi as they participated in the Strike. Hearing the slogans of the marching workers, workers came pouring out of factories to join them.
What was noticeable was how young many of these workers are. Upendra, a skinny youngster, when I asked him his age, said ‘I don’t know, I must be 16, right?’ Under India’s Child Labour laws, children under 16 cannot be employed in full-time jobs. Upendra does not look 16. Upendra and his colleagues – all as young as he is – work in factories that produce steel sheets. ‘We are never paid the minimum wage,’ he said, ‘The minimum wage notified for skilled work by the Delhi Government is Rs 10,374, we’re paid just Rs 6000 or so.’ Other workers walking alongside him added, ‘The steel pattis (sheets) often cause accidents, there are no safety norms.’
Violation of minimum wage laws is a huge issue in Wazirpur, and accidents, including fatal accidents and crippling injuries are commonplace. Several workers showed me hands with fingers missing. Workers are routinely employed on contract (in violation of the law that says contract workers cannot be employed on jobs of a perennial nature). While the contract labour prevention and regulation law is violated openly, the Government of India is proposing labour law reforms to legalise the violations and make hire-and-fire legal.
A group of young workers from the Honda factory tell me “We’re getting calls from our employer threatening to sack us if we don’t report back to work today.” Workers who strike or organize are often sacked.
Ajay, a worker on a garment unit in nearby Jahangirpuri, was thrown out of his job because he had begun to unionise his fellow workers. Ajay has thrown himself into organizing and unionizing as an activist of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU). “The Prime Minister asks foreign companies to ‘Make in India’,” he says, “What he really means is come loot us in India. He’s advertising ‘cheap, highly skilled labour’ – that means us. That means we’ll be underpaid, overworked, and denied workplace safety – to boost profits of global corporations.”
Shakuntala is married to one of the Wazirpur workers, and lives in the slum cluster that runs alongside the railway tracks. It’s a precarious existence, minus water, sanitation or clean toilets. Railway and Government authorities keep trying to bulldoze the slum. And kids playing alongside the railway tracks are in obvious danger. Shakuntala has often led other women living in Wazirpur to hold militant protests at factory gates when a worker is injured or killed. Till a year ago, she would be shy of speaking in public – now, she roars on the microphone while addressing a workers’ protest. ‘The Aam Aadmi Party Government in Delhi promised they would implement minimum wage laws,’ she says ‘The AAP claims to be against corruption. Isn’t the theft of minimum wages the biggest corruption of all? Why hasn’t their Government acted to ensure workers are paid their due?’ The AAP Government won a landslide victory in the Delhi Assembly elections, relying heavily on support from working class Delhi voters.
An indicator of the Strike’s widespread appeal was the fact that More than a thousand contractual workers at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University went on total strike, bringing work at the University canteen, library and sanitation office to a standstill. Urmila and Anju, leaders of the JNU contract workers’ union that is affiliated to AICCTU, commented on how the Strike was helped in no small measure by the remarkable gesture of solidarity on part of JNU’s students, who willingly decided to forego those services in support of striking workers.