Workers say they are unsure if this political system works for them, and no governments are directly able to respond to their issues.
At 9 in the morning on Tuesday, instead of starting work at the assembly line, men stood in huddles outside several factories in Delhi’s Okhla industrial area. It was the first day of a two-day general strike called by 10 central trade unions, the largest industrial action planned just months before the Lok Sabha elections.
In the last such action in September 2016, trade unions claimed 15 crore workers had taken part, including in industrial areas in and around the National Capital Region.
But in the newspapers on Tuesday morning in Delhi, there was no news of the strike. Instead, front page headlines focused on the National Democratic Alliance government’s announcement of 10% reservation in educational institutions and state jobs for the economically backward among the upper castes, reversing the principle of affirmative action for Dalits and the historically marginalised.
Santosh Kesri, a migrant from Bihar’s Khagariya district from a low-income rural upper caste family, would be eligible for the 10% reservations, if it became policy. But he was not convinced it would benefit him.
“Just do the math. Of 125 crore, the general castes will be at least ten percent, or 12-15 crore,” he said, standing outside a courier factory closed for the strike. He works as a courier for IT support company in Okhla. “They will be further divided among the professional graduates, simple graduates, and those who did not attend college. The government will open jobs a handful of public jobs, while lakhs will apply. And then, there will be questions of who is well connected, or able to give bribes.”
Kesri’s skepticism is valid: the Indian economy is not generating enough formal jobs. Even the government is hiring workers on short-term contracts rather than as permanent staff.
One of the demands raised in the strike was, in fact, to end of the contractualisation of work. But many doubt the government will act.
Durga Devi, who has sold biscuits and snacks outside factories in Okhla for more than 20 years, quipped: “When all political parties in government are employing everyone through thekedaari (labour contractual systems), will firms do any different?”
In fact, the strike itself received a tepid response in Okhla. Part of the reason, said union leaders, is the difficulty of mobilising contract workers caught in insecure jobs with long hours.
Neither reservations nor agitations seem to offer such workers any new possibilities.
Low wages and temporary work
India’s Gross Domestic Product has grown by 6%-7% in recent years but this has not created enough secure and remunerative employment.
The State of Working India report, an analysis of labour market trends by Centre for Sustainable Employment led by economist Amit Basole at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, shows that even a 10% increase in GDP now results in less than 1% increase in employment, and estimates the rate of open unemployment at a high 5%.
Even in manufacturing sectors like plastics and leather which generated more employment in last 10 years than before, the rise was in the form of short contracts and temporary jobs that paid lower than regular factory jobs.
Most households work in the unorganised sector and face a low earnings problem. In 2015, 92% women and 82% men earned less than Rs 10,000 a month, far lower than monthly salary recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission of Rs 18,000 as a living wage.
Even in organised manufacturing, an analysis by economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh shows, despite increased profits, workers’ wages accounted for only 10%-11% of value added in 2012, one of the lowest shares anywhere in the world.
“No government is with us”
In Delhi, the Aam Admi Party government had cited this failure of the “trickle down theory” when it had announced a 46% hike in wages in 2016, the only state in the country to announce such a significant wage hike.
After industry associations contested this with prolonged litigation, the Supreme Court on November 1 last year restored the government’s 2017 notification on the increased minimum wages.
Despite the AAP government’s move to correct for stagnant wages, without enforcement, the measure had failed to draw the workers to the government’s side.
Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, a workers’ broadsheet published from the National Capital Region, in its January edition listed industrial firms in Okhla Industrial Estate where workers had successfully negotiated increased wages after the court order. The list was short: only five firms. In 14 others, workers were in advanced stages of negotiations.
But workers said most of the 4,000 factories in Okhla producing plastics, leather, engineering equipment, had not paid the new notified wages even after the Supreme Court order. As per the government notification, an unskilled labour was to get a wage of Rs 14,052, up from Rs 9,568. For semi-skilled labourers, it was revised from Rs 10,582 to Rs 15,471, while skilled workers were to get Rs 16,962, instead of the earlier Rs 11,622.
Arun Singh, a middle aged worker, said he had worked at the same printing press for 11 years hired through a labour contractor who paid Rs 220 a day. He worked all days of the month, without a weekly off. At Rs 6,600 a month, this did not come to even half the minimum wage the AAP government had notified.
Women workers in garment units worked similar long hours for even lower rates at Rs 180 to 200 a day.
The workers saw the wage hike as a partial measure. “Ultimately, the government machinery is not with workers,” said Singh, the printing press worker.
“The department did organize a few raids, but what was the point when they announced in newspapers that they were about to do so? They ought to have conducted surprise raids,” Manu, a young garment worker, derided the AAP government’s public announcement of a 10-day drive of raids which it named “Operation Minimum Wage.”
Mrigank, the vice president of the Delhi unit of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, also criticised it as a half-hearted measure as it was not accompanied by enforcement.
“There are 74 posts for labour inspectors in Delhi, but only 11 are appointed,” he said. “The government had not even implemented the previous wage grade, when it announced the hike and then failed to get firms to comply.”
“Saare ekta rahe, tab kuch baat banei. Something will be done, only if workers unite,” said Suresh Kahar, a migrant who has worked as a tailor for part of the year in Okhla and rest of the year on a small farm in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh since ten years.
While workers were skeptical of the adequacy of government measures, trade unions and traditional workers’ organizations had not made much headway in representing working class interests.
One of the key demands of the 12-point demands laid down by the central trade unions that are affiliated to political parties was that the government take back its proposed amendments to labour laws.
“The government is presenting this move as if it was codifying labour laws from 44 laws to four or five labour codes, but it is systematically undermining working class interests by removing protective measures,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
Sudhir Katiyar heads the Prayas Centre for Labour and Action that works among brick kiln and construction workers and had organised a protest in Ahmedabad of construction workers, one of the largest economic sectors that employs 10 percent of workers. He said it was difficult to organise workers around such demands.
“Majority of workers are completely out of the purview of these labour laws and codes, and the norms do not apply to them,” said Katiyar. “If we say, these laws are being changed and new norms are coming in, it has no effect on most segments of workers who are working on extremely short temporary work contracts, or without contracts since decades.”
“It is harder to respond to the needs of unorganised sector workers,” added Katiyar.
Mrigank of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions said that on the first day of the strike, 40% units had remained open for production in Okhla. “The temporary nature of jobs, long hours, and workers going from one factory to another in search of contractual work make it difficult to have a regular base of members for the union,” he said.
This story appeared in Scroll.in on the day of a national strike called by trade unions.