September 2nd is becoming an important date in the calendar of the Indian working class. Once again this year, a National General Strike has been announced on the day. Central Trade Unions barring BMS (the largest trade union with fraternal affiliation with RSS) have jointly announced the strike as a strategy to reverse the anti labour policies of the present government while also pushing for a charter of 12 demands that cover permanent, contract workers as well as informal workers. How prepared are the Workers of Chennai?
With only a fortnight to go before the strike, we were surprised to find that the workers in Chennai remained unaware of the momentous struggle or its scale. Even after a preliminary round of meetings held by left unions in the City, the general awareness among the workers, including factory workers, was really low. Many did not know about the strike nor introduced to the demands. Some had previously participated in the 2015 strike and were better aware of the demands but did not know about the coming general strike. The demands resonated with every section of the working class, who saw the need to expand social security, increase wages and establish equality of pay for the workers doing similar work. While the opinion on the efficacy of a one day general strike varied, there was genuine interest among the workers to struggle for the charter. Here we present the interviews we conducted with a diverse group of Chennai’s industrial and service sector workers.
In 2015, Central trade unions in India declared a national strike to protest against the proposed (and in many states already in practice) labour law reforms as well as to put forward a charter of demands of the workers. The strike had varied response in different states. The strike was intense in industrial corridors like Gurgaon-Manesar belt, and many parts of West Bengal where independent militant trade unions participated in the strike and also mobilised workers from various factories in the area on the day of the strike. In other states where the mobilisation was poor, the strikes were rather muted and appeared to be ritualistic. However the sheer numbers of the workers who participated in the strike (15 Crores by some accounts) show the discontent brewing among the workers. Following the strike we had reviewed and analysed the history of General Strikes in recent years
This time, Thozhillalar Koodum sought to understand the expectations of workers in Tamil Nadu from such a strike and the level of campaign by central trade unions about the strike and its objectives. Our team did a casual survey of workers in Ambattur Industrial Estate which houses over a thousand small-scale industrial units; Kannagi Nagar, a working class housing area where we interviewed informal workers; Poonamallee, where we met workers from Sriperumbudur and SIPCOT; Thiruvottiyur MRF factory gate; and at a protest by workers of Greaves-Cotton factory which is facing a lock out.
At each location we asked the workers a series of questions in order to understand and gauge (1) their working conditions, (2) their knowledge of the upcoming strike, (3) their expectations from such a national level one day strike, (4) whether the charter of demands put forward by the committee of trade unions accurately captures their specific demands and (5) their participation in union activities and belief in the idea of unionization. The interviews are presented below in full.
Ambattur Industrial Estate:
Welders, contract workers, 16 years exp
On Knowledge of the upcoming strike and unionising: No we have not heard about the National Strike, we are contract workers. We don’t have any union. We do welding on Sheds, Roof Work.
On Wages and Working conditions: We get paid Rs 700/- a day. No other benefits, no ESI/PF. Those are for company workers only. We don’t have any company so we work when called by our contractor. If there is work today we get money, if not no money. We work 8 hours. We don’t do over time. It is hard work, so can’t do more then 8 hours. It is dangerous too, we have to go up to heights and do the work.
On safety Gear: We prefer not to wear it because we just can’t work with them. In fact if someone insists we will leave the work. We can not do it with the gloves and boots as they are too heavy. We can understand the safety rope and use it when available. but we can’t wear boots and gloves and helmet. Accidents happen. We just have to be more careful. When accidents do happen, the employer or contractor helps out . We get medical aid and some money. But essentially we are on our own. We know many co-workers who went on to open petty shops after having accidents. We are just extra careful. If you fall your future is lost. That’s it. However the biggest problem is Alcohol.
On Wages: We get paid alright. There have been times when the contractor has made it off with our money. We could not trace, we complain to the employer but he says he has paid out and denies any responsibility. There is nothing we can do. We don’t complain to police, as there is no use. This guy is gone and he is not going to come back. But rest assured if he ever turns up he is as good as dead. Half the city is written off. He can’t get any workers, or work in this area.
On Proposed minimum wage by the unions: 18000 is a good wage. We get hardly 12000/- a month because work is not regular. It will really help us improve our families if minimum wage demand is met. But listen, no politician ever really cares. They just want to get their work done. If they actually pay us that wage, our city will improve like a foreign country. But you see all the money is being taken away by the middle men. Add to this there is also a lot of Migrant workers from Bihar and Andhra. They come here and work for much less and we suffer. The companies make their profits, and all the workers, whether local or migrant suffer because of low wages. They seem fine with low wages though.
On the demand of Health care: Health care will also be very useful, as our people get injuries often. It will be good to have cheap and good health care.
Participating in strike: We support these demands but we are not in any union. We are not registered in any welfare board. We can join the strike. Half the time we don’t have any work anyway. We work at our time, so we can surely join and strike work.
Freight Van Drivers, Minimax Auto Stand, Self Employed
On upcoming strike: No we have not heard about the strike. We are part of CITU. We had participated in the last strike but we don’t know about this one. Only office bearers would have gone to the meeting that you say (AUG 9Th) as we don’t go for all meetings. Usually it’s only the leader who attends these meetings. We go only when they call us for larger demonstrations and protests. They haven’t told us, may be they will tell us soon. We will participate in the strike for sure as we will know about it in coming days.
On Charter of demands: The issues are important. The motor transport rules are trying to make it difficult for small businesses in this sector. Only companies can do repairs. It will be too costly for us and it will also push out all the small mechanics from the business. There is also all the problems with Toll gates. They are all privatised and they charge a lot. These issues have to be dealt with. But after last strike nothing really happened. The rules have come into effect. They put it off for few months but last week it has come to effect finally.
On Expectations from the strikes: We don’t find much use in these strike, as there is no unity among the van drivers. If we don’t go to work, others will take our spot. We should have unity like bus drivers. If there is one problem they all come together immediately, stop all buses. That’s not how it works here.
On conditions of work: We are private van drivers, some of us own the van. I have my own van. It is on loan. We take transport job with the companies. Here we are 15 of us. But not all come every day. we usually get work from the local factories for delivery of materials. The price depends on the total weight and distance. We negotiate. There is no fixed price.
We make about 20000/- after all deductions. We have to pay for the vehicle, maintenance, dues. We also have to pay for the police and then fines. But work is also going down these days. Business is down for the past two years. There is not much work. Sometimes it is really hard because, work or no work we have to pay our dues.
The police is our biggest problem. They keep fining us on all pretext. They also take bribes. But it is more like turn based. It is not dependent on actual violation of traffic rules. Even if we have less than the allowed weight, they just pull us up and fine us. We have even demanded that they rather not give licence to the minimax (TATA ACE) vehicles rather than do this. They have given us licence to carry loads but still fine us. It is their harassment which is the biggest problem.
On a successful strike in the past: When the government decided to stop our vans from entering the city during day times, all of us went and protested. It is not as if we are heavy vehicles. We also cause far less congestion than the cars as there are far more cars than us. So we drove to secretariat, over 10000 vehicles and engaged in horn-blowing action. It worked and they allowed us to enter the city any time of the day. However that was a big mobilization and there was unity among the van-drivers.
On Role of main-stream media: The media never covers these issues. How will people know about these issues and if they do not, why would government take any notice?
Freelance welder, 20 years exp.
On working conditions: I work on daily wage basis. I also have a shop of my own in my house. This (where he was interviewed) is my owners shop. I have been working from childhood here. My father use to work here in the past, then he taught me the work and I joined.
I weld various parts for machines and other equipments. They pay me Rs 400/- a day. I cant ask more because he is my owner from childhood. Whenever there is work he calls me and I do it. It is a small shop, he also works here. There is no welfare support. I don’t know about welfare board. I am not in any union.
We get work from small companies, it is all piece rate. Rs 2, Rs 5. That’s it.
I do both arc welding and gas welding. Gas welding is much safer, so I don’t use any safety gear. Arc welding you have to wear goggles and helmet. But see as we grow old we begin to lose sight. After 6 pm it becomes hard for us to see.
On the upcoming strike: I don’t know about strikes. I have not participated in any so far. I did not get any notice or poster. I have seen communist unions here. But I have not joined them.
On the demands put forward by the unions: The demands are good, but it wont work for us. We get job from companies on piece rate. We cant demand more. Minimum wage of 18000/- will be good, but most small companies like this can not pay so much. There is not so much work to pay so much. I have three children, my wife also works. She does domestic work, so we are able to manage. Children are studying.
On Working conditions : She started a small platform shop to sell vadas after Amma Canteen was moved near her house. Her husband, who was an auto driver, fell ill. She has been running this shop for past 3 years. She needs access to credit as she ends up getting loans for exorbitant money.
On upcoming strike and charter of demands: She knew about the previous strike but according to her said that there was not much impact of the previous strike. She said the reason was that there was not much participation in the strike and if the workers come together more effectively, it can improve the strike.
She did not know about the upcoming strike. The demands about price rise, minimum wage of Rs 18000, PDS and same wage for contract workers are the demands she agreed with completely.
On her rights: She was not aware of the recent Street Vendors Act but when told about it, felt that it could help her situation. She said that access to credit is problematic and feels that adding demands for effective implementation of Street Vendors Act would be beneficial for people like her.
Employment conditions : Has been working for past 4 years after finishing 12 months. The contract is usually between her company and the offices in OMR and is usually for 5 years. When the contract is over, the crew is switched to other companies based on need. There are 3000 workers with the contracting service. She is earning Rs 13000 per month. She has been working with the current company for 4 months. There are three shifts. There are no major issues with the current employment. There is no union for the workers. She feels with the company being IT firm, there is no chance of making a union.
On upcoming Strike and charter of demands : She knew about the planned strike through a whatsapp message from friends but did not know about the demands. The demands of price rise is important according to her. She felt that the minimum wage of Rs 18000 was not achievable in the current system of contract service where the contracting firm takes away portion of her wage. There are permanent workers in the company but she thought that permanent employees had higher wage because they had more responsibilities. The issue of PDS and union recognition found high resonance with her.
She was aware of the previous strike but had not participated. She did not know if there was an impact due to the previous strike. She feels that the unions are not helping the workers effectively and is not sure whether the government will respond. She thinks the government will respond if the strike is effective.
On working conditions: They have been working for the past 15 to 20 years. Issues related to work are delays in getting paid, seasonal unemployment, and unsafe working conditions. Nagaraj had suffered an accident when he fell from a 4 storey building and broke his back. He joined an independent union which approached him after he fell, saying that they would get him compensation. They took money from him, but never fulfilled their promise.
According to them, the government is not helping the construction workers. There is no support for unemployment benefit and guarantee of safety conditions. There is no government oversight in construction work. They knew of the welfare board. Inspite of the minimum wage notification by the government, they said they could not demand a living wage and get it.
On upcoming strike and on charter of demands : They do not know about the national strike. The demands on price rise, minimum wage of Rs 18000, same wage for same workers and PDS resonated with the workers. On the minimum wage, they said that currently they do not get employment continuously so ensuring a minimum wage on a monthly basis is important. They also demanded that public sector companies should not be privatized as the employment under government provides better security for workers. The welfare benefits also they felt were important. The PDS distribution point raised some discussion among the workers and others who were listening. One worker said that PDS had issues because it is being sold in black market. The other person said that this is not relevant to the discussion. A woman worker who was listening interfered and said that ration card is the proof of citizenship to the country and how can that not be relevant to the discussion. Unemployment was a big concern as they have kids who are educated and unemployed. They felt that employment in construction industry was not the option for their kids.
The union is important as it provides security for workers. However, the union must not get into corrupt work and should be beneficial to the working class. Only a union can organize and unite workers. If the unions are not working effectively, workers will not be united and there will be division among working class.
Experience with the previous strikes : They did not know about the previous strike. They said that if the unions organize the strike, then the government will try to stop the workers from uniting. But working class must unite and strike. The government will not listen if the strike is only one day. But the unions must follow up with various actions if these demands are to be met.
On employment and working conditions : She was working as a contract worker in a IT company’s canteen services. When the canteen closed, she became a domestic worker and has been working for last 3 years. She is paid Rs7000 for working in two houses. Though she says she is happy with the houses she is working, where she feels she is treated in a dignified manner, there are some structural issues she faces. There is neither proper increment, wages are cut for taking time off. She has heard of other domestic workers who have faced difficult working conditions. She is given bonus and some medical benefits.
On upcoming strike and charter of demands : She is not aware of the strike. Price rise and minimum wage of Rs 18000 for a full time employment was important as she finds it difficult to manage her life. Same wage for same work, social security, privatization, unemployment were issues, proper implementation of PDS, right to unionization she found these demands to be important. She said that when workers come together to fight for their rights, if the management obstructs it, it is wrong. In terms of demands, she said that child care was a big deterrent for women to enter workforce. She said that some form of social child care especially that can focus on providing non formal education options especially in art and craft in weekends would be useful for women workers like her.
Can a one day strike be successful? She is not confident if the government will listen to such one day strikes, but feels that these are important.
Prakash, Sivaraj, Share Auto Drivers
On employment and engagement with unions: Two of them run share autos between Kannagi Nagar and Adayar and OMR. They were part of AITUC and moved to CITU over a month ago. They face issues related to traffic police, RTO bureaucracy. Diesel price and inflation is also major issue. The unions help in resolving issues and come to help when they face issues such as a drunken customer, breakdown in auto etc. They have taken an insurance for the members of the Auto Stand.
On upcoming strike and charter of demands: The demands especially on price rise and recognition of unions resonated with them. While they agree that contract workers and permanent workers should get same wage for same work, they don’t think the private companies will implement them. They felt employment creation is important as they have friends who are unemployed.
They know about the coming strike through the notice that was distributed by unions. They also knew about the last year’s strike. There was disagreement between them as one of them thinks the government won’t listen based on this strike but other felt that these strikes are important and they will bring change.
Permanent Worker, Seoyon E Hwa, SIPCOT Irungattukottai
On working conditions : He has been employed as permanent worker for last 10 years. There is a works committee to discuss wages and work place issues but he feels that a union is better as he is not confident of works committee. His company supplies materials to Hyundai.
On upcoming strike and charter of demands : He did not know about the planned national strike but knew about last year’s strike. He said that it would be difficult for his company workers to strike as there is no union. He supports the demands for right to unionise and same wage for contract workers as permanent workers. He says that contract workers hardly get any benefits. He supports the strike but felt that he would not be able to participate as there is no union in the company for sponsoring the strike.
A North Indian worker in Mando Automotives, SIPCOT Irungattukottai
On working conditions and unionisation : His company supplies to various auto manufacturers including Hyundai and Ford. He has been working for 3 years and is a permanent worker. He said that a strong union is needed at the factory as individuals cannot fight alone on issues. In his opinion , there is no unity in his factory as the workers are from various regions including West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Orissa. In his opinion this was a planned strategy by the management to keep the workers divided.
On upcoming strike and the charter of demands : He felt that a one day strike can not change anything as according to him the real change will only happen when there is complete overhaul of system itself. Till that happens, things will not really change for the working class except maybe some small gains once in a while.
On the charter of demands: He said that the demands are good but without an effective strike, the government won’t listen to them. He said that naturally his wage will never be enough for the production that he achieves for the company and that is how they increase their profit.
Permanent worker, 4 years Experience
On upcoming strike: He had no knowledge of the upcoming strike. In his workplace,
there has been no wage agreement for the past three years. The last agreement was in 2009, it’s the same wage for them even now. He joined in 2011. The wage negotiation was his and his fellow workers primary demand.
According to him strikes don’t work they have no effect. Many protests are happening but there has been no demand that has been met. In their case, they have gone to the court, they have protested. But even the judges are with the company. The Government supports them.
How can this be a general strike, he asked. Media is calling it a general strike, but one has to ask how it is a general strike, when most workers are going to factories to work. The central unions might have a strike, but here the unions are going to let workers work. He said that the companies run on even national holidays with contract staff, so there is no general strike.
On Charter of demands : He agreed with the demand of equality between contract and permanent workers as there should be no distinction. There should be a path to permanent employment for someone who has worked 3 years or 5 years. Yes there is a very marked variation in salaries and benefits. Contract workers get just 30% of what permanent workers get, no benefits, no transport etc. So it is a good demand. He said this distinction is a way to defeat the workers, like in Nokia and Foxconn, it divides the workers and then they will beat us.
He didn’t see any use of demanding union recognition. He said they have a recognised union, but the government doesn’t care, company doesn’t bother. They can not do anything significant. So yes, workers should have unions but that’s not going to solve their problems completely.
On Strike as a form : Strikes used to have some effect earlier, but nowadays it does not have much effect. He said, we have to think of new methods, and that, if we stop work we lose our wage, but company feels no pain. So these strikes are not effective anymore.
Permanent Worker , tyre building shop, 7 years exp
On upcoming strike and on strike as an effective instrument: He was aware of the strike, and they had also participated in the strike last year. He said last year they had mobilized a lot of workers. According to him it is wrong to see these demands and check whether we have achieved them or not. He said workers can’t win these demands, immediately. It is the right step and not the final step. So he fully supported the strike and said will participate in it.
Protest and struggle should not be taken lightly. It is difficult to fight collectively. Strikes cause economic damage to the workers. When the results are delayed they cant continue the fight. Workers are also selfish. They have to recognize and a self interest in the collective interest. But when that does not happen, they don’t care for collective fights
On charter of demands : In his factory he said their demand has been about wage increase. The last agreement expired in 2013, and for three years nothing has happened on that front. The company has refused to sign a new agreement. Even the government has not supported them on this issue. They have even gone to court. There are no other major issues.
He fully agreed with the demand for equality of wage for contract workers. He said, “they have been reducing the number of permanent workers and increasing contractualization. The contract workers get very low wage, say if we get 30000/- they get just 10000/- and no benefits. There are now about 400 contract workers in our company for 1150 permanent workers.”
He also supported the demand for minimum wage and added that 18000/- is less that what is needed today. A family can not run a household with 18000/- today what with the rents, education and medical expense. So according to him it is an important but inadequate demand.
Regarding demand of union recognition he also fully agreed to that demand, but in his opinion often the recognised unions were bureaucratic, like the recognised union in his factory. There is another union in his factory but he said it was not recognised.
He said “why should companies be afraid of unions. If they are right and fulfil workers demands, there is no problem. Unions are not here to fight with them, we only want a union to protect our rights. Not all of us can discuss with the management, so we need some people who can effectively represent us and project our collective strength.”
Permanent worker, Exp non known
On upcoming strike and unions: He said there was a union in the factory but he didn’t know about the strike.
On Charter of demands: According to him the charter contains right demands, The contract workers demands as well as minimum wage. He said many in his factory don’t get 18000/- a month. Permanent workers with many years of experience still get less than 25000/-. Workers should have equality of wage. However he was sceptical as to whether companies will agree. He said they will simply outsource the jobs.
Permanent worker tyre building shop, 11 years exp.
On upcoming strike : He had not heard of the National Strike. But said it is important.
They had participated in the strike last year. If the union participates he said they will all be there. In fact he said he believed in these strikes and even if his union doesn’t participate, he will.
On charter of demands : He said that while we did not win most of our demands due to last year’s strike, the strike did help us get better bonus. He also thought that the minimum wage demand and the contract workers demands are the right demands to make. He said we can’t have this distinction between contract workers and permanent workers, as all do the same work. In fact the contract workers are forced to do even more than permanent workers. So equal wage is a right demand.
He also found resonance with these demands as their own (independent union) is demanding wage increase and discussion of contractualization with Management.
On Strike as a form: He thought strike is an effective instrument. It is not true that nothing happens. Even a one day strike leads to huge losses for the corporate companies. If machines remain idle for a day it is a big loss. When we show them we can do this, they pressure the government and things will improve if even only minimally.
Nature of work and working conditions : We have been working for 12 years at Greaves-Cotton factory which manufactures agricultural equipment. All of us are permanent workers. The atmosphere at work place was bad till 2013. At that point we started the union and after that, conditions improved.
On being part of union: Before the union was formed, we had to be very submissive towards the management. After the union (affilliated to DTUC) was formed, although it was not recognized, we got to know of of our rights, and hence we were no longer treated as aggressively by the management. Earlier (before union), we did not have a written contract about our working hours. If the work was not finished by the end of the day, we were forced to stay in and finish the work, and the gate was locked. This did not count as overtime. After the union came, we asked for a contract, and since then, we haven’t worked extra like earlier. Before the union, if the management was displeased with the worker for raising their voice about any issue, they were victimized. The worker would be kept in an isolated room for 10 days, not be allowed to work, and not be paid for that time.
On the upcoming strike and charter of demands : Yes we know about the strike and we agree that these demands which are being put forward are very good. Managements are trying to eliminate unions by taking workers on contract, as trainees etc. That should not be allowed. We also think that ceiling should be remove on bonus pay. In fact profits should be required to be shared with workers via bonuses.
Strike as a form: Strikes can be effective if everybody does it together. For example last year we couldn’t do participate since our union was not recognized. If for such reasons many groups of people don’t participate in the strike, then it would be hard to make it effective.
On nature of work and working conditions : Selvamani is a CNC machine operator and Saranraj works on Engine assembly. They have been working for 8 years and are both permanent. They said that before the union was formed, workers were not treated with respect.There was no grievance redressal system. For example, if the food was bad in the canteen, they couldn’t complain to any one. Their pay increased very little in the 8 years they worked, and they were not paid overtime. Things changed after they formed a union in the factory. Workers felt emboldened to demand their rights and be treated with respect.
On upcoming strike , on charter of demands : They did not know about the upcoming strike but they found the demands very relevant.
However as they have all been suspended because of the lockout, they said their most pressing demands is that they want their jobs back and that they get paid for the last 4 months. They also said that increase in pay should be linked to inflation.
Another demand thy had is “cases in the (labour) court should be speeded up. For example our case about wages has been going on since 2013. Also, we do not have access to higher authorities like the CM even if we have a major issue like this lock out.
There should be mechanisms of grievance redressal in the company and the working day should only be 8 hours. For us, it was 8.5 hrs, because it included a half hour lunch break.”
On Strike as a form : One day strikes can be effective. Because, some of the companies are huge, and if production is stopped for one day, they will be heavily impacted.