Print edition : December 08, 2017

A section of the protesters. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Tapan Sen, CITU general secretary and Rajya Sabha member, addressing workers during the three-day dharna organised by 10 central trade unions in front of Parliament House against the NDA government's anti-worker policies. Photo: By special arrangement

Anganwadi workers from Odisha. at the sit-in protest. Photo: By special arrangement

Workers employed in government-based schemes at the protest venue. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Central trade unions mobilise lakhs of workers from across different sectors to hold a sit-in protest in New Delhi to demand the implementation of their 12-point charter of demands, but the Labour Ministry’s action taken report defends the NDA government’s policies relating to its controversial labour reforms, disinvestment of PSUs, and FDI in strategic sectors.

ON November 9, as the National Capital Region struggled with air quality issues, a peculiar spectacle began unfolding near Parliament House. Thousands of people, ignoring the smog that had engulfed the capital city, walked silently holding banners and flags to Jantar Mantar, in the heart of the city, the venue of a protest. It was the beginning of the three-day “Mahapadav”, or mega sit-in, by workers representing a wide range of sectors. More significantly, it was the one of the biggest working-class protests witnessed since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) assumed power at the Centre in 2014. The central trade unions had never undertaken a continuous sit-in on such a massive scale before.

On November 17, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, conducted its own one-day sit-in protest. Its charter of demands was very similar to the one put out by the 10 other central trade unions.

The call for the protest was given by the joint platform of central trade unions and their industry-wise federations on August 8 at a national convention in Delhi. The joint platform was conceived during the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre. At that time, apart from the Left-leaning trade unions, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the BMS were part of the joint platform. After the NDA came to power, in 2014, the BMS moved away from the joint platform, preferring to negotiate with the Narendra Modi government rather than confront it. The INTUC continued to be part of the platform despite attempts to split it. On November 1, the Union Labour Ministry sent out a letter inviting trade unions for discussions to be held on November 3.

The INTUC was not among the unions invited for the talks. The central trade unions boycotted the meeting and informed the Labour Minister in a letter that they would not attend the meeting for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that the notice was not sent to all the central trade unions, especially those that had been “jointly raising the demands with the government since the last several years”.

The letter stated: “We strongly protest the deliberate measure to exclude INTUC, part of the joint trade union movement that has been raising the demands. This is nothing but an ill-intentioned move to divide the unity of the trade unions and the workers. We advise the government to desist from such divisive tactics.” The unions complained that “the notice for the meeting was sent less than 48 hours from the scheduled time of the meeting, making it impossible for us to attend it. (For a meeting at 04.30 p.m. on 03.11.2017, the invitation letter No.Z-20025/75/2017-Coord dated 01.11.2017 was sent to us at 6.24 p.m.).” It was also pointed out that “in addition to the INTUC, some other central trade unions also did not receive the notice. The All India Trade Union Congress received the invitation only today (November 2) at about 11 a.m. This shows the non-serious attitude of the Ministry towards the major demands of the entire working class of the country,” the letter stated.

No action taken

Following this, the government was forced to reschedule the meeting for November 7. The meeting held on that day ended with the government submitting an action taken report on the 12-point charter of demands. The unions rejected the report. In response to the unions’ demand for making the public distribution system universal, the action taken report stated that it was not possible to provide universal coverage at current levels of production and procurement and that the coverage under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was large enough to benefit the vulnerable and needy sections. The government, the report said, had decided not to increase the prices of foodgrains until June 2018.

On the demand for curtailing unemployment, the report listed various initiatives launched by the government, such as the setting up of a National Career Service portal under the Ministry of Labour and Employment which enables registration by jobseekers and employers on one platform; Model Career Centres, where employed people are provided counselling, soft skill training and technical skill upgradation and the Pradhan Mantri Rozgar Protsahan Yojana. However, it did not specify the numbers of jobs created in the past three years.

On the demand of the unions regarding enforcement of labour laws, the report stated that the Shram Suvidha Portal launched in October 2014 had “brought about transparency and accountability in the enforcement of the labour laws… transparent labour inspection scheme had reduced the discretionary powers of the inspectors and brought transparency in the inspection system thus minimising the harassment of employers”.

This did not indicate how the enforcement machinery had been strengthened in favour of employees. The report on this aspect showed how the employer class had benefited from relaxed inspection norms. On the demand for universal social security for all workers, the report stated that a project for the creation of a national platform for unorganised workers, with Aadhaar-seeded identity number, had been approved and that 4.5 crore people had been registered under the Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana. The report skirted the issue of universal social security for all workers and listed out the various schemes, including housing scholarships, initiated by the NDA government.

On the demand for a minimum wage of not less than Rs.18,000, the report submitted that revised wages would be determined based on the Code on Wages Bill, 2017, introduced in Parliament. The government skirted this issue as well. The report overruled the demand for a minimum pension of Rs.3,000 for the entire working population, maintaining that providing a minimum pension of Rs.3,000 to lakhs of pensioners and prospective pensioners would have huge financial implications and could jeopardise the pension fund itself. It said the government had granted Rs.800 crore to disburse a pension of Rs.1,000 a month. On the issue of stopping disinvestment of Central and State public sector undertakings (PSUs), the action taken report stated that the “disinvestment of minority stake sale in profitable CPSEs [Central public sector enterprises] was as per the extant policy of the government”. It justified disinvestment on the grounds that it resulted in “efficiency and infusion of new capital”.

On the issue of stopping contractualisation of permanent forms of employment, the report merely stated that amendments to the Contract Labour Act was under consideration and on the demand for equal wages for equal work, it said the provision already existed in the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Central Rule, 1971. One of the issues agitating the trade unions for quite some time was the unilateral manner in which labour laws were being amended without consulting them. Even the BMS had objected to such amendments.

The report merely reiterated the government’s commitment to labour law reforms and detailed the four labour codes that had been drafted for “simplifying, amalgamating and rationalising” Central labour laws, which, it said, would “save efforts, costs and lessen the compliance by various establishments thus promoting setting up of more enterprises and catalysing the creation of more employment opportunities in the country through them”.

There was nothing in the report to allay the apprehensions of the trade unions. On the objection raised by all trade unions to foreign direct investment ( FDI) in the Indian Railways and defence, the action taken report defended the government on the grounds that “FDI in Railways was necessary for upgrading the infrastructure; modernisation of railways could be a significant engine of inclusive growth and development for the country and could potentially contribute an additional 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent of the GDP [gross domestic product].” FDI in defence, the report said, was necessary “to substitute import with domestic production”, which would save foreign exchange and create jobs. The action taken report had nothing much to add as far as the main charter of demands was concerned. If anything, it defended the policies of the government on matters relating to the controversial labour reforms and disinvestment of PSUs and FDI in strategic sectors.

Charter of demands

The 12-point charter of demands had been pending for eight years, with successive governments failing to honour it. The demands ranged from declaration of a minimum wage of Rs.18,000 in all types of employment, universal social security, registration of trade unions, regularisation of workers deployed for carrying out government schemes and recognising them as government employees, abolition of contractual employment, implementation of equal pay for equal work, revocation of controversial labour law reforms, increase in minimum pension under the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation [EPFO] and strict compliance of labour laws. The unions also raised issues such as price rise, unemployment and disinvestment.

That was one reason why the INTUC, despite there being a Congress-led government at the Centre between 2004 and 2014, joined the platform to become an integral part of the coalition of trade unions. “They tried to keep the INTUC away. We protested and the government was forced to defer the meeting and include them finally in the November 7 talks,” Tapan Sen, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha, told Frontline. Tapan Sen, who is also the general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that the mobilisation of trade union members would have been far greater but for the cancellation of several trains in view of the unprecedented smog in Delhi.

“A delegation from Madhya Pradesh reached at 9:30 p.m. on November 11, the final day of the Mahapadav,” he said. The police initially did not give permission for the sit-in near Parliament House because of the National Green Tribunal’s October 5 order proscribing protests and demonstrations at Jantar Mantar. But the unions would have none of it. Each day the organisers had to dismantle the dais and other temporary structures as per the instructions of the police and put up a new dais the next day. In fact, the police denied permission to set up a dais. “The action taken report circulated by the Ministry was the same as the one released in August 2015, before the September 2 strike. Even the BMS did not find anything spectacular in it,” said Tapan Sen.

It was significant that the BMS, which had opted to stay out of joint actions by the other trade unions after the formation of the NDA government, held a one-day protest. “It is not true that we have not been carrying out protests against government policies. We have been conducting protests in districts. If the government had listened to us, there would have been no need for a dharna,” BMS general secretary Virjesh Upadhyaya told Frontline. He said that there was “nothing” in the action taken report as “no action” had been taken by the government. The BMS circulated a 12-point charter of demands. Upadhyaya said the union would not hesitate to go on a strike in the near future on the lines of the other unions if the government continued to ignore the working class. “It is not a question of consultation. It is a question of listening to what we have to say,” he told Frontline.

Interestingly, all the unions had flagged the issues of workers of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and “scheme” workers (women working in various government schemes) as the topmost agenda in their list of demands.

“We welcome the BMS’ one-day action. Let them speak out against the Modi government. No union can afford to ignore workers’ interests any more,” said Tapan Sen. He added that despite the “media blackout”, the workers’ rally was a huge success and the lack of coverage did not deter them. “Had there been a chaos on the roads or violence, it would have automatically got media coverage,” said a worker at the rally.

The converging of lakhs of workers—some estimates put the figure at four lakhs over the three-day period—went virtually unnoticed and unreported by the mass media. The government did not bother to call the trade union representatives for talks. The unions succeeded in mobilising workers and employees from all sectors of industry—organised and unorganised—from across the country, including from Kerala and Assam. Workers representing sectors such as coal, textiles, engineering, transport, telecom, petroleum, electricity, ports and docks and construction, scheme-based workers in the unorganised sector, and those from the organised sector representing the railways, banks, insurance and defence as well as Central and State government employees participated in the three-day protest. The road leading from the Parliament Street police station up to Jantar Mantar was dotted with red flags and banners. On November 11, the last day of the protest, a gathering of almost 60,000 “scheme” workers, was the highlight of the sit-in. A BMS leader said admiringly that the “mobilisation was impressive”.

Women workers of various government schemes dressed in colourful uniforms were seen shouting slogans at the rally. Gloria Tudu, an anganwadi worker from Dumka district in Jharkhand, complained that anganwadi workers were made to do all kinds of government work, including election-related work. “This is exploitation. We are paid Rs.4,400 for all kinds of duties other than what we are expected to do. How is one expected to survive on this? We will fight to get our due right of minimum wages of Rs.18,000 and we will keep on coming to Delhi until we get it,” she told Frontline. Phulmoni Murmu, also from Dumka, was a helper under the ICDS scheme. She said she was paid only Rs.1,800 a month.

The story of midday meal workers was similar. Nearly 5,000 of them had come from Odisha to take part in the protest. “We get Rs.33 as daily wages for doing all the menial work. If we refuse to work at these rates, they tell us to get lost. They have to declare us government employees,” said Usha Rani from Jahajpur in Odisha. Sunita Devi, a midday meal worker from Munger, Bihar, said: “ Kuch debe nahi karta hai. Vetanmaan ke liye aaye hain. Ek hajaar mein pet nahi bharta hai” (They don’t give anything. We have come to demand legitimate wages. Our stomachs don’t get filled with Rs.1,000). Not only were the wages meagre; they said they were never paid on time.

Despite sections of the mainstream media preferring to ignore these voices, it has become apparent that such demonstrations of anger will continue if the government continues to remain apathetic. The significant turnout is largely because of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, which had in direct and indirect ways magnified the hardship of the working class. The fact that even the BMS was compelled to organise a day-long protest should be taken as a sign of the deep resentment. The rest depends on whether the government wants to even acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the rural and industrial working classes.

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