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March For a Minimum Living Wage

Srinivasan Ramani (srini@epw.in) is an editor with EPW. 

On 12 December 2013, more than a lakh workers predominantly from the unorganised sector marched on Parliament to demand a minimum living wage, social security measures and regulariation of work. The call had been given by trade unions across the political spectrum and the participants came from all parts of the country. However, mainstream and popular media remained indifferent and ignored the rally, much like earlier times.

 

More than one lakh workers marched from the Ram Lila maidan to Parliament on 12th December in New Delhi.  The rally was the culmination of a year-long campaign by a number of trade unions and included a 48-hour national strike in February 2013.  The workers were demanding higher minimum wages, social security, and implementation of labour laws among a charter of ten demands[i]. The trade unions represented included the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS--affiliated to the Sangh Parivar), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC--the labour arm of the Congress party), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC associated with the Communist Party of India), the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)), and the Hindustan Mazdoor Sangh (HMS) along with a number of other unionsassociated with other left and regional parties. The mobilisation was dominated by the leftist unions which have periodically called such rallies over the years to protest against the exploitation of the working population resulting from the centre’s economic reforms.

Image courtesy, CITU's Facebook page

The first set of demands was put forward by the trade unions jointly in September 2009. In the years between then and September 2011, two general strikes were called and a total set of 10 demands were again presented to the government. All these actions however met with complete indifference from the centre. The unions then called a 48-hour general strike from 20th  to 21st February, 2013. This time around there was an immediate reaction and the union representatives were invited for talks barely days before the scheduled strike. A three member ministerial committee to be headed by Defence Minister A K Antony was also set up.

The Antony committee met the central trade union representatives in May but only sought more time to come up with recommendations apropos the demands. At this juncture, the trade unions decided that they had to go ahead with plans for a nationwide mobilisation and rally in New Delhi in December.

Rally with a Difference

The 12 December rally was qualitatively different - perhaps its mobilisation from across various parts of the country ("from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Tripura to Gujarat" as CITU president AK Padmanabhan put it) was most representative of India's labour force than other similar rallies in the capital. A large number of workers - men and women - gathered at the venue came from the huge informal sector that characterises India's labour economy. From hawkers to contract workers and part-time health and sanitation workers to those engaged in small businesses and trading enterprises, the composition of the rally was distinct.  Generally such rallies are dominated by workers from the organised manufacturing and tertiary sectors.

Padmanaban argued that,

the largest number of members mobilised in all trade unions are from the unorganised sector. There is a general tendency to state that the central trade unions are only connected to the organised sector. But 65% of the members of our own organisation, the CITU consist of unorganised workers. I think there is an image created by the media that we are not seeking to be representative. This is not true as we are trying to mobilise handloom workers, sanitation workers, and domestic helpers among others for a very long time.

One reason for the huge presence of informal sector workers was that many of the 10 demands in the charter related to them. The immediate and most pressing demand was that of fixing the "minimum wage to not less than Rs 10,000 per month linked with the consumer price index and an amendment to the Minimum Wages Act to ensure universal coverage irrespective of schedules". The general opinon was that the amount had to be the minimum living wage across the country considering price rise and living conditions. The demand for "assured pension for the entire population" (and a social security act) also found resonance with employees in the informal sector. Part-time workers in the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), domestic helpers and accredited social health activists (ASHAs) had enthusiastically taken part in the agitations in order to secure pension provisions among other demands. The NRHM workers also mentioned that they had been summarily dismissed from their jobs without notice and sought re-instatement.

The rally, in sum, featured workers from a number of different sectors. AITUC leader and CPI national secretary, Amarjeet Kaur, pointed to participants at the rally from the postal services, the railways, defence, petroleum, telecommunications, air transport and services, construction, the mid-day meal scheme, ASHAs, "anganwadi" workers, domestic workers, agricultural workers and fish workers among others.

The diversity in participation was reflected in the specificity of demands and concerns among each sector. If the HMS union members working in pharmaceutical plants in Gurgaon, Haryana were incensed with rising living costs, lack of adequate compensation, non-regularisation of their employment and long working hours, the CITU affiliated engineering workers from Tamil Nadu were equally angry about such issues. Part-time women employees of the NRHM sought regularisation of their work and withdrawal of the practice of sudden termination. Domestic helpers sought social security; hawkers complained about unending police harassment and their need for licenses, hoping that a bill being discussed in Parliament on their behalf would soon be passed.

Trade union representatives were not only exercised about these demands butalso voiced the challenges they face as organisers in the present day globalised economy. A CITU representative from Tamil Nadu, who belonged to an engineering workers' union acknowledged the new difficulties. With multinational employers having the ability to coerce governments to stymie labour unrest with the threat of shifting their factories elsewhere, it was incumbent upon workers to show transnational/ trans-federal unity, he said. Last year, a joint strike of workers based in Tamil Nadu and South Korea foregrounding concerns with factory management was one endeavour that showed how they could rise up to the challenge, he said.

A BMS trade union representative (based in Uttar Pradesh) said that the union was putting pressure on its sister organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to address worker concerns and to evolve pro-labour and poor-friendly policies. Unity with leftist trade unions was not simply out of compulsion, he affirmed.

Empty Promises

The trade union leaders were peeved at the government's response to their agitations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in May after attending the Indian Labour Conference and agreeing with the justness of the demands by the trade unions, promised to meet with the leaders within a month after consultations with the Antony committee. The meeting was yet to take place, Padmanabhan said. The UPA government has shown more alacrity in addressing the concerns of big business heads, and has generally shown little interest in being briefed directly by labour leaders let alone seeking inputs from them for policy. Following the large rally, a delegation of trade union representatives met up with the defence minister and handed over a memorandum with the demands and also sought speedier implementation of the committee’s recommendations. They later met the prime minister and were told that the finance minister would consider their demands, in particular the Rs 10,000 minimum wage issue.

 Media Indifference

Following an usual and familiar pattern, mainstream media ignored the massive workers’ rally in total contrast to the disproportionate coverage provided to even the smallest “protest” rallies. Obviously, the angst of the workers so visible at this and previous rallies failed to attract the attention of this media.

New Delhi's Jantar Mantar is well known as India's "protest zone" rather than as the location for architectural astronomy as it was historically meant to be. It is here that discontents of various kinds get expressed through speeches, fasts, agitations, and marches. Media attention is always fixated on this or that agitation that takes place at this venue; sometimes disproportionate attention and hyperbole is provided as the Anna Hazare led campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill showed.

Even as lakhs of workers gathered in central Delhi culminating in the rally at Jantar Mantar, the media seemed oblivious. Barring honourable exceptions in the print media, an otherwise hyperactive electronic media remained completely silent about the worker unrest. In fact, the foreign press paid more heed to a similar workers’ rally in Delhi in February 2011 compared to the Indian media[ii].

Leftist trade union activists mentioned that the increased and diverse participation in worker protests and the popularity of their demands was due to the impact of neoliberal reforms, which had hurt a large section of the working population. That did not necessarily mean that the participants in the rally were ideologically conscious about neoliberal policy and bias in policy making. A reversal of neoliberalism because of popular opposition was possible only if that gap between realisation of outcomes and that of policy was breached, they argued. But this task of explaining policy to the people is a difficult task for the trade unions alone to shoulder and they need media coverage and civil society support for their cause. With an unsympathetic media dominated by special interests who allow coverage only for some liberal causes, the central trade unions’ burden is that much higher. 



[i] The demands included – “1) Urgent measures for containing price-rise through universalisation of public distribution system and banning speculative trade in commodity market, 2) Containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation, 3) Strict enforcement of all basic labour laws without any exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labour laws, 4) Universal social security cover for all workers, 5) Minimum wages of not less than Rs 10,000/- per month with provisions of indexation, 6) Assured pension for the entire working population, 7) Stoppage of disinvestment in Central/State PSUs, 8) Stoppage of contractorisation in permanent perennial work and payment of same wage and benefits for contract workers as regular workers for same and similar work, 9) Removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility of bonus, provident fund; increase the quantum of gratuity, 10) Compulsory registration of trade unions within a period of 45 days and immediate ratification of ILO Conventions nos 87 and 98” - quoted verbatim from a memorandum presented by the central trade unions to the government.

[ii] See “Media’s (Lack of) Coverage of Workers’ Rally in Delhi, http://www.pragoti.in/node/4300, Accessed 13th December 2013.

 

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