Sourina Bej, Asian College of Journalism
“We are living in a free country. We achieved freedom 66 years ago. But, it still takes us 66 years to discuss the basic necessities of life.”
Sitting among roughly 20 people observing indefinite hunger strike under a tin shaded roof of a three storied building in Ayanavaram, these words by Geetha Ramakrishnan, advisor to Unorganised Worker’s Federation (UWF), would compel one to look into the plight of the unorganised workers in a new light.
The unorganised sector which include agricultural sector, construction, fisheries, street vendors, petty service providers, salt pans, domestic work, fireworks industries, beedi industries etc comprises the overwhelming majority of workers in the country. Of the working population of 317 million, over 290 million, i e, over 92 per cent are in the unorganised sector. Unlike workers in the organized sector, these workers do not have steady employment, secure or sustainable incomes and are not covered by social security protection. (EPW article by Renana Jhabvala, Vol. 33, No. 22 (May 30 – Jun. 5, 1998),).
Geetha Ramakrishnan said, “The unorganised sector employs around two crores of workers in Tamil Nadu. Even though in 1982 the state passed the Tamil Nadu Manual Workers(Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Work) Act which led to the establishment of Welfare Boards(for providing social security), the functioning of the welfare boards have been problematic especially after the boards came under the jurisdiction of the Revenue Department.”
The protest that was organised by UWF from October 24 till October 29 kicked off on the pavements opposite Chepauk stadium to coincide with the start of state assembly session. The protestors were arrested for conducting the hunger strike inspite of being denied permission to conduct their demonstration opposite Chepauk stadium and moved to a private property to continue their fast.
“We want the repeal of 2008 Government Orders 122,123,124 which has shifted the functions of Welfare board and registration of workers from Labour Department to Revenue department . After these Gos, the registration of the workers have stopped. Most importantly the welfare board must recognize the trade unions rights. The union should be centrally involved in the task of recognizing, renewing, registering and smart card issuance for the new workers,” she added.
One of the core demands of the union is to extend ESI health care for unorganised workers. Currently the the state has implemented Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insuarance Scheme. The scheme provides free medical and surgical treatment in Government and Private hospitals to members of any family whose annual family income is less than Rs.72,000/. However this scheme is a long way from ESI scheme which supports workers during their sickness by providing sick leave, hospital care for general illnesses and documents accidents at worksite.
UWF secretary, Ms. Leelavati said, “The unorganised workers work under extreme conditions without any proper benefits. That is why we are demanding ESI facility for the entire unorganised workers. Benefits like maternity allowances of Rs.18000/-, accident relief Rs 5 lakhs, natural death compensation Rs 50000/-,education support for children for higher studies, pension on 15 day norms and rainy season relief for workers such as salt pan workers who end up losing their job during this season should be given.”
The four-day long protest succeeded in making its voice heard in the state assembly despite low media coverage.
On the opening day of the assembly session, MLA Arumugam of CPI called for attention motion wherein questions were raised about the demands of the workers. With the state labour minister Thiru K.T. Pacgamal’s assurance for further action, the hunger strike was called off.
On October 29 the union organized a mass protest by the unorganised workers opposite Collector’s office near Chennai beach station after district protests in Villupuram, Madurai, Tirichi, Salem, Nagapattanam, Tuticorin Nagercoil, Kannyakumari and Vellore.
“We will wait till the end of the month and see whether our demands are met or not. If no steps are taken, in December we will plan our next phase of agitation,” emphasized Geeta.
The labour department officials were unavailable for comments when contacted for further information on the progress of mitigating the demands.
The other demands of the federation include:
1. Establishment of Grievance Redressal Committee in all districts to clear the backlog in providing monetary benefits to the workers,
2. Maintain independent financial bases for Welfare boards wherein they would be able to collect trade based levies
3. Allocate 3% of budget for the functioning of the welfare boards
4. Implement central government guidelines of 1% levy for Construction Workers Welfare Board.
5. Stop slum eviction and provide pattas, housing to safeguard their livelihood and labour rights.