Over 90% of India’s workers are in the informal sector, most of them without any chance of unionisation. CITU has six million members and K. Hemlata is the current president of the central trade union. In a polarised India riven by caste, class and religious divide, she explains how the government and the industry have combined to deprive the workers not just of their rights but even the benefits guaranteed by Indian Labour laws.
For reasons of space, abridged excerpts of the interview with the CITU president, conducted by researchers of the Tricontinental Institute of Social Research, are being published here:
Karl Marx, in Capital, wrote that in his time the largest number of workers in Britain were in domestic service. What are the possibilities for organising domestic workers in India?
In general, in most sectors of domestic work, one employer hires several workers. This is the case in a factory or even in home-based work. But in domestic service, one worker can have many employers. A domestic worker goes from flat to flat cooking and cleaning, working for multiple employers in the course of a single day.
In this context, it is hard to negotiate with an employer. It is not even always possible to negotiate with a Residents’ Association for an apartment building. That is why we have demanded that the government create welfare boards for those in domestic service. These boards would fix and monitor the provision of minimum wages as well as the working conditions of those in domestic work. But this is not being taken seriously by the government.
In Delhi – the capital of India – there are many agencies that supply domestic workers. These agencies are basically labour supply firms. They should be regulated. They often give some modest advance to the workers at high interest rates and then deduct service payments from their wages. Workers get bonded to these agencies.
What about Information Technology (IT) workers, since they would likely see themselves as white collar professionals rather than as workers?
IT workers began to suffer job loss after the 2008 crisis. The situation in the United States – which was the key destination for Indian IT workers – changed, and US visa possibilities dried up. Before the crisis, workers used to shift jobs easily and they had many opportunities. But the crisis meant that it was difficult to go abroad or to shift jobs or even to earn enough money. Recruitment has come down and pay packages have declined. A feeling grew that they need to organise themselves or at least raise their demands.
At that time, a debate opened up about whether IT workers are workers or professionals. We said that they are workers who have a classical employer-employee relationship and therefore should be organised. Whether they want to form unions or not is a different issue. Whether they have a right to form unions is clear – as employees they certainly have this right. The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) argued that IT employees are professionals and were not therefore workers with a right to unionise. They would, of course, take that position.
IT workers began to hold demonstrations and we supported them. They raised their grievances and they began to organise on the basis of these grievances. Unions began to be formed and registered, such as in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.
Out of these struggles we formed the National Coordination Committee of IT and ITeS Employees Unions. In our work, we found that ITeS workers are paid very low salaries – Rs 10,000 per month – without job security or pension. They are a highly exploited section of the workforce.
This is not just in the private sector. The government has developed an electronic service (‘e-seva’) that digitises government services in an online portal scheme. Thousands of computer operators who are attached to this scheme are underpaid and exploited.
The Coordination Committee works with both private and public sector IT workers from Odisha to Tamil Nadu, from Telangana to Karnataka. We hope that we will be able to build a movement because the workers feel that they need to be organised. It is possible to organise them. By the way, graphic designers have formed a registered trade union that is affiliated with CITU in Maharashtra. It is a nation-wide union.
One of the elements that plagues the working class is social discrimination. Hierarchies of caste and gender and differences of religion and region play a role in dividing workers. What is the union’s attitude towards social distinctions?
Our union, CITU, turns 50 years old this year. CITU’s first president – BT Ranadive – addressed the issue of social discrimination in the 1970s. But we cannot claim to have addressed this issue forcefully enough.
How do you deal with the fact that social hierarchies of caste and gender divide workers? We fight these differences, particularly religious communalism, by linking workers together through their day-to-day issues. The politics of religion and religious fundamentalism divide workers and create conflict amongst them. Such politics weakens the workers’ movement.
We do not oppose religion, but we say it is a personal matter and not something for the union. But, we have come to understand that we have to go deeper. Take the struggles around caste discrimination. It is not something that should be left to oppressed caste or scheduled caste workers to take up alone. The whole union and all workers have to oppose caste discrimination. You cannot unite the working class if you do not consider the divides within the working class. So, unless you take up how the oppressed castes or scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have been deprived and oppressed for centuries, you cannot form strong working-class unity. This has to be explained to the savarna (dominant caste) workers. They have to be convinced of the correctness of the attack against caste hierarchy and they have to be mobilised in a joint struggle. Such a position requires patience. This is the same with gender, an issue that we have tackled since 1979. Organising working-class women is part of organising the working class. Platforms might be created to strengthen the confidence of oppressed sections, but the general orientation is to create broad class unity out of this process – not to fragment the working class on the lines of social oppression.
We have conducted political education around these themes of gender and caste oppression. We have unions that are themselves fragmented by caste, such as safai karamchari (sanitation workers) unions that have historically hired from a certain set of castes and municipal workers who might have come from another set of castes. Both unions are part of our federation, but the connection between them is not strong. We need to take up issues of caste and gender hierarchy not inside individual unions alone but from a political perspective at the level of the federation itself.
What accounts for the militancy of Indian workers over the past decade? There have been not only large general strikes but also many local struggles.
Militancy has certainly increased and is illustrated by the general strikes – the latest being on 8 and 9 January 2019. Millions of workers joined the struggle. These general strikes
brought together almost all of the major labour federations in India, except for the right-wing Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
The workers and the trade unions had generally formulated demands that came out of their own grievances. Since these general strikes, there is a greater political understanding of the struggle. We moved from five demands to ten, and now to fifteen.
These demands have moved from a defence of trade union rights to major reforms to address the agrarian crisis. We have called for a national minimum wage, compulsory recognition of unions and better public distribution of basic commodities. There are also key demands that are specific to the unorganised workers – such as the demand for the abolition of contract labour, the demand for the regularisation of scheme workers and the demand for the creation of a social security fund for the unorganised workforce. In March 2019, 10 central trade unions created a workers’ charter.
The cause of this militancy is that the conditions of life have deteriorated for workers in India, both in the countryside and in the city. Wages are stagnant, agriculture is in distress. Struggles in one sector have inspired struggles in another. Farmers who had committed suicide in large numbers as a consequence of the agrarian crisis are now marching on the streets. We saw this in the Kisan (Farmer) Long March in Maharashtra and in the Kisan struggles in Rajasthan and in other parts of central and northern India.
We have seen militant struggles of women workers who are in the various schemes. In Andhra Pradesh, when any minister comes to give a speech, the local anganwadi leader is often arrested beforehand or her family members are arrested. As soon as the minister leaves, they are released. This arrest is to stop any protest.
In Haryana, the Chief Minister abused women workers because he was afraid of their militancy. He was later forced to apologise due to the women’s actions and mounting public pressure.
Workers have taught each other that struggle is the only way to improve their situation. That is the reason for the wave of militancy.
This militancy has been very impressive, but it has been met by a media blackout and by employer violence. Could you talk about these reactions?
We look at it from a class perspective. The media is controlled by big corporations. They do not want to highlight the hundreds of thousands of workers in demonstrations. If some identity-based organisation or a voluntary organisation does a small protest, they are given a lot of coverage.
This is not a question of media management or better public relations. This is a class blackout of our struggles. The neoliberal framework is designed to destroy trade unions. Their silence about us is a form of pretending that we do not exist. We are not surprised by the media blackout. We expect it.
We go directly to the people and explain what the unions are doing, what the workers are doing. The workers and the people must have a close relationship. We have to be our own media.
We have been doing this in the case of the anganwadi workers and the transportation workers. When the anganwadi workers go on strike, they explain their actions to the people. When transport workers went on strike, they went to the people and explained how privatisation and the Motor Vehicle Act would dismantle the Public Road Transport Corporations and take benefits away from the people.
Electricity workers in Haryana explained that their strike against privatisation was also a strike against the rise in rates for consumers, while the workers in the Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives’ Association of India went to the people to explain that their strike was for health care as a right, to bring the price of medicine down and to improve the entire infrastructure of health care delivery. The people must be involved. This is our approach.
Violence is a normal approach by employers. We say saama daana bheda dandopaya – first you try to bribe the workers, then you threaten them, then you try to divide them and then you kill them. They try all these things. So many of our activists have been beaten, tortured and killed. The capitalists are violent and then they use the courts to accuse workers of violence.
From Part - I.