Over 70 workers and union representatives came together to discuss issues of construction workers and their struggles in a South Chennai District Hall Meeting on August 2nd. The union leaders said that this is part of a statewide drive to mobilise workers. 14 district meetings have been held so far. The issues ranged from access to welfare, working conditions to union strategies and broader class struggles. The leaders used the meeting to explain about the planned national strike on September 2nd and invited the workers to participate enthusiastically.
The discussions highlighted the skewed and lopsided priorities of the state which focuses on sectors such as IT which produce services for foreign companies and employ fewer people where as sectors such as construction where workers build (public infrastructure and basic necessities) for benefit of all are ignored. Speaking on the occasion, Comrade Balaswamy said that the IT corridor in OMR which has generated only 1.5 lakh employment is touted by the Governments while the far greater construction workforce is invisible.
The (lack of) implementation of Building and Other Construction Workers(Regulation of employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and Building and Other Construction Workers(Welfare and Cess) Act, 1996 were criticised by the leaders addressing the meetings. Comrade Jawahar, a senior journalist, explained how the enactment of these acts themselves were hard won struggles by working class for more than 20 years. While the unions placed over 50 demands including regulation of employment, decent and safe working conditions, protection of women workers from harassment and social security, the Government had only included over 10 demands which themselves were watered down, he said. It has taken another 20 years for these acts to be implemented but their implementation remains highly inadequate. He explained that in the year 2013-2014, there were over 483 inspections done under the act, resulting in hundreds of violations being registered, and only one case has been resolved so far which resulted in a fine of mere Rs 2000. He opined that the lack of implementation is due to the weakened working class movement which remains divided and urged workers to develop struggles along class politics.
The State’s exclusionary politics was highlighted by Comrade Ravi, General Secretary of All India Construction Workers Union, AITUC. He said that over 30000 construction workers have been denied pension. While the notifications by Government clearly state that pension should be provided by the State on the basis of their registration details with the welfare board, the Welfare Boards have been rejecting the petition by comparing the age of workers recorded on the welfare board cards and Aadhar. In addition, the Welfare Boards demand that workers attend in person to the welfare board for claiming social security benefits, which has increased the financial and time burden for workers to access social security. Comrade Ravi contended that this is not only a mechanism to deny the workers, their hard won rights but also a process of excluding those unions that fought along with the workers for these rights. A hunger fast has been organised to protest the denial of pension for the workers on Aug 4th at Chepauk Stadium and Comrade Ravi asked workers to join en-mass to support the pensioners’ demands.
Comrade Ravi explained at length, the planned national strike on September 2nd and invited the construction workers to join hands with factory and other unorganised workers and make the strike successful. He explained the neo-liberal politics of the NDA Government and the previous UPA Government which have sought to undermine the existing labour rights under the pretext of codifying existing laws. He said that the demands for construction workers should be taken forward along the demands of regularisation of employment, implementation of social security benefits such as ESI, PF, pension and gratuity. These rights are claimed only by factory workers under the existing laws and any denial of these rights to factory workers can also undermine the ongoing struggles of construction workers and hence it is important that construction workers stand with factory workers in this onslaught of pro-capital labour reforms. He highlighted that this strike is a continuation of the successful strike that was organised by trade unions last year in which over 15 crore workers participated and that various meetings and events are being planned to mobilise the workers for the strike.
The meeting was organised by South Chennai Branch Committee. The meeting also marked a transition to a new branch commitee, with newly elected office bearers taking over the functions of the branch. A new branch of Truck Drivers Union was also initiated by unveiling the board for the union branch. Comrades from other sectors including auto workers, banks, public sector workers attended and addressed the meeting.