Conversation with AS Soundararajan, CITU on the nation wide general strike

Madhumita Dutta talks to AS Soundarajan, General Secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU) Tamil Nadu on the General Strike called by central trade unions supported by many smaller unions across the country on 28th February 2012

On 28th February, all the central Trade Unions called for a nation-wide general strike to demand for statutory minimum wage of Rs 10,000 per month for all workers, social security for unorganised workers, no sub-contracting and outsourcing of permanent work, regularising of contract workers, registration and recognition of trade unions, no divestment of profitable PSUs and implementation of labour laws. It was interesting to read an appeal issued by the Union labour minister Mr Malikarjun Kharge published in all major national dailies on 26th February urging the unions to “desist” from going ahead with the planned strike citing “colossal economic loss to the country” and “hardship to common man”.

AS Soundarajan (AS), Gen. Sec., CITU-Tamil Nadu said it was precisely to draw attention to the “hardship” of common man that the nation-wide strike was called.

Workers on General Strike 28/2/2012

Excerpts from an interview with AS:

What is your assessment about today’s strike?

It was a grand success. Over 1 crore workers all over the state went on strike today. There was complete shutdown of government run Chennai and Tuticorin Port (old and new), private container terminal, state government run Poompuhar Shipping Corporation terminal in Tuticorin, big public sectors like BHEL-Trichy, Ranipet and Salem, major private enterprises like Ashok Leyland, Hindustan Motors, Simpson Co, MRF Tyres, TI Cycles, L&T, Rane Engineerings, Areva, Caparo, Asian Paints etc. Even the workers from unorganised sectors like beedi rolling, power and handloom, head-loaders, construction, plantation, vendors, auto-rickshaw drivers joined the strike in Tamil Nadu.

Why do you think there was such an overwhelming response to the strike call?

Because every section of the working people is affected by what’s going on in the country. In Tamil Nadu the prices are skyrocketing. Our main issues in Tamil Nadu have been price rise and job loss besides the other national issues of minimum wages, social security for unorganised workers etc. In Chennai, the bus fares have increased tremendously in past few months. All input costs like tyre price, automobile spare parts and essential commodities diesel, petrol, cooking gas have gone up. It’s in the hands of the government to control these prices. We have been demanding that the state government reimburse MTC the bus fare concession given to students which runs upto Rs 120 crores per annum. Since 1989, students have been riding MTC buses for free and if you calculate the amount in Rupees, with roughly 6 lakh students using buses every day, for the last 22 years the amount works out to be Rs 1000 crores. If state government can decide to reimburse Tamil Nadu Electricity Board for supplying free power to the farmers, then why not to MTC?. How can government readily agree to reimburse VAT amount to Nokia, a private company and not to MTC? You claim that there has been job loss in the state, but the government is claiming otherwise.

How many jobs are they creating? Does it commensurate with the number of job losses? Over 10 lakhs workers have lost jobs in the powerloom, handloom, beedi, matchstick making sectors in Tamil Nadu. They have claimed to have created 2 lakhs jobs. There is increasing informalising of work, there is no decent jobs that are getting created. People who were earlier in handloom workers are now construction workers or headloaders. Are these the news jobs they are talking about? The government policies are completely destroying people’s lives. In the textile sector, yarn prices are increasing, big buyers are asking for 6 months credit from the small suppliers, how will the small supplier afford not to be paid for 6 months? They move to some other work.

The Prime Minister of this country made an atrocious statement, he is fooling the people by saying ‘flexibility’ and ‘hire and fire’ policy will give more opportunity to people in getting jobs. What sort of logic is that? Hire someone for some time and then fire him or her and get a new person to do the same job. Is this creation of new jobs? This whole issue of giving ‘fixed employment’ is also bogus. It basically means, give employment say for 5 years and then ask to quit. Where will the workers go, what will happen to him or her? This is leading to a very insecure employment scenario in the state and whole country.

What is the situation of the migrant workers in the state and the perception of mistrust that is growing against them?

There is a very big migrant working class in the state. As per government, there are about 10 lakhs migrant workers in the state. They are mostly engaged in dangerous hard labour, which people from Tamil Nadu are not willing to do. In foundries, steel rolling, heavy construction work. Even in farming sector, we see lot of migrant workers. They are from Bihar, Assam, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh. They get paid Rs 150-200 for a job that a local tamil worker does for Rs 300-400. The state government should do everything to protect the rights of the migrant workers, like wages at par with local workers, issue them ration cards, health and insurance, and safety. We should think of Tamil workers when they go to other states to work. If we do not ensure safety of the migrant workers in this state, how can Tamil workers be safe in other states? It is dangerous to create such perception of hostility against migrant workers. The state government should immediately take steps to safeguard the interests of the migrant workers.

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