Workers as youth and youth as workers – RYA Convention in Kanchipuram

Students and youths of today are tomorrow’s workers. Yet, when it comes to interactive engagement between student and youth movements and workers movements, left parties have tended to compartmentalize these groups, articulating their particular concers without linking issues and struggles in a way that prepares the youth as they become part of the working class. The increasing precarious nature of employment has presented an opportunity to link these groups. An attempt by Revolutionary Youth Association is paying dividends in bringing these groups together to fight for their common interests.

RYA Convention at SriperumbudurRYA Kancheepuram held the second annual convention in Sriperumbudur on Sunday (12 Nov 2017) that was attended by more than 200 youth. A majority of the attendees were trainees in factories, and were younger than 25. The overwhelming demands of the attendees were for secured permanent  and dignified employment with a working week of forty hours and a minimum monthly wage of Rs 21,000. They demanded that trainees and contract workers be regularized within a fixed time (of at most a year).

The conference also included youth who were part of community groups, many of whom were students. They presented a variety of community-related demands like controlling the dengue menace, dealing with pollution of local environment cause by factories, and the scrapping of NEET.

Youth talk about their demands

The afternoon session was open to attendees to present their views and talk about issues they were facing. Many trainees who spoke, expressed frustration at being stuck with traineeship for years. They said they had gotten an education with the dreams of getting stable employment. But now they were kept as trainees for 2-3 years, and then let go. When they go to their next job, they have to start as a trainee all over again. They expressed their determination to organize a massive protest against such a system. They were willing to take drastic steps such as blocking the highway and were even prepare to go to jail, if necessary.

We talked to a group of attendees, who had formerly been contract workers with Nippon Express, whose story captures problems commonly faced by a precarious working class in these times. They were part of a group of 72 contract drivers who were dismissed by Nippon Express in 2016. They had been struggling against low wages, long hours, and other issues — like being forced to pay for repairs of vehicles.The management had earlier made promises to regularize their employment, but never made good on the promise. The workers (under AICCTU) had taken their issues to the labour court a few months prior to their dismissal. Currently they are fighting a case in the High Court against their dismissal.

We also meet a group of 20 youth from the village of Kumizhi in Guduvanchery, who said that the ground water of their village has been polluted by an industrial laundry unit, which did not have a name board. They have appealed to various offices going up to the District Collector. However, when officials from th Tehsildar came, they just said the water was clean.

Not all workers had come to discuss their own issues. Two workers from Mando were permanent but decided to attend the conference on behalf of their comrades who were still in precarious positions.

Comrade Rajaguru of Hyundai said that RYA, which is a nationwide organization, takes up various issues of regional interest. Since Kanchipuram is an industrial district, the concerns of the youth was centered around industrial employment and that was reflected in the conference. In agricultural districts, they have taken up issues of farmers. They have also taken up the Neduvasal issue against ONGC.

We found that this was indeed a novel feature of the conference. It brought together a group of youth from different spheres. The mobilization was through friends and communities bringing together, trainees in different factories, and also students end up as trainees.

Connecting the dots through Marxist labour theory of value

The conference also featured an indepth session on connecting the demands of the working class to capitalistic mode of production and different worldview on work as human activity. An article written by Comrade Kumarasamy, national leader of AICCTU, was the focus of the discussion. The session started with the essay read aloud by a worker, followed by explanatory session by Comrade Kumarasamy.

The discussion traced the evolution of human hands as a productive tool which created means of production that were appropriated by capitalists. The appropriation of means of production led workers to sell their labour power to the capitalist by agreeing to work for certain amount of time for a given wage. The capitalist realizes profit by getting the worker to work for his/her own wage for certain time and for capitalist’s profit for other part of the time. Hence, capitalist’s profit depends on lowering the worker’s wage or by increasing their time of work, both phenomena are observed today.

Kumarasamy said that workers have historically struggled for ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of what you will’. The history of May day is connected to this struggle — on 1st May 1886, tens of thousands of working class men and women in Chicago went on strike to demand the 8-hour work day. But today an eight hour work day is fast disappearing.

The article questions why we are facing this contradictory situation where the need for manual labour has gone down because of mechanization, but workers are still overworked. Com. Kumarasamy attributed the reason to capitalists’ desire to maintain an army of unemployed to drive down wages and working conditions.

He said the hardest problem is to widen our imagination, and not just accept the reality of 10 or 12 hour workdays, and the reality of living in a dormitory with 10 people. Today both unions and workers feel too insecure to demand shorter working hours and a living wage.

The article discusses some utopias imagined by 19th century writers. Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking backwards (1888) imagines a socialist society in Boston in the year 2000 — where everybody is able to retire with benefits by the age of 45. But, that work is still a burdensome chore in Bellamy’s world. The article cites another novel ‘News from nowhere’ written in 1890. The author William Morris imagines a society where the means of production are democratically controlled. The society is agrarian and people find pleasure in nature, and in the work they do.  Kumarasamy leaves the audience to think if we can move towards a world where work is enjoyable.

The talk concluded advocating for shorter work day which is necessary for people to develop fully. People need time for cultural and communal activities, to build relationships, and to appreciate nature. Following the talk, the workers resoundingly agreed to struggle for permanent and secure employment with a forty hour work week and minimum wage of Rs 21000.

Convention Resolutions

The demands of the conference are the following:
1. Trainee period not to extend 1 year and probation not to extend 6 months. Workers should be confirmed after probation.
2. All temporary workers working for more than 240 days should be regularised.
3. Temporary Workers who are retrenched due to lack of employment should be kept in a waitlist and preference should be given to these workers during employment
4. Precarious workforce should not exceed 5%  of total workforce in any sector
5. Same wage for same work should be implemented for contract workers as per SC order.
6. Minimum wage of Rs 20000 per month
7. Enact recognition of unions in factories
8. Paid Leave for women workers during menstruation time
9. Implement sexual harassment complaints commitee at workplace
10. Take action to end dengue menace
11. End the practice of private finance with exorbitant interests.
12. Stop labour reforms
13. Ensure education, health and employment as fundamental rights.
14. Cancel NEET examination. Bring education from common schedule to State Government control.

Strengthening new forms of engagement

The neoliberalism and labour reforms push workers into highly exploitative precarious production process. Unions are finding it difficult to sustain the struggles of workers in factories. The differentiation emerging between permanent workers and precarious workers including trainees and contract workers create conditions where interactions and articulations between these categories of workers are increasingly difficult. The structures of unions do not seem to be conducive or interested to create spaces for sustained interactions for workers. For instance, a youth attendee at the conference who was preparing to enter workforce, was articulate about the exploitation of contract workers, as he could visibly see the difference between the treatment of permanent workers and contract workers. While the capitalistic process have found ways to institutionalize the mechanisms of separation (consider how factories have separate timings or canteens for contract workers break), but Left organizations fail to break the mould when it comes to institutions and spaces of organizing.

The convention was a big step in bringing workers from various factories, especially in Sriperumbudur, even while one could see workers (though a cohesive group of tamil speaking male youth) limiting their interactions in their own small groups and hesitating to venture into forging new relationships. These new forms of engagement can go a long way in increasing the interaction between workers across different categories and factories, if strengthened by various informal activities and creating other social spaces on the ground for strengthening workers solidarity, even if they are not setup to take up the immediate mantle of dismantling the capitalist state and exploitative production processes.


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