On August 29th, 14 revolutionary trade unions and workers organisations came together under a joint platform called MASA (Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyan, which roughly translates to Movement to fight for workers rights) to build up national campaigns on issues facing working class in India and the world over. Three papers were presented, on the subjects of minimum wage, the central government’s proposed labour law reforms, and the issue of contract work. In an open discussion that followed, about 30 people expressed their views on the issues raised by the papers. The day long convention was held in Ambedkar Bhavan in New Delhi and was attended by a large number of workers, trade unionists, political activists as well as student activists.
The trade unions attending the meeting were All India Workers Council, Bauria Cotton Mill Sangrami Shramik Union (West Bengal ), Democratic Trade Union Centre (DTUC) (Tamilnadu), Hindustan Motors Sangrami Shramik Karmachari Union (West Bengal), Indian Council for Trade Unions (ICTU), Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), Inquilabi Kendra (Punjab), Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra, Jan Sangharsh Manch (Haryana), Karnataka Shramik Shakthi (Karnataka), Mazdoor Patrika, Mazdoor Sahyog Kendra (Gurgaon), Mazdoor Sahyog Kendra (Uttarakhand) and Trade Union Centre of India (TUCI).
Minimum Wage paper :
Com. Sanjay Sanghvi from Mumbai presented a paper on Minimum wage. He started by saying that issue of minimum wage is related to many other issues like pension, contract labour and casual labour. The reason capitalists are increasingly hiring contract or casual labour is because the minimum wage mandated by the government is abysmal. Hence the fight for a higher minimum wage which comes close to living wage will naturally integrate with other aspects of the working class struggle.
He recalled the history of Minimum wage . Almost 150 years back the concept of Minimum wage was introduced in Australia and New-Zealand. In India, it was introduced in the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) of 1943. In the 5th session of the ILC, a Labour Inquiry Committee was appointed to look into the conditions of labour in terms of their wages, housing, social conditions and employment. In 1957, ILC proposed a formula based on three key ingredients of food, clothing and housing for the family of a worker. This formula was based on a calculation which assumed that a worker needed one unit (2700 calories) of food in a day, wife of a worker needed .8 units and two children (irrespective of their age!) needed .6 units each. 20 percent of the wage is for paying for electricity, fuel and water. In 1991, a Supreme Court judgement questioned this formula as by then education as well as medical facilities were being increasingly privatised.
Sanghvi explained how the 7th pay commission revised Minimum wage to 18,000/- which included 504 rupees for monthly rent! As Sanghvi explained, even after adding various other allowances this will not go over 22,000/-. After this Sanghvi presented his own calculation which put rent at 4000/- (for details we refer the reader to the paper attached in this article) and he showed that the national level minimum wage could not be less then 22,000/-. He thus argued that the minimum wage demanded by central trade unions fell short of what the lowest possible minimum wage could be in the present economic conditions. He said that it was laughable that the central government was suggesting 10,000/- as the national floor minimum wage, as it falls far short of any reasonable figure. The full paper can be seen below.
Labour Law reforms paper:
Com. Bhatt presented a paper on the ongoing wave of labour law reforms, which he said, was Modi government’s unprecedented attack on the fundamental rights of the working class. He gave some examples of this attack : under amendments to ID act, workers would have to give 42 days of strike notice, and if more then half workers stayed inside the factory gate then the strike would be considered illegal which meant that each striking worker would have to pay 52,000/- fine. He said that if such laws are accepted, how on earth can will any worker dare to participate in a strike. He spoke about the attack on trade unions and about how 44 different labour laws were being diluted and merged into four labour codes. Under the proposed amendments, lay-off of upto fifty workers would be considered legal. The idea of self-certification (contained in these amendments) is Kafkaesque, as factories will themselves declare whether they are obeying laws. (In this connection, we remark that the Gujarat government has implemented a scheme of appreciation certificate for those factories which do not violate laws. Thus, obeying a law is not mandated but is something to be applauded!)
Com. Bhatt recalled the history of trade union movement in India and how the legal rights gained by workers during 20th century were due to intense struggle by the working class at national and international level and because of the fear capitalists had of proletariat revolutions worldwide. However the recent reforms in labour laws meant that all the gains Indian workers had obtained through decades of struggle were being wiped out. Labour laws were turning from being legal rights of workers to legal constraints on the rights of the workers. He thus concluded that the fight against labour law reforms had an immediacy.
According to Bhatt, due to the compromised leadership of central trade unions, they were unlikely to carry out a sustained struggle against these reforms and he expects to see no further action from them after September 2nd strike. Thus it was responsibility of revolutionary organisations to provide platform to the working class, so that they could fight these reforms. The full paper can be seen below.
Paper on Contract workers :
Com. Mukul from Uttarakhand presented the paper on the issue of contract workers. He explained that as a result of a crisis of capitalism in many of the developed capitalist countries, they required cheap and insecure labour to fight the reduction in profits. India, as a eager partner of international finance capital was going along with these policies and had increased contractualization of labour in last two decades.
Com. Mukul explained how the Contract Labour Regulation Act of 1970, despite its many positive provisions, created a divide between contract and permanent workers. As a result, contract workers were not protected by other acts, like the Industrial Dispute Act or Factory Act, while they were involved in the same work as permannent workers. Hence the contract labour act was rampantly violated by the capitalists.
The 1970 Act says that a contract worker has to be made permanent after 240 days of employment, but this was never applied anywhere in India. Contract workers can not form a union, can not even join an established union as they could be fired at will.
He finally said that in that many labour movements of the last decade, contract and permanent workers had shown strong solidarity, and this is a challenge for capitalists. It is thus essential to fight for the key demands of contract workers and ensure that they were part of the working class movement. The full paper can be seen below.
Excerpts from 5 Minute talks by participants :
Com. Ashok who is with the Illegal contract workers movement in New Delhi commented on the minimum wage calculation presented by Com. Singhvi earlier. He said how, there was a cabinet committee proposal released in June 2016, which had suggested that the Minimum wage for government employees be 23,000/-, which was higher then what Com. Sanghvi proposed! In a fiery speech , Com. Ashok emphasised that in Delhi they were demanding Minimum wage of 30,000 as it was impossible for a family of four to find any accommodation with a rent of 4000 rupees. He also commented on the discussion of labour law reforms by questioning why labour movements should even discuss these laws, when capitalists blatantly violate it anyway and don’t care about it. He asked workers present to organize and look beyond the ambit of these laws. On the issue of contract labour , he said, nowhere is it written that unions can’t give contract workers membership and hence they should be offered membership by unions. As he works extensively with the manual scavengers in Delhi, he laid out the demands their organization is making on behalf of manual scavengers : These were, no more then 6 hours of work in a day, uniform wage and working conditions across India and a compensation of 1 crore for family of the worker, if the worker dies on the work site. He finally invited all the participants to attend a gathering of manual scavengers that they are organising in November.
Com. C.P. Sharma of Jan Sangharsh Manch, who is a doctor by profession and has dedicated his whole life on practicing medicine in working class areas, expressed pessimism . He said that over the years we have witnessed many such conventions and efforts by revolutionary organisations to bring working class together, but we still find ourselves in the current situation as there is, in his opinion no emphasis on the right political line. He emphasised on the fact that, a right political line which is communicated clearly to the workers is a must for such projects to succeed. He thus stressed on the political education of the workers .
He then spoke about attack on labour laws and said how encouraging home-based enterprises was tantamount to legalising child labour. He spoke about how the list of so-called dangerous enterprises had shrunk from 83 to 4, which meant that 14-18 years old could work in the remaining enterprises.
He also commented on the informal labour and said that it must be remembered that 93% of he working population is outside the ambit of most of the labour laws, and their fight is primarily to get them under the protection of these laws. Thus the un-organized working class is fighting for the same rights that supposedly the organised working class gets, and so if the rights of organized working class are taken away , what is the informal working class going to fight for? This is why a coherence of struggles was important which had to look beyond the fight for the already shrinking legal rights. He also commented on the dangers of fighting for unionisation as an end in itself and how such unions were often appropriated by the management. He cited examples of many unions in the Faridabad area which were basically like second management keeping workers in control, and said how in the famous J.C. Mill, the union president had an office exactly like their Managing director.
Com. Ful Singh from Inquilab Kendra, Hariyana spoke about Labour law reforms in Hariyana. He said how in the same year that Modi government came into power, Hariyana government started amending ID act, factory act and contract labour regulation act. He said how Hariyana and Rajasthan amendments are just the start but all state governments especially the BJP ones will amend and dilute labour laws sooner rather then later. On a question of minimum wage, he said that situation was so atrocious in Hariyana that teachers salary was 2000 per month. He demanded, keeping economic conditions in mind that the minimum wage could not be less then 25,000 and disagreed with the figure of 22,000.
Com. Shamik from Bengal who is with the tea workers union , spoke about the inhuman conditions of the tea plantation workers in bengal and Orissa. He said that there was not even a concept of Minimum wage in these areas and after long and tedious negotiations, Bengal tea workers were getting a dismal 132 rupees a day. He said how government was suggesting a “generous rise” of 158 rupees a day which amounted to salary of 4800/- a month! Thus struggle for a national level minimum wage was a necessity for tea plantation workers were thousand of workers have died in last fifteen years due to starvation. Com. Shamik explained how out of 277 gardens, around 25 remained closed but on paper they were still shown to be functioning. These closure of course means devastating consequences for the workers who are left without food electricity and water. These closed (although officials open) gardens were owned and operated by the famous Alchemist group which owns three Tea estates in Bengal and the Duncan group. In the context of labour law reforms, he said how the plantation labour act was brutally violated in all these tea estates and hence the act in itself had become a joke. In last 35 years, Com. Shamik explained how this year the Tea Industry in India had seen maximum profit, maximum FDI and increasingly worse conditions for the workers. He concluded by saying that the initiative by MASA was extremely important as fight for informal workers like tea plantation workers had to be integrated with the organized working class struggle . Their union have joined MASA .
Com. Ashok who is with Maruti Manesar union spoke about how after Modi has taken reigns, it almost feels like it is back to pre 1947 slavery for the working class. He said that the struggle working class is facing today is nothing less severe then our struggle for independence . He recalled the history of Maruti Manesar union and how although it may appear that after formation of union, the struggle of Maruti workers is over, management continues to find new ways to exploit the workers through their use of temporary workers and hence even the Maruti struggle continues to go on.
Com. Purna in beautiful speech spoke about women workers struggles. She said that in order to have a truly coherent struggle which overcame the gender biases and patriarchy dominant in our society, a more nuanced approach was needed and she felt that this issue of women workers and their rights should be included as a separate and forth issue to the three issues that were being discussed in the convention.
Com. Satpal from Haryana started his speech by applauding commitments of people like C.P. Singh who had dedicated their lives among the workers. In a passionate speech which also included a song, he rubbished labour laws, as he said that whenever these laws are amended, the people concerned (workers) are never consented. He spoke about Haryana government’s complete disengagement with the workers and their representatives and he said how the with the current intensification of onslaught on the working class, half measures won’t work. He also said it was obvious why the government will listen to capitalists as opposed to workers, as workers were only needed once in 5 years (during election time) but capitalists were needed five times in a single day! So we cannot expect any fairness from these governments no matter what party was in power.
An interesting contradiction emerged in his speech when he commented on earlier speech by Com. Ashok who has mocked as to how cow in these countries were more important then manual scavengers. Ful Singh said that anger on government should not be directed towards anger on cow as that was likely to offend large population of workers.
A comrade with Inqilaab Mazdoor Kendra appealed to all participating trade unions to immediately give membership to contract workers working in their factories. He said how the contractualization was a key issue in organizing workers as even the permanent workers themselves thought that they were different then contract workers. Hence any platform which wanted to advance the working class struggle had to first and foremost unite contract workers. He spoke about the new amendments which allow/force women to work during night shifts. He spoke about how unsafe this was for women as in current times harassment of women even during day times was rather common.
Com. Rajkumar from Delhi who is secretary of the union of government hospital employees (which has employees from 29 government hospitals) spoke about increasing contractualization of hospital staff in Delhi. After recalling history of contract labour in India, he said how in these hospitals contractors were exploiting workers and especially women workers in all possible ways. He also highlighted the caste issue which was a severe hindrance to working class unity. Com. Rajkumar explained how, landlords were always exploiting workers for extravagant rents and forcing them to buy groceries and other goods from their own shops for high prices. However when workers tried to unite, a landlord will always bring caste issue to break the workers unity. He thus said that political education of workers was a must as there are so many ways in which unity of working class gets fractured. Regarding contract workers, he said that there must be a call for one work, one pay and the whole idea of contract wage should be rejected. He also said the demand for minimum wage should include a demand for free education of children of those workers who are getting minimum wage.
The second half of the convention included talks by representatives of the 14 trade unions which have formed MASA . They outlined various strategies and campaign possibilities to raise the three issues among the masses over course of next year .