Life of Labour: Teachers' Strike in Tamil Nadu; Of Coal Mines and Canaries

Latest news updates from the world of work.

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Public school teachers in Tamil Nadu continue strike amidst crackdown

Government employees as well as teachers of government schools in Tamil Nadu have been on strike since January 21 demanding, among other things, a reversion to the old pension scheme as against the new ‘defined contribution’ pension scheme. 

The state government warned them of severe action and even the imposition of the Essential Services Maintenance Act. It cracked down on the leadership, making arrests and suspending leaders. On January 26, in Coimbatore, the Times of India reported, “The city police detained about 2,500 protestors, more than 70% of who were women… In Tirupur, more than 3,000 government school teachers and government employees were detained for more than 12 hours.” The teachers said the police didn’t provide them any food or water while they were detained.

Chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has appealed to the workers, claiming that the government has no financial strength to fulfil their demands given the rehabilitation costs for Gaja cyclone. He has also appealed to them to return to work. Other ministers have used sterner language, saying there is no possible option to return to the old pension scheme as the salaries and pension commitments of the state are already at 71% of their expenses.     

The government had also warned that if the teachers (roughly 12,000) didn’t return to work on January 28, their positions will be deemed as vacant and filled with temporary workers. In spite of the threats and police crackdown, the employees and teachers seem to be standing steadfast. When they didn’t meet the deadline and continued to strike, thousands were arrested across multiple cities. The government has also started making temporary appointments. The Hindu reports that the workers might even intensify their actions.

Death At Work

Coal mines and canary birds

In medieval times, it was common practice to send canaries into mines as a precaution. If the birds died, it was a warning to the workers that the air was toxic. In the present day, workers have come to replace canaries. Even before every single body from the ‘rat mine’ in Meghalaya has been removed, multiple cases from Jharkhand of mine collapses have emerged. Here is yet another story of ‘illegal’ coal mines leaving workers dead.

Seven workers killed after building collapses in Gurgaon

On January 24, an under construction building collapsed in Gurgaon, killing seven workers who were at work in the building at the time of the collapse. The fire department and SDRF rushed into rescue the workers, but was too late.

The workers were constructing the fourth floor of the four storey building that had not taken any building permits as it falls just outside the city limits. The workers came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and were masons and electricians, who were also accommodated in the same building. The owner was arrested after three days and charged under sections of IPC for negligence causing death.

However, with lenient regulations, and a burgeoning urban sprawl, the sarpanch of the area says there are many more illegal constructions, and there is little the administration can do to tame the owners.

In Surat, police have arrested the contractor of a deceased worker who fell to his death from a building under construction. The operations to recover the bodies of dead miners from the mines in Meghalaya continue with a second body having been identified well into the second month.   

Agricultural Crisis

Taking stock of NDA’s promise to the farmers

The NDA government, which came to power at a time of deep crisis in the the agrarian economy that the welfare programmes of the UPA had not been able to mitigate, had promised to double farm incomes by 2022.

As the NDA’s first term comes to a close, the agriculture sector has only fallen deeper into crisis mode. It is one of the main reasons behind the recent poll debacles faced by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut that had reaped one victory after another. But farmers are facing a grave crisis once again due to market forces pushing the price of their produce into deflationary territory. Down to Earth examines the impact of such pricing and takes stock of the government claims.

There are expectations that the budget, though an interim affair, will increase spending in the agricultural sector and offer meaningful policy alternatives to recoup the farmers facing debt spirals and adverse market conditions. Indiaspend has done an analysis of the budget spending in the last four years and infers that while the state spending in the sector has doubled since 2013, it has merely kept pace with the increase in revenues while the proportion of expenditure remains the same at about 2%.

Precarious Work

Social security or social exclusion?

For over four years, the NDA government has been hobnobbing about comprehensive labour reforms and the restructuring of labour laws into four labour codes. With only a single truncated parliament session pending before the general elections, there is once again talk of pushing through these labour codes. One of them is supposed to overhaul social security and worker welfare legislations to cover not just the formal sector but also the informal sector workers. But the institutional mechanisms, the entry criteria and out of pocket costs, make it exclusionary. The article in Scroll details the concerns of labour activists, trade unionist and researchers.

ILO’s prescription to deal with future disruptions

The age of artificial intelligence has transformed the future of labour, adding to the deep anxieties of workers who have little control over the deployment or the development of these technologies. However the International Labour Organization, acknowledging the ongoing disruptions in the labour market, claims in a recent report that the future can be different if dystopian cynicism is avoided and state policies are redesigned to provide lifelong social protection, that will allow people to commit to lifelong learning, keeping pace with the changes that technology will usher into our economic activity.

Read about the recommendations in detail here. 

Defence production workers on strike against creeping privatisation

Over four lakh workers, employed in 42 defence production facilities, went on a three-day strike against privatisation of the defence production industry. This is the first time that employees across all defence facilities have put up a united fight. Even officers are supporting the strike. The workers claim that the defence production industry is being privatised to boost profits of large private corporations such as those of the Ambanis and Gautam Adani.

But the ministry has refused to rethink the process, claiming it was a government policy towards privatisation, The workers have refused to negotiate and make a compromise and have said that they will continue their protest.  

Gender and Work

Video: Anganwadi workers occupy Ramlila Maidan

TimesNow recently reported that “more than 20,000 government workers” across India came together in Delhi to fight for a decent minimum wage. These workers were almost all women – ASHA workers, anganwadi workers, mid-day meal employees, etc, who have been protesting for months across various states. Similar to the farmers’ march, they are organising a “Delhi Chalo” action of their own. Yet, their voices have hardly been covered in the media.


Activists demand Act to protect rights of fishermen

A number of organisations have come together to demand a Fishers Rights Act to protect the rights of fisherfolk and coastal communities. The Hindu reports, “Such an Act would safeguard their lands, livelihood rights and habitat, said Jesurethinam Christy, convenor, Coastal Action Network (CAN).”

The government has been going in the opposite direction by gutting the existing protections of coastal lands. This will lead to more precarity among fisherfolk communities as their land is more likely to be usurped by developers.

International News

Canadian Union deplores Canada’s support for the coup in Venezuela

Venezuela is in grave crisis after the opposition pushed for a coup by anointing the president of their national assembly as the interim president in a bid to oust elected president Nicolas Maduro. The opposition has also appealed to the military to support the coup. This attempt was immediately supported by the US, its western allies in NATO, and other countries in Latin America.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees has issued a statement against its government’s support for the coup and interventionist US policy. “The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) rejects any attempt by the Canadian government to interfere with the democratic processes and sovereignty of the Venezuelan people. Given the history of US involvement in the region, the actions of [Juan] Guaidó have all the signs of a coup d’etat. We warn Prime Minister Justin Trudeau against playing any role in bringing about regime change in another country.” read the statement.

Similar coups were staged in Libya, Syria and even Ukraine before the western democracies intervened in these countries. It ought to be noted that Venezuela sits on some of the largest known reserves of oil in the world.

Workers force the end of US government shut down, politicians take credit

“As recently as Thursday evening, elected officials were engaged in theatrical, go-nowhere resolutions with no real chance of reopening the government. But by Friday afternoon, President Trump abruptly announced a deal to reopen the government, at least temporarily. What changed in less than 24 hours? Massively disruptive worker sickouts and the threat of strikes.” Read more at Jacobin Magazine.