Labour

The Life of Labour: How NAFTA Affects Ordinary Workers, Unions in Space

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Illustration by Aliza Bakht

Illustration by Aliza Bakht

How NAFTA affects ordinary workers

The third round of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) resumed in Ottawa, Canada this week. A number of issues are being discussed, including labour conditions in Mexico and right to work laws in the United States.

‘Yellow’ unions in Mexico

CBC News reports, “Canada is pushing for the inclusion of enforceable, progressive labour standards in a rewritten North American Free Trade Agreement, aimed at compelling Mexico to pay workers higher wages and do away with so-called “yellow” unions that represent employers rather than employees”. An article in The Washington Post on the extremely low wages for automobile workers in Mexico adds, “Critics have long accused Mexican unions of doing more to control workers than represent them. The country’s biggest labour federation forms part of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.” The companies sign “protection contracts’ with the unions long before the bulk of the employees are hired. These contracts lock in low wages and minimal increases.

In India, these employer-dominated unions are usually referred to as management unions. They tend to draw their power from the support of the employers and inevitably act in a way that compromises the rights of the workers. But since there is no real litmus test to tell if a union is under the sway of the employer, workers regularly get misled by sham negotiations and regressive contracts.

In the NAFTA talks, Canada acknowledges that improving the labour conditions in Mexico is advantageous to them as well. Low wages in Mexico are bad for workers in other countries as they’re essentially forced to compete. “Canadian workers have legitimate anxieties about the ways in which international trade can lead to a race to the bottom in labour standards and can erode their own living standards and their own wages,” said the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“Right to Work” in the US

Canadians also opposed what conservatives and Republicans in the USA call the ‘right to work’ laws. While 28 states in the US have such ‘right to work’ laws already, the United States Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to hear a case on the matter. Ignoring the right-wing euphemism, the laws themselves actually deal with whether unions, mostly public sector unions, can require workers who aren’t members of the unions to still contribute to the union’s collective bargaining activities. The justification is that collective bargaining benefits all workers, union or not. If the Supreme Court votes against letting unions deduct fees from non-members, then most unions will lose a substantial part of their incomes and subsequently be lesser equipped to represent the interests of the workers. The current split of the Supreme Court implies that the conservatives will get a 5-4 ruling in their favour which would be a huge blow to organised labour in the public sector.

Conservancy workers in Bangalore caught in feud between government, contractors

Pourakarmikas, Bangalore municipality’s conservancy workers, are caught in the crossfire between BBMP (Bruhut Bangaluru Mahanagar Palike) and the private contractors hired to clear the city’s garbage. Since September 23, the private contractors have stopped collecting and disposing solid waste in the Bangalore municipal region. Earlier, the contractors had gone on a similar undeclared strike on August 28 and 29. These actions were to force BBMP to not go ahead with its commitment to end the contract labour system and regularise the contract workers (Pourakarmikas) by paying their wages directly rather than route it through the private contractors.

As media reports the end of the strike, Technicians Guild in Chennai still battles on

We’ve reported a number of times on the ongoing battle between the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) and the Tamil Nadu Producers Council (TNPC) over wages and working conditions. After two “indefinite strikes”, FEFSI expelled the South India Cine and TV Outdoor Technicians Union (aka the Technicians Union) and came to an agreement with the TNPC. The Technicians Union, the group that started the entire agitation, has been left high and dry. The ramifications of their expulsion aren’t clear but it might mean that non-union technicians might start being employed by the TNPC which could set a dangerous precedent for workers’ rights.

Other news

5000 electricity workers in Odisha protest for a living wage: They held a protest in Bhubaneshwar, demanding a wage increase from 4,000 to 18,000 rupees per month and the regularisation of outsourced employees. They cited a significant rise in the cost of living and a poor record of safety measures that leads to around 50 workers’ deaths every year.

Last three years show stagnant employment growth: In the EPW, Vinjoy Abraham of the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, analyses employment data from the Labour Bureau and states that there was “an absolute decline in employment during the period 2013–14 to 2015–16, perhaps happening for the first time in independent India.” Read the full story here.

Weekend reading

Unions in space: The Baffler publishes what might be the first ever video game review to be linked in a labour newsletter. In the game in question, Tacoma, you play “an independent contractor in the transorbital gig economy who’s been dispatched to the titular space station to recover the station’s AI core, and discover what happened to its six human crew members.” Interestingly, each member of the crew was a member of the Orbital Workers’ Union and through the course of the investigation, their stories and the daily struggles of their lives come out through tight narrative. As the author says, it’s a strange place to find pro-labour art. But at a time where the lack of an exciting vision of the future, it helps to remember that even in the future, solidarity will “never go out of style”.

Labour law, governance reforms, and protests: Are they legitimate?: In the EPW, K R Shyam Sundar and Rahul Suresh Sapkal write, “In the post-reform period, 17 strikes have taken place that have effectively put the labour law reforms on hold at the national level, sensitised public opinion, provided ammunition to sustain the working class movement, brought the non-committal government to the dialogue table, gradually built broad-based unity within the working class movement, managed to get several concessions though not sufficient, pushing the frontiers of dialogue to large systemic issues, and articulated the aspirations of the new working class. However, strains exist within the working-class movement. Labour law and governance reforms are happening at the decentralised levels. Union rivalries revel at the micro level despite a semblance of unity at the national level, while the management is able to achieve labour flexibility that could not be provided by law.”