20000 Workers take out rally in Chennai; Demand End to Unfair Labour Practices;

Workers prevented from reaching Secretariat; CM refuses to meet workers delegation

Workers on the Rally

On 4th April, workers from all over Tamilnadu, took a rally to the State Secretariat at Fort St. George. Their demands included raising the minimum wage to Rs 18000 a month, from the abysmal levels today. They demanded that the State stringently implement Equal Pay for Equal Work and end contractualization of jobs in manufacturing and service sector. Demands also included an Drought relief package to small farmers, to mitigate the effects of agricultural crisis and protection of rights of workers in the informal sector.

Police stopped the workers before they reached the secretariat. A delegation led by former MLA and CITU (State Gen sec) A. Soundarajan met the Chief Secretary and presented a memorandum of their demands. The site where they stopped was secluded. This diminished the visibility of the protest. Coupled with poor coverage in the National media, its influence was severely diminished.

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Workers from a wide range of sectors, industries and informal employment participated in rally. One of the consistent issues plaguing government staff to factory workers was the issue of permanent jobs. Contractual work also means low wages and denial of statutory social security systems such as PF or ESI.
One of the Anganwadi worker from Sivagangai district said that they were being forced to take care of two or even three centers at a time, making it difficult for them to perform well. “they have also classified many centers as ‘mini’ centers. The idea was that it will have less than 10 children, but today these have more than double the strength. In these centers there is only one teacher and she has no help. She has to prepare the meals, clean the children and also ensure that they are safe. This is an impossible task. Yet many centers are still classified as ‘mini’ centers. The teachers also get only half the salary” she asserted. At Rs 8000/- for a senior teaching staff, the salaries seem significantly low even for those getting full pay.
Sanitation workers from municipalities across Tamilnadu participated in the rally with vigour. Their slogans resonated loud and far. Many of them have been fighting a long battle to secure permanent tenure. They are contracted or employed under specific schemes and not made permanent staff. Termination of work of some of the corporation staff in Chennai had resulted in a protest recently. (link to our story)
The story of workers from Kodaikanal had a twist. They were demanding permanent jobs with TNEB, but since 2008, they have no record of employment with TNEB. They maintain that TNEB employs them for rectifying faults, laying electric lines and even hazardous tasks during storm season, . Yet, they are not paid by TNEB nor do they have any recognition of work. They get paid by households for their service. “Till 2008, we were all working as contract workers with TNEB. Since 2008 they stopped contracting us officially. They hire us to do the work. we get tips from the consumers. We are about 30 workers. We have been demanding permanent tenure with TNEB for our services” said one of the workers who had come to take part in the protest. When asked about the risk of accidents, he said “in the event of an accident, officials will deny any knowledge of us and there is no recourse to any compensation”.
The twenty thousand strong rally, moved through South Cooum Road, avoiding major roads. Police stopped the rally before it entered Anna Salai, the arterial road, to proceed to the secretariat. A delegation, comprising A.Soundarajan, Sukumaran and other CITU leaders from the state, left to meet the Chief Minister. Cheif Minister did not meet the delegation on the pretext of the Model Code of Conduct. Instead, the Chief Secretary received them. Theekathir reports that the delegation impressed upon the Chief Secretary to act on some of the demands concerning informal workers so that the legislature can pass the necessary amendments during the discussion and vote on departmental grants.
National and state leaders including A.K. Padmanabhan, Vice President of CITU, addressed the gathering at the Rally. Speaking about the numerous assaults on the working class and their legal rights, Com. AK Padmanabhan, said that the huge turnout for the rally was a warning to the ruling class that the workers would not continue to submit to this travesty, Highlighting the recent Maruti case, he demanded that the workers be let out on bail, and a fair trial be held. Others raised issues faced by workers in the SEZs in Tamilnadu, the continued vacancies in public sector departments overburdening the existing staff and issues of outsourcing and informalization. The gathering began to thin out by late afternoon and dispersed after the delegation returned and reported their conversation with Chief Secretary.
It was not clear why the workers were prevented from moving further, as due information had been provided about the assembly and the police could have made adequate arrangements to minimize disturbance. It was also not clear why the workers did not contest the police order. It has been the habit of Tamilnadu police to raise frivolous objections to deny permission for protests and other expressions of free speech. The fact that often times, such diktats go unchallenged only emboldens them to act in contravention to constitutional rights.
CM’s refusal to meet the delegation is also disappointing. The Model Code of Conduct does not prevent an elected official from his/her normal duties. It only restricts the government officials from announcing policies or legislate laws that might influence voter choice in the period ahead of elections. The Model Code of Conduct did not restrict the CM from having a meeting with Malaysian PM and the business delegation (MAICCI) on 31st March, where business relations between TN and Malaysia was discussed.
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