On May 22, in a symbolic protest, a few trade union leaders assembled near the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi. Government denied permission for assembly and demonstration. Within minutes they were arrested, taken to police station and later released.
Workers in different parts of the country, observing physical distancing norms, opposed labour law changes, displayed placards, some wearing black ribbons; demonstrations too were held in isolated areas including a 2-hour strike. Social media was effectively used to make workers aware of the high degree of damage caused to them. Unions have vowed to fight back, defend labour rights, protect the past gains and counter capitalist offensive once workers are free from lockdowns conditions.
Trade Union Joint Action Committee, Mumbai, comprising all unions, including NTUI, joined May 22 protest in Mumbai and also in different parts of the country.
Lockdown announced by the Prime Minister on March 24 continues in operation. Factories, shops, establishments and all public transport are standstill. From May 17 a few essential industries including factories with one third of workforce started functioning. In the absence of road and rail transport workers could not report for work.
Small scale industries employ huge workforce. Sudden lockdown, accumulated stocks and impossibility of sales made many business vulnerable. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s assurance to workers on March 24 that they would receive wages during the lockdown period and job security would be intact, many workers did not get wages in March and April and millions of jobs are lost.
Reality sector and construction of express highways and metro lines in major cities provided jobs to contract workers and many happened to be unregistered migrants on daily wage basis. Since there were no records of their existence, the hugeness of this section remained a mystery. When the activity came to sudden halt on March 25 workers lost income and no support came from any quarter.
Unsheltered in the cities and towns, no money to buy food, these workers along with families wanted to reach their homes in far away villages. As Modi’s government refused to run railway, workers walked more than thousand miles to reach their villages. This exodus continues now even though some train services have been resumed. Hundreds of thousands are on the move.
Taking advantage of Covid-19 and the lockdown, Modi’s party, BJP, allowed its state governments in Gujarat, UP, Madhya Pradesh to change labour laws allowing freedom to employers to “Hire and Fire” workers as they wish, employ workers on Fixed Terms basis, extend per day shift working hours from 8 to 12. These and such other anti-labour measures, the states claimed, were needed for a short period ranging three months to three years to make India’s economic condition stronger, to provide ‘ease of business’ to capitalists to choose India as investment destination and more particularly paving way for western and Japanese quitting business in China owing to the new climate of cold war to consider India as their alternative production hub. Modi government was meeting the long standing demand of the capitalists to do away with the existing Indian labour laws.
Thus, Modi government has shown its total disdain to the demands of the trade unions since 1992 for decent wages, abolition of contract labour system, payment of equal pay for equal work, strict implementation of labour laws, better health and safety at work place, compensation in the event of worker’s death, better social security, protection of public sector and more nationalisation. 15 nation wide strikes involving millions of workers for the attainment of these demands have been made worthless exercises.
Recently Modi government announced a package intended to rescue business but in the prevailing conditions that too did not make any material difference to the economy. This package provided privatisation of all vital sectors in India.
Trade unions and class conscious workers, while opposing capitalists and their government’s offensive, have been demanding introspection within the trade union movement in order to become capable to meet the new challenges. A divided trade union movement would be ineffective to face the class offensive. Looking for avenues towards building genuine unity has become the need.
May 23, 2020