General Strike

The 8 January all India General Strike by workers across the country, mainly under the sway of left trade unions is in full swing at the time of writing. Despite political differences Congress party along with different shades of socialists joined the strike from a common platform to oppose the Modi government's systematic attempt to continually bash labour and curb their hard-earned rights while making labour laws more stringent even for forming trade unions. For one thing strike, better to say withdrawal of labour by workers, can make all the difference in the prevailing situation of anti-worker atmosphere as it is happening at the moment in France where transport workers are giving a tough time to President Macron, over the coercive pension scheme. Workers and employees belonging to different sectors, including public sector, showed their solidarity with transport workers. Strike is always a strike. It doesn't matter whether it is partial or total. Strike means production loss which is the only language employers understand. Production loss is in effect profit loss.

It is not that easy to organise strike and that too on a national scale. The central trade unions involved in January 8 strike are CITU, AITUC, INTUC, HMS, TUCC, SEWA, LPF, AICCTU and UTUC and some independent trade union initiatives with diverse political and ideological strains. Even ASHA—Aganwadi Workers' Association—mid-day meal and other scheme workers supported the strike.

For the last 70 years and more, workers in organised sector have been demanding at least a minimum living wage to have their body and soul together. But the government is not listening. They say Indian capitalists are too poor to afford law-mandated minimum wages. What workers are entitled to is minimum wages settled by the 15th Labour Conference held in 1957—more then six decades ago. Given the exorbitant price spiral and steady increase in inflationary pressure, the 15th Labour Conference exercise has long outdated itself.

One of the main reasons for depressed wages is farming out of perennial nature of jobs to contractors. Contractual labour is now the main stay of production and their so-called growth engine. They are paid much lower wages than regular workers for doing the same work. Then there are women workers who are paid much less than their male counter-parts for no valid reasons.

And poor peasants, agricultural labourers face a double-edged sword round the year. They face problems of plenty during bumper harvest but they also face problems of scarcity during times of floods and drought. Production cost is rising and rising but they hardly get remunerative prices in any season because middlemen will never allow remunerative prices to rise. They always try to keep market prices forcing peasants to commit suicide.

Educated youths are being super-exploited by corporates and their domestic partners as apprentices and trainees without having to hire them at the end of their training period. Social security is becoming totally irrelevant in today's labour-management culture. Labour laws are being regularly amended to further tighten noose around regular workers the number of which is dwindling and dwindling in every sector. With every passing day they devise new rules and mechanisms to make formal sector informal and, for all practical purposes, informal sector workers are rising alarmingly.

As for informal sector, it is a nightmare to millions of toilers joining India's labour market every year. Central Trade Unions that are spearheading the general strike do hardly spend their energy and resources, including trade union activists to organise the unorganised. No doubt informal sector gives jobs (however insecure and the poor quality the jobs may be) to 84 percent of workforce and informal sector, in totality constitutes 92.3 percent of all toilers. What a horrible scenario!

Central Trade Unions cannot do much ritualistically organising a strike or two in a year and occasionally issuing harmless press statements. Unless unorganised sector gets organised and casual workers are decasualised, central trade unions will have to remain satisfied with a strike a year. If anything a large section of organised labour belongs to the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union wing of Bharatiya Janata Party.

Surprisingly 84 percent of informal sector workers contribute 50 percent of India's GDP. What is more in absolute terms the number of informal workers in the organised sector has crossed the number of formal workers. Even in formal and organised sector 84.6 percent of jobs are informal in nature while the percentage of actual formal jobs is 45.6 percent. So jobs created in formal sector with a huge propaganda by the persons in power betrays the reality. It's sheer propaganda for propaganda's sake. It is for the first time in history that the formal or organised sector employs more informal workers in the form of contract and casual workers who do not come under any labour laws. Of the 10.5 million new manufacturing jobs generated between 1989 and 2010 only 3.7 million—about 35 percent were in the formal sector.

The issue of contractual labour is most vital before labour organisers, notwithstanding their political conviction, ranging from social democracy to Marxism. Unless it is addressed in its entirety nothing concrete will emerge to make the corporate and their lobbyists realise how GDP will slide down under the prevailing conditions of the workers in India. Industrial activities cannot grow in leaps and bounds as Chinese experiences show in recent times. Here in today's India even "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" is unthinkable.


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Vol. 52, No. 28, Jan 12 - 18, 2020