More than 1400* workers from Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu attended the all trade union conference calling on February 23rd for “Equal Wages for Equal Work” and implementation of labour laws. Central trade unions and others including CITU, AITUC, BMS, HMS, LPF,MLF, INTUC , AIUTUC and WPTUC have come together to begin a joint campaign against the increasing informalisation of work. AICCTU which is part of the platform did not attend the conference. Trade union leaders who addressed the conference pointed out that labour laws were being weakened by the government for ease of business and also that new forms of informal labour like trainees, apprentices have come up to flout labour legislations. Workers cheered in support of the resolutions read out by Comrade Moorthy of AITUC, with a call to action on the following demands –
- Equal wages for equal work
- Minimum wages of Rs.18000 per month plus Dearness Allowance.
- Ensure that no more than 10 per cent of a factory’s workforce can be contracted.
- Confirmation for all workers who are employed for 480 days.
To a spirited audience of workers at the Kamraj Arangam, senior trade union leaders spoke about the phenomenon of increasing informalisation of the work. Com. Anwardhan of the AIUTUC said that employers are afraid of working class unity and these divisions were created to divide workers. Com. A.K. Padmabhan of the Centre of Indian Trade Union said it is important for workers to understand “why, for whom and how” labour laws are being amended and rights being weakened.
Many of the leaders said that even the public sector which ought to be a model employer and lead the way in labour rights, also out source and contractualise work. Com. Shanmugam of the Labour Progressive Front which has a significant membership among state transport workers said that the department had engaged in large scale fraud, including siphoning off Rs.50lakhs of workers’ union dues. Similarly
Com.Raja Sridhar of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha highlighted the declining permanent workforce in the railways. “There was committee formed under Bibek Debroy to make recommendations to the government. Bibek Debroy used to be head of a company and knows nothing about railways, but he has suggested that the work of almost 4.6 lakh workers can be outsourced at a cheaper rate”, he said.
Com. Sridhar also called upon permanent workers to actively take up issues of contract workers in their workplaces and pointed out that not only do they often earn wages three times lesser than confirmed permanent workers, but also work 12-14 hours a day. Almost 200 workers at the Balmer Laurie factory in Manali are living proof. Com.Roopan, secretary of the union affiliated to HMS, attended the meeting with about 50 of his co-workers. He said that some of the workers have been in the factory for more than 20 years and are yet to be confirmedregularised. “We earn Rs. 460 per day for 8 hours of work in the leather chemical division of the factory and the women workers in housekeeping earn Rs.374 per day” he said. The workers also said that they handle chemicals without adequate protection. Despite being unionised for more than two decades, the workers have not been given permanent status; however, they did say that through the union they have resisted termination of employment.
Workers of the Lakshmi Machine Works (LMW) factory in Coimbatore which manufactures machinery for the textile industry has almost 1700 workers in two units. Additionally there are 500-600 contract workers, most of whom are migrant workers from north India, who earn Rs.400 per day. Com. D. Rajendran, Vice President of the LMW Unit 2 Workers and Staff Union affiliated to the Working People’s Trade Union Council said that the permanent workers earn Rs.45000. He said, “We have come to this conference following our union president Kuchelar’s call. All the work is slowly being outsourced or contracted. After 2002, no worker has been confirmed. We feel this is an important issue and we need to fight for this.”
Com. Mahadevan of the All India Trade Union Conference likened the three monkeys to the government, which refuses to hear the voice of the people; the judiciary which is blind to justice and delivers anti worker judgments; and finally the people who refuse to speak out. He also said that the Supreme Court judgment of 2016 which re-affirms the principle of equal work for equal pay is an important weapon that must be used in the struggle going forward.
Anthony Das of MLF and Durairaj of BMS also addressed the conference recalling the unity of the trade unions and workers in Tamil Nadu despite their political affiliations. Com. R. Kuchelan, President of the WPTUC who was instrumental in building this platform could not attend the meeting due to an injury and his remarks were presented by Com. Sampath. Com. Durairaj of the WPTUC said “There was a historic and successful agitation for jallikattu at Marina beach. Workers’ lives are a struggle like a jallikattu. I am confident that we can come together in the same spirit and strength for the issue of equal pay for equal work and minimum wages.”
One of the special invitees, retired judge Mr. Hariparandhaman also said that contract work is a new form of a varna system. “Contract workers are like untouchables. They cannot use the same toilets as permanent workers, nor can they eat in the same canteen”, he said. He also critiqued the trade union movement and said that the passage of the Contract Labour Act in the 1970s was the first collective failure of all the trade union. He also said that there must not be an over reliance on the judiciary to give pro-worker judgements. As an example he cited an important government order in 1976 which did not permit security, cleaning and sanitation staff to be contractualised which was later overturned by the Supreme Court in the SAIL judgement in 2001. (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/277653/)
P. Chidambaram, former Finance Minister was the last to address the gathering. He began by differing with the trade unions’ view that liberalisation was the reason for workers’ exploitation. He said countries like Germany, where liberalisation took place more than 30 years ago, ensured that labour laws are followed and he believed that this ought to be the case in India too. “I blame politics and political parties for the non implementation of labour laws. For instance, take the post of the Labour Commissioner. I do not even know the name of the Labour Commissioner now, they keep changing the post every three months”, he said stressing that officers of the government who enforce labour laws and protect workers’ rights have not been given respect due to them. He concurred on the various demands of the unions, given that they are all within the purview of the law and at the same time ensure that industries can make profit. On minimum wage, Mr. Chidambaram said that the concept of Universal Basic Income is being discussed and in that spirit, the minimum wage is necessary, although the quantum could be debated. He also said that it is acceptable that companies may need to hire contract workers for certain types of operations from time to time, but this should not exceed 10 percent. He therefore said he would support the unions in these demands.
Comrade A.S Kumar of AICCTU who chose not to participate in this meeting explained their decision to Thozhilalar Koodam. “Chidambaram is the architect of liberalisation in the country and the face of the neo-liberal agenda which we are ideologically opposed to and therefore we did not participate in the meeting. We do however, wholly support the demands of the trade unions and we will participate in all joint actions towards this cause.”
Thozhilalar Koodam will cover several actions and meetings planned in the coming days and months as part of the campaign.
*Errata fixed in number of attendees