Why Bengaluru’s workers are taking part in the Jan 8 protests

WORKERS' STRIKE

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Workers protesting in Freedom Park. Pic: Surjeeth Rahulji M

Today’s nationwide strike comes in the midst of a stream of ongoing protests in the city and has found many convergences. In particular, the workers’ strike has received widespread support from student and civil society organisations protesting against the CAA-NRC and the violence in JNU, AMU and Jamia Islamia.“Around 20 lakh workers in different sectors are expected to be on strike in Bengaluru,” said K N Umesh, Karnataka State Secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

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Workers at major industrial clusters in the city, like Anekal, Kanakapura Road, Bannerghatta Road, Mysore Road (Garment Factories), Ramanagaram District, Magadi Road, Tumkur Road, Peenya Industrial Area, Nelamangla (Rural), Airport Road, Doddaballapur and Old Madras Road, among others participated, affecting factories, public sector banks and PSUs.

However, schools, hospitals and public transport mostly remained unaffected.

On 19th December, separate protests had been organised by students and civil society organisations on the one hand, and left parties and trade unions on the other, to oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The day before the protests, City Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao announced that Section 144 would be imposed in Bengaluru for the next three days.

As a result, what ensued the next day was thousands of protestors shuttling between Town Hall and Mysore Bank Circle, while the police resorted to a series of detentions. 

Unwittingly, both protests merged, either at the spontaneous protest at Town Hall or at the Mangala Kalyana Mantapa – the wedding hall where detainees had been taken. “Oddly, the imposition of 144 led to some alliances (with other groups in the city),” said Umesh, “We were supposed to protest separately, but 144 brought us to the same place”.

The January 8 strike too coincides with the 24-hour student-led protest at Gandhi Statue, Maurya Hotel Circle, as well as a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the students of JNU, JMI and AMU. 

The workers’ strike has also received support from 175 farmers and agricultural worker unions nationwide, who have been protesting against the agrarian crisis in the country. They declared a rural bandh on the same day and will be taking out village-level rallies.

Their main grievances are against the present government’s failure to address the agrarian crisis. “The agrarian crisis has been deepening over the last few years. Many workers in the city are former peasants who migrated to the city because of this. The policies of the government have been affecting both [workers and farmers],” said Umesh.

Charter of Demands (via CITU, Karnataka)

  • National Minimum Wage of Rs 21,000/month
  • Stop pro-corporate labour law amendments and the codification of labour laws. Implement labour laws and institute labour courts in every district
  • Minimum guaranteed universal monthly pension of Rs 10,000
  • Control rising prices, food inflation 
  • Universalisation of Public Distribution System
  • Measures to combat economic crisis by creating jobs, reviving demand by increasing the number of work days in MNREGA from 100 to 200, instead of anti-people measures like reduction of corporate taxes
  • Legislation for social security schemes such as pension and Provident Fund for the unorganised sector of the workforce
  • Abolition of contract labour system and the implementation of ‘equal pay for equal work’. Revoke precarious forms of employment such as NEEM, FTE and NEESA
  • Ratification of ILO core conventions 87 and 98 to ensure the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee Report and strengthening of MNREGA scheme, to resolve agrarian crisis
  • Putting an immediate stop to disinvestment of PSUs and instead, expanding them
  • Stop FDI in banking, defence and insurance sectors
  • Scheme workers (Anganwadi, ASHA, Mid-day meal scheme etc) be considered as workers so that minimum wages and other labour laws are made applicable to them. We oppose the privatisation of schemes.

Nationally, over 25 crore workers across different sectors are expected to be on strike on January 8th. Ten Central Trade Unions (CTU) – INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF, UTUC – are the organisers. The initial call had been made at the National Convention of Workers on 30th September, where several independent unions also extended their support. 

Since then, 175 farmers’ and agricultural workers’ unions, around 60 student organisations, and elected office bearers of some universities decided to join the strike.

Why are workers protesting?

“Workers have been struggling since the 90’s, when neoliberal policies were implemented, but the policies of the government in the last six years have been totally anti-worker,” says Umesh. The charter of demands released by CITU reflects grievances with: the new labour law amendments, policies of employment, and the economic slowdown facing the country. It expresses special concern for precarious workers in non-permanent roles, as well as for the agrarian crisis in rural India.

The economic slowdown in the country has evoked concern across the spectrum. The manufacturing sector lost 3.5 million jobs between 2011-12 to 2017-19, and economic growth was at a 26-quarter low of 4.5 per cent in July-September 2019.

In the midst of this slowdown, the government passed one part of the Industrial Relations Code last August, which attempts to reform and amend existing labour laws. Disappointed with the new amendments and the government’s failure to address the economic slowdown, CITU had called for a nationwide strike.

  • Economic slowdown

According to the statement released by CITU leading up to the strike, “The adverse effects [of the economic slowdown] are already being felt by workers in the unorganised and organised sectors in the form of large scale retrenchment and closures.”

“The automobile sector has been severely hit. For example, in Toyota, Bengaluru, the number of shifts were cut from three to one, production is stopped or lessened, because of which workers don’t get production incentive and a large part of their wage is cut,” said Umesh. 

While the slowdown has hit MNCs like Toyota, things are worse for Small and Medium Enterprises. In Peenya Industrial Area, one of the largest in the country, companies are witnessing a 30 percent dip in revenues and job cuts are up to 50 percent, as per news reports.

For PSU workers, the dismal performance of a majority of them and plans for privatisation has evoked similar fears.

Workers turned up in large numbers to the protest at Freedom Park. Pic: Surjeeth Rahulji M

According to trade unions, the government’s response to economic problems has been to cut “corporate taxes and giving them [corporates] a big bonanza to the tune of Rs 1.45 lakh crores from the national exchequer while not a single penny is spent to ensure job security or employment allowance to the workers. The government’s measures are supply-side, when economists are unanimous that the crisis is on the demand-side.” 

Demand can be created, they argue, by universalisation of the Public Distribution System, the strengthening of schemes like MNREGA and putting a stop to the privatisation of PSUs. 

  • Legislation

The second set of demands is against the new amendments proposed and partially passed by the government to codify labour laws. Trade unions see this codification of laws as pro-corporate and anti-worker. 

“It attacks collective bargaining by making trade union leaders vulnerable to punishments, and attacks existing labour legislations for worker protection,” according to Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). 

“They are effectively not recognising unions. For example, in Toyota, out of 69 workers, 39 were suspended for unionising, and there are many cases against workers and unions. Dispute resolution via conciliation is also going down,” said Umesh.

Trade unions are therefore demanding that codification be stopped, labour laws be reinstated, ILO conventions be adhered to, and labour courts be installed in every district for dispute resolution. 

  • Non-permanent workers

While the new amendments are seen to be diluting the right to unionise, another controversial part of the code is ‘fixed-term contracts’, which allows employers to directly hire workers for the short term as opposed to hiring them permanently or through contractors. While this makes it easier for industries looking for a seasonal workforce, it further aggravates the already precarious situation of non-permanent workers.

The share of contract workers in total employment increased from 15.5 percent to 27.9 percent, and that of directly-hired workers fell from 61.2 to 50.4 percent, in the decade to 2015-16.

“Recently, new schemes introduced by the government like NEEM, NEESA and FTE have been replacing contract and regular employment with cheap and precarious work,” said Umesh, “Under skill-development schemes, workers are not even considered contract labour. The number of non-permanent workers in Karnataka has been rising. The trend is to hire more and more non-permanent workforce”. 

While contract workers are offered some regulation under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 (“CLRA Act”), scheme workers, apprentices and workers in skill development schemes are not considered workers and thus receive no regulatory protections or minimum wages. 

  • Minimum wages

The charter also demands raising minimum wages to Rs 21,000 nationwide. Currently, wages are zoned – they get higher the closer you move to the core of the city. In Karnataka, for skilled workers, wages vary from Rs 12,989.30 to Rs 14,898.47 per month from Zone 1 to 4. For unskilled workers, it ranges from Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per month. 

“A lot of industries are shifting to the outer zones and workers are being laid-off under the guise of Voluntary Retirement (VR),” said Umesh.

The demands in the charter reflect a complex set of problems against which the workers are protesting. But the foremost reason is the complete breakdown of communication between the government and the trade unions.

The final call for the strike was given after CITU’s deliberations with the Labour Ministry yielded no results. Multiple strikes had been organised earlier too, but to little avail. It is unlikely that this strike will have a different result.

About Siddhant Kalra 20 Articles
Siddhant Kalra is a writer and researcher from Delhi.