The Life of Labour: Budget and Labour, Workers Strike at World’s Largest Copper Mine

Weekly round-up of news from the world of work.

Budget and Labour

The 2017 union budget was presented on 1st Feb with the spectre of demonetisation hanging over it. While a slew of measures and funding has been announced for the farm sector, the thrust is on crop insurance, enhanced credit and easing access for corporate and contract farming. Sadly, Jaitley’s speech didn’t have many details on the concrete step that will be taken – especially regarding his dubious claim to double the income of farmers in five years. Right now it looks like the long-standing tradition of trumpeting each budget as pro-farmer and pro-rural will continue while more states and more states suffer crisis after crisis – Tamil Nadu being the latest addition to the painfully long list.

The other major claim was that the budget saw the highest ever allocation for MGNREGA, the employment guarantee scheme that has seen a rise in demand since demonetisation. The allocation turned out to be a 1% or Rs 500 crores increase over the revised budget for last year as many have pointed out. But probably more importantly, the increased outlay still doesn’t meet the increased demand from states. Simultaneously, the current system tolerates huge delays in the payment of wages – which nullifies the purpose of the entire scheme as a safety net.

In the same vein, the Skill India programme saw two major announcements. The 4000-crore SANKALP programme meant to provide 3.5 crore youth with “market-relevant training”. The second announcement is the 2200-crore STRIVE :”to improve on the quality and the market relevance of vocational training provided in ITIs and strengthen the apprenticeship programme through industry-cluster approach”, according to Livemint.

The Hindu reported that beedi workers would benefit from the budget with a greater housing subsidy and better EPF and ESI coverage on the cards.

On taxation, the finance minister maintained the tax slabs while reducing the base rate from 10% to 5%. This will reduce the tax burden on those earning more than 5 lakhs by Rs 12,500 this year.

But the overall process of labour reforms still continues into the budget session. One proposal currently in parliament is making it easier for companies to retrench workers. Previously, companies with more than a hundred employees had to seek permission to retrench their permanent workers but this limit is now being extended to 300. The amendment to the payment of wages bill (first passed as an ordinance) that allows companies to pay their employees via cheque or bank transfer without getting their approval beforehand has been passed.


Sanitation Workers

Sanitation Workers in Delhi and Vijayawada in the news again for not having been paid. 2700 contract workers (sweepers) employed by Bombay Municipal Corporation were declared to be permanent staff by a high court order. Chennai also saw a 1000 workers stay overnight outside the Ripon building demanding permanency.

Garment Workers

Reuters recently reported on the difficulties faced by women labourers in receiving compensation for their work-related injuries: “I lost my fingers, my livelihood and my confidence,” says Mahalakshmi, a Tamil Nadu mill worker.

The unionists and workers arrested during Bangladesh’s onslaught against those fighting for minimum wage have still not been released.

Inspiration: Victory Song of the Dressmakers, a 1936 ballad by International Ladies Garment Workers Union for you to listen to this Sunday morning.


Workers Strike at Escondida, the World’s Largest Copper Mine

Workers at the largest copper mine in the world began a strike on Feb 9th after negotiations between the union and BHP Billiton, mediated by the Chilean government, reached a dead end. The union is negotiating wages after four years and are demanding that the company implement a benefits scheme that will apply equally to all workers – new and old. The company has declared it won’t be able to meet its contractual obligations and copper prices are expected to go up globally as the unions buckle down for the long haul.

China and Labour

A report on the state of labour in Chinese industries in Africa states, as labour scholars and activists have been saying for a long time, that ‘China is not the model’: “They offer the worst conditions of all foreign investors,” says a trade union activist in Zambia, where industrial strife in Chinese mining projects is routine. We are talking about low wages, limited knowledge transfer, precarious health and safety conditions and dealings between Chinese foremen and local workers that are often tantamount to maltreatment.

An article in Jacobin says, “Under China’s labor management system, independent unionism is strictly banned, and the state’s official trade union body monopolises worker representation. That means that all of China’s 806,498,521 workers are barred from forming independent organisations to agitate for their interests — in an economy where the poorest 25 percent of households own just 1 percent of the country’s total wealth, and where long hours, safety hazards, and authoritarian management define life in the factories.” The article includes an excerpt from a book written by Chinese labourers describing their day-to-day lives.

But trade unionism is growing and strikes and protests are getting more and more common in the country, a recent book titled A New Deal for China’s Workers by Cynthia Estlund analyses this recent trend in light of the what happened in America during the 20th century.

This leads us to a new section debuting this week:

Books and Reviews

  1. Lotus – Lijia Zhang

China’s sex-worker is as ubiquitous as it is undiscussed. A recent novel, Lotus by Lijia Zhang, draws on extensive interaction with the girls who work in the trade to weave a story “rich in Chinese proverbs, as well as folk wisdom of a more prosaic variety”, according to an NPR review. Amitav Ghosh on his blog says that, “Although it pulls no punches it is saturated with the spirit of stoic optimism that sustains millions of rural migrants around the world.”

In an interview, Zhang discusses how girls are drawn to sex-work: “Quite a few women I interviewed worked very hard on production lines in factories for very little money. Then they talked among their friends and found out about jobs in massage parlours. In the beginning, the line is often blurred — some places offer legitimate massages and also sexual services, so women will start off doing normal massages and gradually start adding on sexual services when they see how much more money they can make.”

  1. Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985-87 – Peter Shapiro

“[The book] tells the story of an 18-month struggle by 1,000 frozen food workers in Watsonville, California, during which not a single striker crossed the picket line. Instead, a union workforce composed mostly of Mexican immigrant women forced the company owner into bankruptcy, and waged a five-day wildcat strike against the new plant owner to keep their health benefits intact.”

  1. The Death and Life of American Labor – Stanley Arononowitz

“Stanley Aronowitz constructs a wide-ranging criticism of how American unions have functioned in the last four decades. He uses a historical understanding of the labour movement and numerous examples, to examine what ails the labour movement in the present. Finally he states a vision for the future of the labour movement based on successful social struggles in other spheres, like the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.”

  1. In case you’re looking for more book recommendations: Thozhilalar Koodam’s excellent interview with V. Geetha on Class and Caste in Tamil Literature and Labornotes’ list of favourite novels picked by labour organisers, activists and educators.


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