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:
Since a large section of Indian workers are in the informal sector, what kind of challenges do they face?
Only 10% of Indian workers are in unions affiliated with central trade unions. According to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, about 93% of the Indian workforce is in the unorganised sector, with most of them being agricultural workers.
But while none of the governments over the past decades have been able to amend India’s fairly strong labour laws, they have used different methods to weaken labour rights.
The BJP government has extended fixed-term employment in which workers are given contracts that run even for a few weeks; in Haryana, workers are hired for just an hour or two hours on fixed-term contracts.
The government notification declares that even fixed-term workers must get wages and benefits that are given to permanent workers. But which fixed-term worker – who is employed for a few hours – is going to fight for higher wages or benefits?
Fixed-term workers cannot complain or make demands for their rights – not if they want the employer to continue to give them an hour of work here and an hour of work there. The workers are under immense pressure not to demand anything.
But, if workers do not fight, they do not get what is due to them.
The government has provided many a loophole for employers to undermine labour laws.
What are these loopholes?
Another such loophole is through schemes for apprenticeships.
Workers are not treated as workers but as apprentices who do not earn a wage but only a stipend with no benefits. Agencies that supply workers to employers – such as the Indian online recruitment and job portal TeamLease – are part of a scheme promoted by the Union Labour Ministry. The agency signs a contract with the firm and supplies workers, who are then moved around between firms. The workers can remain as apprentices for their entire work life.
If you are an ‘apprentice’, then you are not a worker.
If you are an ‘executive’ or a ‘volunteer’, then too you are not a worker. Workers in sales are now known as executives. Even workers in the National Child Labour Project of the Ministry of Labour are given designations such as ‘volunteer’, ‘friend’, or ‘guest’ so that they are not counted as workers and therefore they cannot be brought under protections offered by India’s labour laws.
Some ‘apprentices’ who are hired by the Indian Railways – India’s largest employer – formed an organisation and held a demonstration in Delhi to demand that they be made regular employees. The dichotomy between permanent workers and contract workers needs to be broken down.
Development has posed challenges to workers and the working class is increasingly being called the ‘Precariat’, those whose work is precarious. How do you deal with the precarious proletariat?
There should be no difference made between contract workers and permanent workers. One of the best examples of our work is with regard to the anganwadi (childcare centre) workers. In 1989, we initiated contact with the workers of the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) who are otherwise called anganwadi workers.
In Andhra Pradesh – where I am from – we went from village to village to locate the anganwadi centres. When we met the workers, they told us that their main grievance was low wages. Moreover, they were considered ‘social workers’ and not workers as such.
We found that the women workers faced harassment – even sexual harassment – at work. They were forced to work in the homes of their officers. Their anger at low wages and at harassment made them very militant. We held regular meetings, where the women pushed an agenda to struggle. They were very brave.
The government now wants to privatise the ICDS, turning over child development schemes to non-governmental organisations and to the private sector. The government has basically eroded the ICDS, providing inadequate food for the children and letting the infrastructure – such as the water supply – deteriorate.
Privatisation, instead of solving this problem, is going to make it worse – since now these services will be provided for profit and not for the well-being of the community.
We have been mobilising the beneficiaries of these schemes – entire villages – to go to the Child Development Project offices to demonstrate. The officers had to admit that it is not the fault of the anganwadi workers that the services are not as good as they could be.
The anganwadi workers are what we call ‘scheme workers’ – they work in various schemes of the government of India. The Child Development Scheme workers are anganwadi workers. The National Health Mission, set up in 2005 by the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, was staffed by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) workers.
The anganwadi and ASHA workers are both ‘scheme workers’, as are the midday meal workers (who provide the midday meal for school children) and the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) workers.
Workers in each of these schemes suffer from low wages, from being given titles that deny them labour rights (such as ‘helper’ or ‘friend’).
Take the case of the auxiliary nurse midwives – ANMs. Every primary health centre in villages hires one ANM. Now the government is hiring a second ANM, but under a different name. The second person will be called a ‘social worker’ and paid a lump sum amount instead of a proper wage.
Or take the case of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the elementary education scheme. There are sikshamitras – or ‘guest teachers’ – and vidya volunteers who are given a fixed amount instead of wages, and no benefits.
The National Health Mission hires nurses and staff for its hospitals and health centres. The governments of India and Norway have come to an agreement to expand this scheme, but the workers hired as part of the expansion are not treated as full-time workers. They are called Yashoda Mamata.
Yashoda is the foster mother of Krishna. These Yashodas who work for the National Health Mission are paid a pittance – Rs 3000 per month. They work around the clock, doing all the work from patient intake to child deliveries to immunisation to record keeping. After three years of such work, a Yashoda will be replaced by another Yashoda. Almost one crore (ten million) workers – mostly women – work in this scheme.
In the government’s agricultural department, there were permanent employees with the title ‘agricultural extension officer’. Now they have been replaced in many parts of India by precarious workers with titles such as adarsha rythu (‘model farmer’) and krishak sathi (‘farmer’s friend’). They are seen as ‘assistants’ and ‘friends’, not as workers. They are given Rs 1500 per month as an honorarium and not as a salary. The same kind of thing has happened to the staff of the National Child Labour Project.
Indian workers are highly mobile, moving from one state to another in search of work. They are often vulnerable and are even attacked as outsiders. What has been their plight ?
Indian industry has grown along certain industrial belts, such as the Kancheepuram Industrial Area (in Tamil Nadu), the Medak Industrial Area (in Telangana) and the Manesar Industrial Area (in Haryana). Many of these areas have factories of multinational firms such as Foxconn, Honda, Hyundai and Nokia.
The factories have some permanent workers, but of course they have even larger numbers of contract workers. Amongst these workers are large numbers of migrants from other parts of India. When workers in these factories go on strike, they are often not supported by the villagers who live near the factories because there are few ties between the workers and the villagers.
This was the case in the long struggle by workers in the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar. Not only are the workers often from elsewhere, but they also speak different languages than those who live near the factory. There are social fissures that are easily exploited by the employers.
In Himachal Pradesh, the workers’ movement – organised by CITU – is strong in the hydroelectric sector, where a large number of migrants worked during the construction stages of the project. When we began our organisation drive there, we not only worked in the power plants, but, crucially, we also worked amongst the local villagers in coordination with farmers’ unions like the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). This was done not only to form unions of farmers, but also to ensure that the unions of the power plant workers would get support from the villagers.
This was done at a time of great attacks against the workers – including the killing of some of the workers. Our CITU leader from Himachal Pradesh – Rakesh Singha – was attacked and kidnapped in March 2015 at Kinnaur.
In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front government has started a programme to offer Malayalam language courses for migrant workers. This allows them to develop closer ties with people who live beside their places of work and in their neighbourhoods.
The issue of migration raises the question of where workers are employed. Some workers are employed in Special Economic Zones – as you mentioned – while others are employed at home. Could you talk a little bit about the spatial fragmentation of work and the difficulties this poses in terms of forming unions?
Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Exclusive Export Units are set up all across India, but they are concentrated in a few states. The SEZ Act in India (2005) does not prohibit labour organising. Formally, all labour laws are applicable to the SEZs, but the government has avoided their implementation in order to attract investments from multinational firms.
Labour laws are not honoured in these SEZs and workers are afraid. Laws related to maternity benefits, sexual harassment, minimum wage, the right to organisation, collective bargaining, and so on are not applied.
Firms are given time-bound exemptions for complying with certain labour laws, say for five years. After five years, they close their shop, change their name, and start a new factory or they leave one SEZ and go to another.
The firms hire workers from far outside the region of the SEZ. We found that in one SEZ in Andhra Pradesh, the firm employs individual workers from 200 different villages and sends company buses to villages as far as 100 kilometres from the factory.
So, these workers are scattered and terrified of losing their jobs. Even then, the workers went on strike and got the factory to agree to improve their working conditions. But the state government used the entire machinery of the state to prevent the agreement from being implemented.
Trade unionists are not allowed into the SEZs. We wait outside and distribute leaflets based on information provided by disgruntled workers.
At the Visakhapatnam Special Economic Zone in Andhra Pradesh, there were Belgian and Israeli-owned diamond cutting factories. Workers at the SEZ went on a spontaneous strike. We supported them. They gained confidence and set up a CITU-affiliated workers’ union. The government refused to accept what had happened. The police were sent in. Earlier the managers used to hire goons to intimidate workers; now the employers seem to hire goons as the managers.
On one side you have SEZ workers and on the other you have home-based workers. Home-based production has certainly increased in a range of sectors, from bidi (cigarette) rolling to the stitching of blue jeans. Outsourcing has become rampant. Companies distribute raw material to the workers who manufacture the goods in their homes – often in slums.
Workers do not produce the entire product; often they produce just a part of the commodity. This means that the workers are not concentrated in one factory, where they can get organised. Rather, they are working on just a part of the commodity, spatially separated from fellow workers, and have less power because of this.
Continued in Part - II.