Demanding the Government to protect the rights of the informal workers and to repeal unjust and anti worker legislations like FDI in retail, workers from different organizations, organized a day long sharing of workers issues to mark 10th December as Human Rights Day. Members from leading trade unions, workers associations, activists and academicians joined in declaring that Labour Rights are Human Rights
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The Working Classes across the world have long struggled for their rights within an economic system built on extraction and exploitation of labour. Many rights and entitlements were won by the working class movements in the course of two centuries. While the horrors of World War 2 pushed the states-men and women to declare a set of rights as inviolable, the right of the labouring classes had to be addressed and thus some of the rights, hard fought and won, found itself on the document titled Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But often such pronouncements and declarations remain in paper, useful to measure the extent of violations. So it is with the rights of the working class. Bringing this to light and to re affirm their rights as human rights, the informal workers from various sectors of Chennai’s economy along with union representatives from Tamilnadu, activists and academicians met in Egmore, Chennai for a day long sharing.
The Seminar, titled Labour Rights are Human Rights, organised by various organizations under the umbrella of Unorganized Workers Federation (UWF) was held on Human Rights Day. It was presided by Com. K Natarajan, President of UWF. In his presidential address, he outlined the important issues that UWF was struggling towards. He also referred to the idling of over 450 crores with the welfare boards while benefits and support for workers covered remain poor of standard. Com. R Leelavathi, from UWF welcomed the comrades and the guests and laid out the need to gather together and affirm the rights of the working class; especially the most oppressed and exploited sections of the informal workers like the boned labourers, the tribal workers and others. The Guest of Honour was T Vellaiyan, the president of the Vannigar Sangamgalin Koothamipu (Federation of Retailers Association). He has been in the forefront of the campaign against FDI in multi brand retail trade. While appreciating the initiative of the workers organizations, he maintained that there was a need to fight
against the re-colonisation of India through FDI. He accused the central government of wilfully allowing inflation to rise so that it becomes an excuse to promote FDI. Citing the case of International Beverage brands (Coca Cola and Pepsi) destroying local beverages, he emphasised that FDI will lead to greater economic distress. He also maintained that once the local retail has been destroyed, the large retail chains will also exploit the farmers in order to extract higher profits. He also emphasised that the working class should come out of superstition. Referring to the flip flops in parliament over this issue he stated, “When there is no real political alternative, the only option for people is to struggle, but this struggle should not turn violent. The government and the politicians have equal responsibility to address the people’s issues before resistance turns to violence.”
Speakers from different organizations and unions representing informal workers, bonded labourers, street vendors and domestic workers presented their cases, and made demands for better conditions of work, increase in minimum wage and its strict implementation, improving welfare board functioning and institutionalising the role of unions in welfare board activities rather than cut them out. Com Chandra Bose maintained that many in the stone quarries, brick kilns and rice mills are working under conditions of bondedness. There is no proper survey of the extent of this form of labour that is abolished by law but prevalent in reality. He maintained that in the absence of meaningful livelihood support those rescued and released from bonded ness will return to similar conditions of employment. Mari Amma discussed the issues that Irular (Scheduled Tribe in Tamilnadu) women face in their work and home settings. Other leaders also pointed out the false promises and failed expectations for better conditions of employment.
Prof Shanmuga Velaythum, from TN Forces, explained that India was first in incidence of child labour and inspite of being a signatory to Child Rights Convention, they have deferred from abolishing child labour in totality. The 1982 Act allows for employment of children in non-hazardous work, effectively legalising child labour. Criticising the government’s stand on this issue, he maintained that even when India experienced unprecedented growth in the last decade, nothing concrete was done to abolish child labour. He emphasised that all children below the age of 18 should be in school rather than at work, and only this marks the total abolishing of child labour. Stating that the survey of child labour lacks credibility, he emphasised the need to have a proper survey and a decent rehabilitation package to effectively curb child labour. Citing a case involving children from west Bengal, he pointed out how they return back to work in the absence of a secure rehabilitation package that involves free education.
Com. R Geetha from the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh, reiterated the need to mark Human Rights as labour rights too, and this was an important step towards that. She illustrated how the working class has been steadily losing their rights in the era of liberalization, claiming that over 95% were informal workers. She maintained that the demands of the workers were very basic like upholding the ILO’s core labour standards that ensure safety and security of work, minimum social security and decent pay. This she maintained is being wantonly violated even as the state looks the other way. While appreciating the workers for their struggle to establish welfare boards, that has resulted in welfare boards for unorganized workers across all the states in India, she cautioned them to the steady erosion of workers benefits in these boards and the process to cut the unions out of the picture and to engage with workers individually. Maintaining that proper housing, medical benefits and basic needs were an integral part of their rights, she said that HDI and not GDP is the real indicator of development.
The daylong session concluded with the declaration that Labour Rights were Human Rights and needs to be protected, promoted and preserved with great care and struggle.