India's workers are pushing back

Issue 

India witnessed a powerful general strike on September 2, across most sectors of the economy and civil administration. The strike was called jointly by central trade unions and supported actively by various sections of the Indian left.

Initially, the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) — a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated trade union led by the Hindu-nationalist non-governmental organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)— was also a signatory to the strike call. But at the behest of the RSS, the BMS withdrew from the strike. The RSS is the Hindu majoritarian group modelled on European fascist organisations, to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP are affiliated.

Undeterred by the BMS backing out and the empty announcements made by the prime minister in the recent session of the Indian Labour Conference, millions of workers joined the strike — and made it clear that the Indian working class would resist the Modi government's proposed anti-worker labour reforms tooth and nail.

Impact

The impact of the strike was huge in sectors like road transportation, banking and insurance, and various mining and manufacturing units. Offices and educational institutions, too, remained closed in many areas.

But what made the strike really a mass action of the working class was the huge participation of contract and casual workers and honorarium- and incentive-based employees, and workers in the unorganised sector. The solidarity of students, peasants, small traders and shopkeepers transformed the workers' strike into a complete shutdown in several states.

The Modi government's sinister attempt to justify its labour reform plan in the name of solving the unemployment problem and bringing benefits to the unorganised sector thus met with a resounding rebuff.

I was with the workers of the Wazirpur Industrial Area in Delhi as they participated in the strike. I heard the slogans of the marching workers, other workers came pouring out of factories to join them.

What was noticeable was how young many of these workers are. When I asked him his age, Upendra, a skinny youngster, 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 10,374 rupees ($156), we're paid just 6,000 rupees ($90) or so.”

Another worker walking alongside him added, “The steel pattis [sheets] often cause accidents, there are no safety norms.”

Law violations

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.

The contract labour prevention and regulation law is violated openly, but the government of India is proposing labour law reforms to legalise these violations and make the practice of “hire-and-fire” legal.

Currently, companies employing 100 or more workers are required to seek government permission for layoffs. Under the new proposal, a factory employing fewer than 300 workers would be allowed to lay off workers without government permission.

A group of young workers from the Honda factory told 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 organise are often fired.

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 organising and unionising as an activist of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU).

“The prime minister asks foreign companies to 'Make in India',” he said. “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.”

Precarious

Shakuntala is married to one of the Wazirpur workers, and lives in the slum cluster that runs alongside the railway tracks. It is a precarious existence, without 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. Until a year ago, she was shy about 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 said. “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 earlier this year, relying heavily on support from working-class voters.

An indicator of the strike's widespread appeal was the fact that more than 1000 contractual workers at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) went on all-out 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.

The huge success of the strike also reflects the growing anger against the dictatorial ways of the Modi government, which seeks to brand every act of dissent as disloyalty.

Victory for farmers

On the eve of the strike, the Modi government suffered a major defeat. Faced by huge protests of farmers all over the country, Modi was forced to withdraw a land acquisition bill. It would have allowed the state to forcibly acquire land from farmers to hand over to corporations in the name of “public interest”.

This victory of farmers emboldened workers — many of whom told me they felt confident the proposed amendments to labour laws would meet the same fate.

In some places, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government of West Bengal unleashed severe repression on the strikers, with the police and TMC goons often working in tandem.

Trade union leaders were attacked on the eve of the strike.On the day of the strike, TMC goons and the police visibly went berserk, brutally beating up and injuring strikers and leaders of various left parties in several districts.

Workers all over the country have emerged from the strike with fresh confidence and energy, determined to take on the governments that are bent on diluting and undermining labour laws.

“In the face of all odds, we'll organise,” is what we hear workers saying.

[Kavita Krishnan is a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Reprinted from Socialist Worker (US).]

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