The Life of Labour: 100 Years of the Madras Labour Union, Another Factory Fire in Delhi

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100 years of the Madras Labour Union

India’s first labour union was started when workers of Buckingham and Carnatic Mills formed the Madras Labour Union on April 27, 1918. This landmark event is documented meticulously by D. Veeraraghavan in his seminal book ‘Making of the Madras Working Class’. Thozhilalar Koodam carried an excerpt from the book that shows how “the union was no doubt a historic act of resistance against colonial power and exploitation… The struggles are evidence that union could not have been formed without the support of the larger community and how this process not only pushed workers to build a strong movement to fight for their collective rights but also transformed individuals to shift their political engagement to build working class movements.”

Teachers’ strike withdrawn after scores of fasting teachers fall ill

Around 21,000 secondary school teachers from across Tamil Nadu led a hunger strike in Chennai and other towns, demanding equal pay for equal work. They were demanding that the wage disparity between teachers appointed before June 2009 and the rest be removed. After four days and with over 100 teachers falling ill during the hunger strike, the minister of education assured the teachers that the one person committee appointed to revise wages will go into the matter at the latest and recommend action. With this assurance, they have withdrawn the strike.

EPFO adds over 3 million new accounts in last 6 months, but is it a sign of job growth?

The political debate over job creation found more impetus with the EPFO releasing data about new accounts. The EPFO has announced that over 31 lakh new accounts have been opened in the last six months, with over 4.75 lakh being created in February. They are also introducing the new series of data based on payroll information. This has come as a shot in the arm for the government, facing a tight contest in Karnataka, to claim that their promise of job creation is being met. But critics have once again pointed to the fact that EPF data won’t give an accurate picture of job growth due to various factors including the enrolment of existing workers into the scheme due to the incentivises offered by the government. But even with this data, it is clear that the Indian economy is unable to generate enough jobs to absorb the nearly 1.5 crore youth reaching working age every year. This has resulted in an increasing trend of unemployment.

Work maims and kills more than war

With April 28th being World Day of Safety at Work, the ILO is preparing to launch a campaign on safety at the workplace for younger workers. This is partly because World Day against Child Labour is also coming up, but also because statistics show that young workers aged 18-25 are 40% more likely to experience non-fatal workplace injuries in the EU, and 15-24-year-olds in the US are twice as likely. The article also reports that 24.2% of workplace fatalities occur at construction sites.

Temporary and young workers are more likely to suffer from unsafe workplace practices because they think they cannot demand safe work conditions. Tsuyoshi Kawakami from ILO makes some suggestions for moving in the right direction: “Strengthening legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms, supporting active safety and health committee activities and training at the workplace, providing better health services to workers as well as safety, improving accident/disease reporting systems, and reaching small enterprises and informal economy workplaces for safety and health promotion.”

The fight over apprenticeship in Maharashtra

Though trade unions strongly objected to amendments made to the Apprentices Act, 1961, increasing the cap on apprentices hired by companies from 10% to 25%, Maharashtra ratified the amendments earlier this year.

“Uday Bhat, national secretary, AICCTU, claimed the State government isn’t interested in discussing the issue. “These changes to the Apprentices Act will destroy the livelihood of millions of genuine contract labourers. Nine national unions and around 20 from Maharashtra have submitted a written objection to the government, but it is only bothered with creating a cheap labour force.”

Migrant garment workers in Gujarat

“If you know how to stitch cloth then you will easily find work in a garment factory, but surviving here is not easy, as they squeeze you like they squeeze the clothes,” says Lakkuben, a garment worker. She is working in Narol in Gujarat, but it could ring true to any garment worker across the third world. This article in The Wire traces the stories of migrant workers from central and northern India working in garment factories in Ahmedabad and adjoining regions. Women have come to dominate the workforce in the sector. Here, like in other cities, workers recount experiences of sexual harassment, extreme work pressure, hazardous work conditions, lack of job permanence and perks. In their constant drive to increase profits, multinational clothing chains have in recent years set up production units in Narol. As a result of increased competition, garment unit owners have been imposing even more exploitative conditions on their workers.

Kerala government notification of minimum wage for nurses fails to prevent confrontation

On April 23, the government of Kerala finally notified the minimum wage for nurses in private hospitals at Rs.20,000 with additional perks depending on the size of the hospital. This comes after a prolonged struggle by Nurses at KVM hospital and other places. The associations had also given a notice for a Kerala-wide strike from May 12. The notification which raises their gross salaries by about Rs 4,000 has been contested by the nurses as well as the private hospitals. While the nurses’ associations have said that the notification does not fulfil the directive of the Supreme Court, at least one federation (Indian Nurses Association) has decided to go ahead with its strike. The private hospital owners represented by their association have said it would push them to loss while increasing health care costs. They have said that they will approach the courts if the government fails to rectify the notification. The government, on the other hand, has claimed that it will do all it takes to implement the new notification as it has promised to implement minimum wages across 80 sectors of employment. If the issue is not resolved over the week, Kerala might face a massive strike by nurses that will cripple the private healthcare sector.

Other news

Centre scraps proposal to bar outsiders from holding leadership positions in workers’ unions

The central government has said it has dropped the proposal to bar ‘outsiders’ from holding office in factory-level unions while revising the laws on industrial relations. The labour ministry has cited that the provision would be a violation of ILO code on workers’ freedom of association and therefore it is being scrapped. This provision was to be part of the Labour Code on Industrial Relations 2015 that will be tabled in parliament soon. It would amalgamate three major labour legislation including the Industrial Disputes Act, Trade Unions Act and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act.

Yet another fire accident in Delhi’s industrial area

Two workers were burnt to death when a fire broke out in a jeans manufacturing unit in Delhi’s Shahdara district. Newsclick reports that this is the sixth factory fire this year, bringing the total number of fatalities to 28. It also reports that Delhi has a total of 11 labour inspectors for its 20 lakh workers.

J&K first state to implement 7th pay commission recommendations entirely

The Jammu and Kashmir government on Tuesday approved implementation of the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission, becoming the first state in the country to do so. The decision will lead to a 20% average hike in the salary of employees, said Finance Minister Mohammad Altaf Bukhari, adding that it will benefit five lakh employees and pensioners. It will cast an additional burden of Rs 4,201 crore annually in respect to salaries and Rs 7,477 crore on account of one-time arrears on the state exchequer, he added.

H-4 visa holders no longer authorised to be employed in the US

The Trump administration is planning to discontinue allowing the spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the US, nearly 70% of whom are Indian. Whereas earlier spouses were allowed to seek employment with H-4 visas, it is possible that hundreds of families will now be separated because of this anti-immigration stance.

International news

Thousands take to the streets to protest minimum wage in South Africa

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) organised a national strike on April 25 to protest amendments to labour laws and the minimum wage rate that they describe as “slave labour”. 6000 workers flooded the streets of Johannesburg. SAFTU wrote on their website that “the marchers delivered a thunderous warning shot to the government, employers and sweetheart union leaders that the people of South Africa are angrily opposed to the proposed national minimum wage of R20 an hour minimum wage, which entrenches poverty, legitimises the apartheid wage gap and will keep thousands of workers in a daily struggle to survive to feed the family and to pay for their children’s education.” This was a sign that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which is aligned to the ruling party has lost the support of the working class who see it as compromised and are angry at the rate that it has negotiated with the government.

Solidarity award to persecuted unions in Kazakhstan

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights 2018 has been given to the independent trade unions of Kazakhstan who suffer major repression from their government. Two of the representatives chosen to receive the award are in prison. The official statement by the award committee said, “The right to organise is a human right. That right is under attack in countries like Kazakhstan, where independent trade union leaders are prosecuted and harassed by their government. There can be no human rights without trade union rights. “

Weekend reading

Are we our own tyrannical masters? Mental health in the age of neoliberalism

Psychology has often dealt with mental health from an individual’s subjectivity. But the effects of social systems on individual socialisation cannot be discounted forever. Economic systems drive sociocultural processes, setting the values, standards and mores under which individuals live and relate. Thus, the mental health of individuals has a lot to do with the sociocultural milieu and the dominant economic paradigm. A recent research by two psychologists has revealed that the tendency towards ‘perfectionism’ has been rising over the past three decades. ‘Perfectionism’ makes individuals hypersensitive to their performance and success leading to various mental illnesses like anxiety, sleeping and eating disorders, social isolation, depression and even suicide. The authors lay the burden of responsibility on the economic paradigm of neoliberalism. They maintain that the dismantling of collective systems, the excessive pressure on individuals to perform and the focus on individual success has led to a rise in mental illnesses associated with ‘perfectionism’. They also reveal that the worst part of this is the rise in levels of ‘societal perfectionism’, a tendency that makes one extremely judgemental of others and also acutely fearsome of being judged, which leads to further social isolation. An essay in Jacobin details the study and its findings while also commenting on a parallel tendency among left and progressive movements. Highlighting the effect of this on solidarity, the article calls for reintroducing collective values as the only antidote to this epidemic.

A strike for social justice and dignity: The Namasudhra strike of 1873

April is Dalit History Month and the organisers have put together a brief essay on the little-known strike by almost 800,000 Dalits in present-day Bangladesh. Started by an attack on their dignity, this strike against landlords lasted six months and led to official orders by the British against the mistreatment of Dalits.