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The Indian working class was a proud participant in the anti-imperialist struggle against British rule in India.
Whether it was the six-day strike of the working class of Mumbai in 1908 – one day for each year of the sentence of Bal Gangadhar Tilak; the attempts of the Ghadar Party organised by Punjabi immigrant workers in Canada, who sailed to India in 1914 to overthrow the British; the four-day old Solapur Commune of 1930, when the workers took over the city, that ended in the hanging of four workers Mallapa Dhanshetty, Qurban Hussain, Jaganath Shinde and Shrikrishna Sharda; the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929 in which 31 working class leaders from all corners of India were rounded up and tried in what became a focus of international solidarity; the storming of the Calcutta Congress Session by the workers in 1930 spurring on the “Poorna Swaraj Resolution”; the actions of the Kisan Sabha and the Workers Peasants Party which in 1937 led to resolutions of zamindari abolition by the United Provinces; the actions of the dock workers of Mumbai and Kolkata in 1945 refusing to load ships taking supplies to British troops during the Second World War; and finally the heroic support of the Mumbai working class led by the Communists to the Mutiny of the ratings of the Royal Indian Navy in 1946, which received no support from either the Congress or the Muslim League, but which resonated in massive protests not only of Indian recruits in the Navy and Air Force from Karachi to Calcutta, but also the citizens of Ahmedabad and Trichinopoly. This proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the British Raj. The official count of the civilian fatalities in Mumbai on February 24, 1946 was 236 but unofficial sources say more than 400 workers and common people lost their lives.
During this period, the All India Trade Union Congress, the first working-class federation, which later on became affiliated to the Communist Party of India, had an extremely broad political support and its presidents ranged from Lala Lajpat Rai to Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and Sarojini Naidu. The organisation of the Independent Labour Party by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in 1937, which contested several successful elections, also played an important role in raising the consciousness of the workers of the depressed classes.
On the other hand, in 1944, “A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India” (popularly known as the ‘Bombay Plan’) was published, the signatories of which were J. R. D. Tata, Ghanshyam Das Birla, Ardeshir Dalal, Lala Shri Ram, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Ardeshir Darabshaw Shroff, Purushottamdas Thakurdas and John Mathai. The Bombay Plan advocated an interventionist state and an economy with a significant public sector. Evidently the capitalist class at that time sought to channelise nationalist aspirations into developing a sound infrastructure that could lay the foundation for a thriving domestic private industry.
The early wins
Our Constitution bears the stamp of these values both in Articles 23 and 24 (Fundamental Rights Against Exploitation) which prohibit forms of forced labour and the employment of children below 14 years of age; but more importantly in the Directive Principles of State Policy which are described as being “not enforceable by any court” but “nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country”. These include promoting and protecting a social order of social, economic and political justice and the minimising of inequalities in income, status and opportunities (Article 38); the right to an adequate means of livelihood, distribution of the ownership and control of material resources of the community to subserve the common good, an economic system which does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production, equal pay for men and women, and that the health and strength of workers and the tender age of children are not abused for reasons of economic necessity (Article 39); effective provision for securing the right to work and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness, disablement, and other cases of undeserved want (Article 41); just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief (Article 42); a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and social and cultural opportunities including promoting cottage industries on co-operative basis in rural areas (Article 43). No doubt these sentiments are also imbued in the Preamble to the Constitution more specifically so with the addition of the word “socialist”.
Of course, in practice, whatever the working class achieved in terms of wages, or standard of living, or rights to unionise, or protection from precarity in the century following 1920 when the AITUC was formed and the earliest labour laws were promulgated, was through extremely hard-fought battles extracting great sacrifices. The Factories Act limiting working hours and setting safety standards; the Industrial Disputes Act laying down a procedure for conciliation and adjudication of disputes; and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act regulating the grading of workers and disciplinary action upon then; The Employees State Insurance Act providing, apart from general health needs of the worker and his/her family, also for the diagnosis and treatment of occupational diseases; and The Minimum Wages Act which protected the workers from starvation-wages were all enacted in the initial years following independence.
In the 1950s, different groups of workers, through their striking power, were able to get passed The Dock Workers Act, The Mines Act, The Plantation Act, The Cine Workers Act and even The Working Journalists Act. This was followed by the Payment of Bonus (in proportion with profits earned) and Payment of Gratuity Act in the 1960s. With the recognition of collective bargaining between the recognised central trade unions and industry bodies, industry-wide national standards for wages and safety through periodic revisions by the Steel Wage Board, Cement Wage Board, and the Coal Wage Board came into existence.
A growing private sector
Even as the workers struggled ahead like the legendary Sisyphus pushing the stone uphill, the growing political clout of private industry in politics which first fed on, then competed with, and finally overtook the public sector, meant that the public sector now had to “make profits” rather than be “the agent of peripheral social and economic upliftment.” As the time went on, permanent workers were seen as lazy and overpaid, unions were demonised, demands grew for labour flexibilities (ie hire and fire), and even the most basic regulation began to be designated “Inspector Raj”.
This meant growing levels of mechanisation to cut manpower, but even more – contractualisation for cost cutting, even when technology remained unchanged. In the setting up of the public sector, (while farmers and tribals were often unjustly dispossessed) a large concentrated working force of directly employed “permanent workers” had been created. Just as an example, the Bhilai Steel Plant set up in the late 1950s had an initial manpower of 96,000 permanent workers. Now there are about 10,000 permanent workers and around 40,000 contractual workers paid not even a third of their wages. In the cement industry the proportion of permanent workers has come down to 10% or even lower.
The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 was one of the last Acts passed in favour of labour in the industrial sector. The Act lays out in its Statement of Objects and Reasons that, ”It was the general consensus of opinion that the system should be abolished wherever possible and where this system could not be abolished all together, the working conditions of contract labour should be regulated so as to ensure payment of wages and provision of essential amenities.” The route of abolition was to be through government notifications as also through the inquiries and recommendations of the Advisory Boards.
Also read: In Illustrations: May Day and Its History
A few important notifications were made – for instance in cleaning jobs in government concerns, but then not only did the notifications stop, but the subsequent orders under the Act were usually for exemption from some prior notification! Even so the struggle of contract workers for regularisation and parity with permanent workers continued. The “unkindest cut of all” came in the form of the Judgment of a 5 Member Bench of the Supreme Court in 2001 (SAIL & Ors. Vs National Union Water Front Workers & Ors), which ruled that even if contract workers were found working against posts in which contract labour had been abolished, it would not result in absorption of those contract workers, but rather they would be retrenched and the positions would be filled through the proper recruitment process. Which contract worker would now go to court to get their job abolished?
Contractualisation basically means that workers have the threat of losing their jobs hanging over their head; they cannot unionise, and they are usually paid at most the minimum wages stipulated the state government, even when they may be carrying out skilled and hazardous work in the core production of an industry.
The epic Railway Strike in 1974 involving 17 lakh workers had brought the country to a standstill for 20 days. It is said to have been one of the precipitating factors for the Emergency being promulgated, and eventually for a new regime to come to power. It also marked the beginning of a rapid casualisation and contractualisation of railway workers. Today apart from the loco-pilots and the travelling ticket examiners, no one else is employed by the Railways including the Catering Staff, the Cleaning Staff, and even the Gangmen.
The Great Strike of the textile workers of Mumbai in 1982 involving about 2.5 lakh workers of 65 mills ended tragically with mill closures and mass dismissals. Till today, workers of many of the closed mills await their final dues. The city of Mills has in the last three decades become a city of interspersed slums and Malls. A large proportion of the families of the old mill hands continue in the city as self-employed in informal micro businesses or driving autos/taxis.
The brave struggle of the workers of Maruti Suzuki, Gurgaon from 2011-12, for recognition of their union and regularising contract workers, despite having forged remarkable unities with other workers of the region, was crushed mercilessly. Even today a handful of leaders remain in jail accused of conspiring to kill a manager.
The long road ahead
Today in terms of employment share, the unorganised sector employs 83% of the work force and there is only 17% in the organised sector. However, if we look at the nature of employment, 92.4% of all workers are informal workers, ie those with no written contract and thus excluded from the benefits of labour laws.
The pitiful levels of wage of the working class has been starkly stated in a recent report of the International Labour Organisation (“Wage and Minimum Wage in the time of COVID-19”). It says that real wage growth in India was one of the lowest in Asia. India’s “real wage” grew by a paltry 2.8% in 2015, 2.6% in 2016, and 2.5% in 2017, while it remained flat in 2018. Even among its immediate neighbours, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, and Nepal, India’s real wage growth was poor. Pakistan’s wage grew 8.9% in 2015, and 4% each for the next three years, Vietnam grew between 3.7% and 12.4%, while China grew by 5.5-7% in the past four years. Even prior to Covid, in 2018, the report claimed that in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms) India’s gross monthly wage of $215 was third from the lowest after Bangladesh and Solomon Island among the 30 countries of the Asia Pacific Region.
According to the Union labour minister, 1.14 crore of workers walked back to their villages during the lockdown, 30 lakh of them from Uttar Pradesh alone. How precarious the condition of these workers was, can be seen by the fact that they did not even have enough surplus to last a week after the lockdown was declared. A large proportion of them returned, as agriculture could not support them, and rural wages had also declined. According to the ILO, after COVID-19, informal workers saw a 22.6% fall in wages, even as formal sector employees had their salaries cut by 3.6% on an average. The middle class, enraptured by consumer services, fails to see the tragedy of the impoverished Zomato/Swiggy/Amazon delivery boy on his ramshackle bicycle, weaving in and out of traffic at a frantic pace, at all times of day and night at starvation wages.
Today, in a time when only a tiny percent of the working people are unionised, and various sections of the unorganised sector are struggling to get specific laws passed and implemented in their favour – notably the construction workers, domestic workers, safai karmacharis, hawkers – the Central government has chosen to bring in four Labour Codes replacing 46 existing labour laws. Almost all unions across the political spectrum including on many occasions the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh affiliated to the BJP, have expressed apprehension regarding the impact of this enormous sea change of legal regime.
Forming a trade union has been made more difficult; the concept of a permanent worker or a Principal Employer have been abolished – now there will be term contracts and the contractor will be the employer; a vaguely defined floor wage (can anything be less than a minimum?) has been suggested; the requirement of maintenance of several kinds of registers and inspections has been done away with and replaced by self-certification; and trade unions will no longer have access to balance sheets to negotiate bonuses. A Joint Platform of Trade Unions called for a general strike on March 28-29 which many independent unions also supported. The demands were for scrapping the four labour codes, opposing privatisation and the National Monetisation Pipeline, supporting the demand for MSP for the farmers, enhancing the minimum wage etc. Though around five crore workers in the coal, steel, banking, postal services, copper, oil sectors did indeed strike work, the silence of the government is deafening.
Alas Sisyphus, the stone has to be rolled up all over again. But be sure, it will.
Sudha Bharadwaj is a human rights activist, trade unionist and lawyer.
This article was first published in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties bulletin.