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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 46

Choking the Workers’ Voice

Tuesday 4 November 2008, by Gurudas Das Gupta


Of late, particularly after the countrywide general strike on August 20, a virulent campaign has been launched against the trade unions. They have been accused of obstructing industrialisation, of going on strikes that will scare away investors, cause foreign direct investment to peter out, force foreign institutional investors to disinvest. The campaign, obviously designed to malign the trade unions, has further accused militant unions of holding the country to ransom, destroying job opportunities, obstructing social life, holding up trains, and dislocating air services and what have you.

Shedding crocodile tears for the marginalised poor, they argue that strikes result in loss of wages for the daily wage earners and put them in utter distress and that the country suffers heavily through loss of production and loss of government revenue.

The rather philosophic argument of the corporate sector is that nobody gains from a strike. Further, since a one-day strike can hardly achieve any change in government policies, it is an exercise in futility, with none or little impact on the political life of the country. Muscle-flexing by politically-motivated trade unions is incompatible with the principles of pluralistic democracy is yet another argument.

Solemn Advice

INSTEAD, the solemn advice is to seek a change of guard through popular vote or by developing public opinion. Change of policies presupposes a change of government and since such change can only be effected through elections, launching agitations are meaningless; more so, as they disrupt national life and hurt national interest. This is the burden of their song.

Such a crusade against the trade union movement is not surprising. It is a relentless, age-old crusade of the capitalists against the strength of the working masses. At a recent meeting of industrialists in Kolkata, a Left leader was subjected to rigorous cross-examination on the philosophy of a general strike, mischieveously called a bandh. The point being made was that strikes benefit nobody, they force people to stay indoors, production is forcefully stopped and the economy takes a beating. Disputing the all-India character of the agitation, the captains of the industry suggested that the strike in the three Left-ruled States could only assume a striking dimension because of active state patronage. These are obvious attempts to underplay the strength of the trade union movement and undermine its role in civil society.

As people are advised to remain passive, their right of dissent is ignored and the significance of peaceful popular protest is wilfully disregarded. It is a calculated move to disarm the people of their constitutional authority to oppose any harmful policy and look for a remedy. Rejecting all forms of popular intervention, people are asked to make use of their right to vote to give vent to their feelings of antagonism even when the country is overwhelmed with a virulent crisis.

The economy is truly taking a beating; but who is to blame? The truth is that far more mandays are lost due to lockouts than due to strikes, not only in West Bengal but in the whole of India. The difference is alarming; also alarming is the industrial climate at the national level that reflects the aggressive mood of managements, frequently resorting to lockouts mainly to suppress the workers’ ambitions. There is yet another form of holding up production by the management: suspension of production that is, in fact, a form of illegal lock-out. The corporates, while pushing their maximising profit agenda, seek to ruthlessly suppress trade unionism and resort to disruption of production, adopt illegitimate methods to the detriment of national interest.

The Economic Survey 2007-08 states that 2.20 million mandays were lost in India on account of strikes, while lockouts accounted for 3.43 million mandays lost. Even this statistical data does not convey the entire truth: sometimes the figures are not accurate, on many occasions they are not updated. According to Labour in West Bengal (2006), only 0.62 million mandays were lost in the State due to strikes, while lockouts accounted for 20.73 million mandays lost. Only 2.90 per cent loss was due to strikes, while lockouts were responsible for 97.10 per cent. Worse, labour laws are recklessly violated to reduce labour cost and minimise the cost of production to enhance revenues. In such a situation, the only legitimate vehicle that the working class has is to raise its voice of protest and move in action.

Attacks on the Indian working masses have dangerously and diabolically intensified in the recent period. Economic reform is not only intended to advance industrialisation, it also encourages use of rigorous methods to squeeze the working class and deny its basic entitlements. Statutory benefits are not available for the vast sections of workers. Provident Fund default is high in most States even though no more than 40 million workmen are covered under the Provident Fund Welfare Scheme. Despite being entitled to such benefits, most contract and casual workers, whose numbers are swelling, are without cover. About 97 per cent of the workforce is in the unorganised sector. Lamentably, most of them are outside the pale of any social security scheme and are left to the mercy of ruthless exploiters. While working hours have been increased to more than 10 hours a day in small and medium industries, particularly in the “new wave” factories, in total violation of the law of the land, the wage is generally below the minimum, without any statutory benefits. The coverage under the Health Insurance Scheme is worse: only 10 million people of the working population are covered. Even so, there is rampant default in the payment of contribution. The Gratuity Act is systematically violated as well, with payments withheld for years even after retirement.

Contractualisation and outsourcing of work have grossly affected working conditions. Employment on contract and other forms of temporary employment are inherently exploitative. Yet such temporary employment in different forms is the essential characteristic of India’s economic reforms. People are employed on contract and casual basis, to be thrown out on the completion of the contract without any compensation. All this is to substantially cut labour cost and maximise corporate profit. This is true for the private sector; but even the public sector is equally guilty of the same mischief. Downsizing is the order of the day. Larger numbers, facing longer working hours in unbearable working conditions, receiving distress wages, are working in circumstances that have no concern for fundamental human values as aggressive capitalist growth ruins millions of people.

Rising GDP

THE evident rise in production is reflected in the rising GDP, productivity has improved but the labour force has been significantly reduced. There has been a contraction of job opportunities everywhere, particularly in the organised sector. On the one hand there is a striking increase in profit for selected units, where it has reached a new high of nearly 11.7 per cent. On the other hand, it is well established that the average real wage has declined.

The government has ceased to play an active role in protecting the working masses in a mode of industrial development that has almost abandoned all its social responsibilities.

Neither scruples nor a sense of fair play prevail as even labour courts have been rendered virtually ineffective and the process of conciliation has come to a grinding halt. The tripartite committees set up by the Central Government are in hibernation and the Labour Ministry is almost reduced to a bonded entity. Suspension and dismissal for indulging in trade union activities are rampant. Even chargesheets are not issued prior to taking penal action. Judicial remedy remains out of reach of the ordinary worker; courts are generous in granting adjournments, making the process lengthy.
Workers, who are left to deal with a situation of hire and fire, are further advised to remain passive till the elections come.

Since the economic development in the country has failed to provide enough jobs, the labour market is characterised by an alarming number of young people looking for work. This creates the perfect scenario for corporates to run amok, with absolute freedom of hiring workers at unthinkably low wages and carrying out their exploitation with impunity.

The young generation has no option, faced with the choice between distressed jobs and absolute hunger because state-sponsored aggressive capitalist development has not ensured inclusive growth. Instead, we have a dangerously jobless scenario, thanks to growth without a human face. More than 77 per cent of the population live on a Rs 20 per day consumption level, while the poorest of the poor lead an even more miserable life.

The 60 years of political freedom have not been able to provide economic independence to the vast majority of the population. Political democracy has not ushered in economic democracy; the right to vote is not accompanied by right to live. The unipolar economic system has enabled the corporates to let loose tyranny and terror and coerce the working population into accepting the unilaterally imposed working conditions.

Astounding Hypocrisy

NOW the victims of oppression are asked to accept the ordeal of life silently without even a semblance of protests. The hypocrisy is astounding. It has no parallel.

Even registration of trade unions has become difficult in this age of economic reforms. The registering authority, the State Labour Departments in different parts of the country, in collusion with the management, inform them of the moves of the workers to form unions and the workers leading the initiative; those who have filed the application for registration are summarily dismissed without even a show-cause notice. In special economic zones, such as the IT sector, trade unionism is virtually banned.

The stark reality, despite P. Chidambaram’s optimism, is that the economic growth is unstable: it has dipped to 7.9 per cent against 9.2 per cent a year ago. The GDP has been on a decline. In fact, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Committee has predicted a still lower GDP growth, pegging it at 7.7 per cent.

Manufacturing growth has almost halved to 5.6 per cent against 10.9 per cent. Agricultural growth has slipped too, at three per cent from last year’s 4.4 per cent. The other sectors to witness a serious decline in growth rate are electricity, gas and water supply. The service sector, trade and commerce, hotel and transport have also suffered setbacks. Finance, insurance, real estate and advertising business have expanded at a lower rate than last year. Even the Confederation of Indian Industry has admitted that the industrial growth during 2007-08 has slipped by 2.5 per cent over the 11 per cent achieved last year. The trade deficit has widened too. Despite India’s foreign exchange earnings at $ 315.66 billion, having increased by 50.6 per cent with a large inflow of speculative foreign funds, the Indian currency has not strengthened in proportion to the dollar.

Inflation is at a 16-year high. The global economy is facing the twin problems of slowdown and inflation. The global growth rate has retarded to 4.9 per cent in 2007 with a further slowdown on the cards, to 3.7 per cent in 2008.

The greatest decline is observed in the advanced economies, particularly in the United States where the sub-prime market continues to exacerbate financial stress. The Indian economy also shows signs of stagnation and slowdown, coupled with high inflation as it possibly heads for the dreaded stagflation. Such economic chaos can be attributed to the total mismanagement of the economy by the government.
Despite this enveloping crisis, however, sales and net profit of a sample of companies have increased by 24 per cent and 11.7 per cent respectively during March 2008 over the same period of the previous year as calculated by the CII.

Over the past decade of economic reform and the implementation of the new economic policy, hundreds of super rich Indians have accumulated a total wealth of Rs 12,32,135 crores, while 840 million have been denied the gains of development. They live in the backyard of the economy: they are the marginalised, the poor and vulnerable sections of the community, left with a mere Rs 20 or less to meet their daily consumption. The rapidly widening economic disparity and the awful inequality accentuate the economic imbalance and generate social antagonism, engendering deep anger and frustration in society.

The 400 million working masses, urban rural, organised and unorganised, are gravely hurt by the process of economic reform, concentration of wealth and pauperisation of millions. Such antagonistic social contradictions give rise to feelings of indignation and anger, which erupt into mass action and struggles. This is the logical culmination of the trend of events that has overtaken the nation. Strikes are, therefore, inevitable in a social system that is based on acute exploitation, tyranny and denial of the basic amenities of life. The vulgarity of the system that creates an island of plenty in the ocean of poverty is sure to provoke popular interventions in the form of strikes and agitations.

On May 1, 1886, thousands of engineering workers had stormed the streets of Chicago demanding an eight-hour working day and faced the brutal attack of the security forces. There were serious casualties: workers were killed and hundreds injured in the bloodbath. Handkerchiefs soaked in human blood were carried as the symbol of protest by the marchers. Thus emerged the “Red Flag” as the emblem of the trade union movement the world over. Since then strike has become the accepted form of organised protest by workers all over the world.

The working class is vitally interested in industrialisation and rapid economic growth because only economic development can create jobs for workers. The point in question is the fairness of the deal. It is not the machine alone that creates the wealth; it is the man who moves the machine. Even the most modern technology does not preclude the participation of man in the process of production.

The Reality

THEN again, those who create the social wealth in industry, agriculture, service sector, communi-cation must get a reasonable share in the value added for a decent life. The reality is quite different though, with personal wealth being sought to be amassed at the cost of the working masses, denying them their legitimate share. If the attempts to bargain for a better life fails, if the conciliation does not yield results, if the Labour Department
is unable to deliver jusice, if the state machinery acts in a partisan way, workers must move into action. If the economic policy of the government is not inclusive, if it hurts the working class, if pauperisation accentuates, the working people are bound to exercise their right to protest, go on strike.

Working class agitation acts as a corrective measure, one that corrects social anomalies and economic inequality. It has its own rightful place in a democratic set-up; if that is denied, it would lead to unilateralism and authoritarianism in society resulting in a total subversion of the democratic way of life. Is this the India that the anti-worker caucus envisions?

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