Using Right to Information Act to support workers’ strike and win regularisation of workers
The contract workers of Haworth factory in Sriperumbudur have united to fight and win a major struggle. The workers had approached CITU for unionising 6 months ago but had to wait for some form of employment verification because they were all contract workers. Like a burglar who leaves no forensic, Hayworth Company made sure that there were no trace between contract workers and the company.
What helped the workers struggle was Right to Information Act. CITU petitioned the Deputy Director of Department of Industrial Safety Health requesting information on permanent workers and the contractors in Haworth. Questions such as How many permanent workers? How many contractors? Their contact details? What occupations were they licensed to contract? were raised in the petition. Invariably, Information about the petition was leaked to the company. 15 workers with 3 to 5 years of experience in the company were dismissed on suspicion of being behind these petitions.
The workers were forced to strike work under the leadership of CITU. The 3 days strike between December 5th and December 8th was successful in compelling the management and the Labour Department to act and the management conceded to regularise all the workers(80 of them) including those who were dismissed. One of the major reasons for the management to concede was that none of the contractors had applied for license from the Labour Department.
On this, the Labour Department Officials say that how they can give license when there has been no application. However, the company has been operating successfully with 100 contract workers from contractors SMS, IQMS and TSR for past 3 years. Now the PF commissioner has said that they will accept the PF from the contractors. These are symptoms of deep malpractice in industries. There is a need to do social auditing on the work of administration, similar to Income tax raids and other audits. The informations that CITU was able to gather played a major role in ensuring the success of the strike.
For today’s youth, whatever their qualification, engineering, diploma, ITI or +2, only contract work is available, with wages as low as Rs 8000. The Labour Officers and Human Resource Managers contend that even this is high. This is the condition of India’s labour market. This belies the rhetoric of President Elect Trump’s contention that US is losing employment to other countries which he has vowed to stop. It is not US which is losing when such employment is outsourced to other countries.
The conditions for exploitation and accumulation of capital is realised through contract work force and unemployment in contemporary capitalist structure. Contractualization extends the assault on social security of workforce and flexible hiring and firing policy that is becoming the norm globally. The contractors are the new capitalist class in the expanded metros.The contract led exploitation should not be seen as one of the oppressive tactics of capitalism’s greed for profit which aims to lower the value of labour power. Contractualization is also a repressive tactic to stop workers from uniting and demand collective bargaining. Hence there is a responsibility to not fall under the trap of organizing contract workers on the basis of human rights and humanity basis but as a counter force to stop the effort of capitalism from repressing working class.
Neo liberal state’s attempt to reform laws
The neo liberal policies have decimated the existing laws. After Narendra Modi led BJP’s ascension to power, the laws are being reformed to enhance and protect capitalist exploitation. Reforms are being pushed in Apprentice Act, Factories Act, Reguralisation of Workers Act, Industrial Disputes Act. Multiple administrative structures such as Labour Department and Department of Industrial Safety and Health do not provide oversight or implement existing laws to ensure compliance by industries. Factories are neither audited within a proper time frame nor are actions taken against contractors who either do not get license or renew their license.
Specifically, inspectors have not exercised the power to regularise workers who have worked for either 240 days or 480 days as per the mandate of the acts. Licenses are given arbitrarily with endemic corruption. Once licenses are awarded, they are not renewed. Even after raising these questions by Marxist members in Assembly, the administration is not willing to change. In this aspect, there is no change between ADMK or DMK.
In 2014 winter parliamentary session, BJP government has amended the Apprentice Act. This amendment mandates that an establishment can keep a worker as an apprentice indefinitely. This was opposed only by communist party members. Other party members supported such an initiative.
Struggles led to winning legal rights
It is the workers struggles that led to existing laws. Even British colonial government had to concede to Indian workers’ struggles. After Independence, left unions and leaders led struggles that resulted in laws protecting workers being enacted.
When SEZs were formed, communists pressurized Congress led UPA to reform the law(Special Econmic Zones Act, 2013). Specifically, the provision to deny union in SEZ was dropped after their intervention. In Tamil Nadu, even though SEZ development officer was appointed under the Act to implement Industrial relations under Industrial Disputes Act, Tamil Nadu struggles have ensured that older mechanisms prevail. We were also able to push unionisation, lead struggles and enforce collective bargaining in SEZs.
Labour rights are absent in the articulation of democratic rights or human rights. Left unions consider labour rights as the first step in democratic development. However contractualization not only shakes the foundation but also leads to destabilization of society and human lives.
S.Kannan, Kanchipuram State District Secretary, CITU
(The above article was translated by Thozhilalar Koodam and was edited for clarity and details)