The Life of Labour: Feminism and Class Struggle, IT Employees at Wipro Refuse to Resign

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Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Feminism and class struggle

There’s often a lot of debate on whether the feminist movement and the working class movement are sensitive to each other’s causes. While some feminist movements are accused of elitism and class blindness, working class movements are accused of failing to break away from patriarchy. This debate is being decisively answered by the struggles of women workers from the third world. Two recent articles on working class action in South Korea and Argentina reveal this phenomenon.

In South Korea, the women employed as contract workers in public schools have organised themselves into an effective force to demand regularisation of their jobs, wage parity with the regular workers and the reduction of work intensity to improve their working conditions. This struggle has challenged an economic model that keeps workers in precarious conditions in order to exploit them. Further, it has also challenged the dominant patriarchal ideas that had undervalued the work of women and hindered their attempts at organising. Pak Ghem-Ja, a school cafeteria worker and union organiser, juggles her role at home, at work and with the union. She says, “One day I sat my husband and children down and said to them, ‘All these years, I’ve lived my life for my family. I didn’t have a life of my own. I just want one year to live my own life. So, let’s divide up the house work.” Seong Jeong-rim, the head of the Seoul division of the National School Irregular Workers Union, says their fight is just beginning. “The most important demand of the ‘candlelight revolution’ that ousted previous President Park Geun-hye was systemic change, and the biggest systemic failure in South Korean society is class polarisation,” she said. Women workers like Pak and Seong say they are determined to fight to eradicate precarious labour conditions in South Korea.

At the recently closed PepsiCo factories in Argentina, women workers are at the forefront of the struggle. In July, when the announcement came, they braved all odds to occupy the factory and faced government repression. Their struggle, and the support they received from fellow workers, forced the labour court to order the reinstatement of the workers. This struggle too has seen a long history of conflict between the management and the precarious underpaid women workers.

An article by Tatiana Cozzarelli brings out the impact of the struggle in challenging patriarchy as well as neoliberalism. By juxtaposing the ordeals of the women workers with that of the female CEO of PepsiCo, the article argues that scaling individual peaks of professional success is not the true liberation of women but a collective effort towards structural social reform that eradicates exploitation of all kinds is required.

The women workers at PepsiCo were subjected to harsh working conditions that often extended 12 hours a day. The fear of losing their job often forced them into submission. Eventually, they began to organise. The management came down heavily against them and the leaders faced terminations. However, the struggle continued and was not only able to win back the workers’ jobs but improve working conditions and force the management to even hire workers with disabilities. But according to one of the organisers Catalina Balaguer, “the real victories were in the understanding of workers at PepsiCo. The struggle cost us suspensions, firings and threats, but we would do it again a million times if it changes the consciousness of tons of women who are not willing to resign themselves to the misery of this system.” The struggle and the leadership of women also broke patriarchal barriers. Catalina Balaguer says, “We have advanced with unity between male and female workers because we understand that our enemy is the boss who has demonstrated, with a sign on the door, that gender doesn’t matter when it is time to fire us. We decide, we organise ourselves, we have assemblies, we vote (in the assemblies) and fight alongside our male co-workers: not ahead of them, not behind them. At their side, standing firm for our rights.”

Assam makes it easier to retrench workers in the name of labour reforms

ET reports, “In a major labour reform, Assam has enacted the Industrial Disputes (Assam Amendment) Bill, 2017, which authorises employers to retrench up to 300 employees without seeking approval of the government.” A similar amendment was being discussed by the state government of Maharashtra but was opposed by unions and the Shiv Sena. As the reason for the change, a government official stated that enterprises were not hiring more than a hundred people just to avoid the restriction of the Industrial Disputes Act (IDA). This seems to be a common justification offered by those in favour of labour reforms. But based on their own research, a contrary opinion can be found in the 2017 National Institute of Public Finance and Policy working paper Employment, Education and the State.

The author, Sudipto Mundle, while acknowledging that the Act is a deterrent to hiring more workers, says, “However, the negative employment impact of this particular law is overstated in my view. It only applies to firms in the organised sector that are relatively large by Indian standards. As I have mentioned earlier, only 20 percent of the Indian workforce is employed in the organised sector, and of that about half are contractual employees whose removal would not attract IDA provisions. In fact, if IDA was such an important constraint, we would expect to see a bunching of firms close to or just below the 100-employee threshold. No such bunching is evident.”

TN government assures the High Court that it will settle Rs. 1136 crore due to transport staff

Following a series of strikes, a division bench of the Madras High Court ordered agitating transport workers to return to work or face action under the Essential Services Maintenance Act 1968. According to a ToI report, an 82-year-old retired employee wrote a postcard to the judges complaining “that his retirement benefits had not been settled 24 years since his superannuation and that hundreds of other retired employees too were facing similar hardship. He accused the judges of having passed a harsh order against the striking employees, one of whose demands was the restoration of terminal benefits to retired employees, without knowing the ground situation and the government’s failure to honour its statutory liabilities”. The judges treated the postcard as a PIL and took up the case suo moto. When the PIL came up for hearing, the advocate general gave an undertaking that Rs. 1136 crores in dues would be settled by October 7.

Cook charged with ‘impersonation’ for lying about her caste

Pune police has booked a domestic cook on the complaint of her employer who has alleged that she lied about being a ‘Brahmin’ by caste when she was not. The employer, a scientist with the India Meteorological Department, has maintained that such impersonation has ‘hurt her religious sentiments. The cook has denied having lied. The fact that the complainant is a highly educated scientist only goes to show the depth and virulence of caste discrimination in Indian society. It also reveals a lacuna in our criminal justice system, where it is not criminal on the part of a private citizen to discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or gender.

Unions condemn murder of eminent journalist Gauri Lankesh

Media associations have condemned the murder of Gauri Lankesh, an eminent journalist and editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada journal. She was known for her strident criticism of Hindutva politics and communal polarisation. It is feared that her murder is the latest in a series of murders of rationalist thinkers. Journalist unions across India took to the streets in protest of this brazen act to suppress dissent and freedom of expression. Trade unions including CITU, NTUI, NDLF and NFF have also issued statements condemning the murder.

IT employees refuse to resign, take dispute to labour department

More than 20 employees of Wipro’s Chennai operations gathered on August 31 to meet the labour officer before whom they have filed an industrial dispute alleging that they are on the verge of illegal termination. “Despite the threats to blacklist us and create problems with our conduct/experience certificate, some of us refused to resign. Soon after our refusal, we were ‘benched’,” said one employee who suddenly found himself on the verge of losing his livelihood. NDLF, which is organizing the IT workers at Wipro, is demanding that all benched employees’ profiles be released, allowances (deducted during the time that employees are on bench) be reimbursed and their variable pay restored. In the meanwhile, they will continue to be paid their salaries. The union is also demanding that the employees who have resigned under duress be given their jobs back. Going further than the current layoff issue, they have also demanded that the union be recognised and that all policy changes be discussed with the union or with individual employees who must consent to it. The representatives of the management, who had initially refused to attend the conciliation discussions with the joint labour commissioner, finally attended the fourth meeting and have agreed to respond to the demands raised by the workers on September 18.

Other news:

NDA government drops plan to recognise transgender labour rights

Labour ministry officials have confirmed to The Hindu that separate clauses for transgender people have been dropped from the Wage Code Bill and the proposed amendments to the Factory Act of 1948. This was due to a decision by the law ministry.

Nike cuts a fifth of its workforce in India, more cuts to follow

Nike India has reportedly fired 20% of its staff in India as part of a downsizing operation. This comes after an earlier announcement by Nike’s CEO that 1400 jobs would be cut as the shoe manufacturer decided to focus on selling shoes online. However, Moneycontrol reports that the staff are being given the option of joining the South-East Asia operations.

Teachers commemorate Teachers’ Day by courting arrest, demanding wage review

The Hindu reports that “Protesting under the banners of the All India Federation of University & College Teachers’ Organisations (AIFUCTO) and the Federation of Central University Teachers’ Associations (FEDCUTA), they were demonstrating against non-declaration of the Chauhan Pay Review Committee Report, that was submitted over six months ago. Their demands included 100% funding for Central and State universities, and opposition to alleged attempts by the government to impose ‘autonomous colleges’ and ‘graded autonomy of universities’.” In Tamil Nadu, a number of other teachers’ unions were on strike on September 7 demanding the return of the old pension system and other interim relief.

Weekend reading

Cop organisers aren’t comrades

The recent election of a police union organiser to the core committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a left-wing party that has been growing tremendously over the last year, has seen an eruption of an old argument – the relationship between police and workers and the idea of police as workers. Here’s an interesting essay on Left Voice.

Trade liberalisation and women’s employment intensity

This EPW paper “analyses the role of various trade-related factors in determining female employment intensity in a panel of India’s manufacturing industries during 1998–2011. Import tariff rate is found to exert a negative effect on female employment intensity, supporting the hypothesis that firms, when exposed to international competition, tend to reduce costs by substituting male with female workers.”

The paper also reports that trade liberalisation leads to increased demand for female workers only when it means that the jobs are being transferred to unskilled labour-intensive industries. Also, the adoption of new technology tends to bias the gender composition of the workforce against females. “Liberalisation has not led to large growth of female employment in India because the resource reallocation effect has not been strong enough to offset the negative technology effect.”

Bonus: The Sociological Images blog has put together a massive resource on various sociological studies into labour issues for US Labour Day that falls on the first Monday of September.

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