Indian workers resist Modi’s reforms

More than 150 million workers in India participated in a general strike on 2 September, in a nationwide day of protest called by 10 major unions to protest the anti-worker labour “reforms” of the right-wing BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kavita Krishnan, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), reports on the background to the strike and interviews workers in one of the centers of strike activity in Delhi. A version of this report was also published on the US site Socialist Worker.

JNU strike 2

On 2 September India witnessed a powerful general strike cutting across most sectors of the economy and civil administration. The strike had been called jointly by central trade unions and supported actively by various sections of the Indian Left.

Initially, the RSS-led, pro-BJP, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) was also a signatory to the strike call. But at the behest of the RSS, the BMS eventually withdrew from the strike. The RSS is the Hindu majoritarian organization modeled on European fascist organizations, to which India’s Prime Minister Modi and the ruling BJP are affiliated. Undeterred by the BMS backout and 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.

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

But what made the strike really a mass action of the working class was the massive participation of contract and casual workers and honorarium- and incentive-based employees, and workers in the unorganized 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 were met with a resounding rebuff.

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, more 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 to 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 organise 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 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 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 at Wazirpur

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. 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 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  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 that is seeking to brand every act of dissent as disloyalty. On the eve of the strike, the Modi Government suffered a major defeat: faced by massive farmers’ protests all over the country, Modi was forced to withdraw a land acquisition bill that would allow 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.

It was the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government of West Bengal that 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, while 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.

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