West Bengal

CITU reaches out to millennials

Print edition :

Riding on its new slogan, “To reach the unreached worker”, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has, for the first time, reached out to e-commerce and other “new-economy” workers. In a conference held in Kolkata in June, attended by over 100 young “new-age” workers, the CITU took the first step in organising a vast and largely unorganised workforce by assuring them of its support.

“With the spread of [the] neoliberal economy, innumerable new kinds of jobs have come into being. We see people engaged in delivering things purchased online, food ordered over the phone, etc; they constitute a huge army of workers. But this is a highly exploited army. Most of them do not get any appointment letters, nor any compensation when they lose their jobs. We learnt from some of them that they are interested in forming unions, if they have someone they can trust to stand by them,” Shyamal Chakraborty, CPI(M) central committee member and president of the West Bengal unit of the CITU, told Frontline.

The CITU’s response followed a finding by the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) that the need of the hour was to understand the problems of workers under the age of 30 and try and organise them in forming trade unions and associations. The CITU gave a call on social media asking young workers to come forward with their problems, and the initial response was encouraging. “Young workers from different industries and businesses came to the conference. We heard them out, and gathered that many of them wanted to do something in terms of setting up unions, but did not know how to go about it,” said Shyamal Chakraborty. The young men and women, however, had one request—that their identities not be divulged as they would then lose their jobs.

Their fears are not unfounded. Surya (name changed), 21, a delivery man with a popular food app, told Frontline: “We can lose our jobs any time, and there is no redress for our problems. If our mobile phones get spoilt in the rain or on the road, we have to fix it ourselves. Even in case of accidents, which is not uncommon, our company does not pay for the medical expenses.” The company Surya works for pays its delivery boys Rs.1,300 a week, and the boys have to work for more than 12 hours a day. When there is heavy demand, they have to travel as much as 100 km a day, paying for the petrol (Rs.78.55 a litre in Kolkata on June 24) themselves. They are apparently neither given any letter of appointment nor any reason or compensation when they are fired.

“We are looking at workers of organisations like Flipkart, Amazon, Swiggy, etc., as also private schools and other new-age industries that have come up in the recent past. Theirs is a very delicate situation and we do not wish to jeopardise their livelihood in any way. We will have to go about it in a slow and steady manner,” said Debanjan Chakrabarti, secretary, West Bengal State committee of the CITU.

The CITU leadership is aware that the task ahead is not an easy one. With unemployment rampant in the State, and no new industries being set up, the fear of losing one’s job is a major deterrent to joining unions or associations. The last time the CITU branched out into a new territory was in November 2006 when it tried to organise workers of the Information Technology (IT) and IT-enabled services (ITeS) industry in the State and set up the West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (WBITSA). The attempt failed. “It is true we did not get much response from the IT industry. But at that time there was a boom in the IT industry; now the scenario is changing. Thousands are losing their jobs and not finding other employment. Today, there is a demand from a section of the people in the IT industry to set up unions, and we have already established an all-India union affiliated to the CITU, called the All India IT and ITeS Union,” said Shyamal Chakraborty.

The CITU feels that it is a matter of time before the new-age workforce realises the need for a union to safeguard its interests. “We are not telling the workers to join the CITU; we are merely saying that should they need our help or guidance in organising themselves, we are there for them. Slowly we will help build up sector-wise unions and associations, and we will hold more conferences and meetings with the workers,” said Debanjan Chakrabarti.

What began as an exercise to address the issue of young people getting alienated from the trade union movement ended up with the CITU entering a new phase of its journey. “I did not expect such a response from the young workers. With all the rain and waterlogging on the day of the conference (June 12), I would have been delighted if 50 people managed to land up; around 120 came. So we realised there was a serious need among young workers for something that would safeguard their interests. We hope we will be able to take this forward and set a trend,” said Chakrabarti.