Right to Strike-Putting the agenda of the workers at the forefront.


Vol – XLVIII No. 09, March 02, 2013

India witnessed one of the largest mobilisations of its industrial and service sector workers in recent times when millions went on a two-day strike on 20 and 21 February to oppose the government’s economic policies and demand better working conditions. From reports in the mainstream press and from the trade unions and striking workers, it does appear that the strike saw a greater reach than before and made enough of an impact to make “the deaf hear”. This is amply evident in the manner in which striking workers were attacked in different parts of the country. It is also evident in the shrillness with which the mainstream press attacked the strike and high­lighted a few sporadic instances of violence by workers. There has been less discussion about the demands of the workers and more about the loss to the “country”. The business press, in a touching expression of concern, editorialised on the ­welfare of workers and advised them on how to better-meet their interests.

The demands of the strike include a minimum wage of Rs 10,000 a month, pension and social security for workers irrespective of whether they are in the organised or unorganised sector, the universalisation of the public distribution system to cushion against rampaging food inflation, equal wages and rights for contract and regular workers, the abolition of contract labour, the right to form unions and collective bargaining, an end to inflation, and enforcement of labour laws. It will be evident that each of these demands is a matter of life and death for workers today. This journal itself has carried, with tragic monotony, detailed reports and research on how working and living conditions have, at best, stagnated and, in most cases, declined, while the country’s gross domestic product has multiplied many times over and the living conditions of those at the top of the pyramid have improved visibly. Working hours have been steadily increased without any improvement in working conditions or wages. In their race to invite private capital, governments are doing their very best to keep labour costs depressed and labour relations “peaceful”. In reality, this only means that workers are being exploited more and have fewer platforms for redress.

This is not merely an unsustainable trajectory it also goes against the very fundamental rights of citizenship which are granted by our Constitution. It is therefore only right that workers are standing up to demand what is theirs and which has been denied to them repeatedly. A dispassionate appraisal of the workers’ demands indicates that, if granted, they would just about suffice for basic survival in present conditions. These cannot be begrudged by silly talk of “loss”; from precisely those very sections that are the most pampered with exemptions, subsidies and bailouts.

It is telling that the government has largely ignored this strike. It is a reminder of our political context that a few thousand people gathered to demand a Jan Lokpal Bill or gender justice can move the government and the mainstream media to hyperactivity, but many millions of workers demanding basic living conditions are ignored thus! This is not to deny the importance of the fight against corruption or for gender justice, but an acknowledgement of the fact that our freedoms and our politics are still very much defined by class relations. It was the repeated refusal of the government to accede to the demands of the workers that forced them to exercise their right to strike.

While the fundamental right to strike is necessary in such conditions, the larger failure of the strike despite its very success brings us to question the strategy of the trade unions and ask whether it was right to call for strike. It is increasingly evident that strike as a weapon in one factory, one sector or even one industrial cluster is often successful in providing workers ­immediate relief. However, this weapon seems to be losing its effect when deployed not in a targeted manner but over a ­larger geography of the country or state. Is it wise to expose the ultimate weapon of the working class to such corrosive contexts? Further, an overwhelming majority of India’s working people are either informal labour or self-employed, often both. Many of them work in conditions that render them substantively unfree as they remain indebted to their credit supplier. Does the strike call of the organised sector workers in such conditions help unite the working class or does it ­provide its enemies with a ready-made divisive tool? This is not an argument against the right to strike, rather a plea to think of new and innovative methods of class action by working people.

There has been a clear rightward shift in the mainstream political arena with the ruling Congress trying hard to ­appropriate many aspects of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s agenda. In such conditions, growing working class activism is not ­only welcome but crucial to the survival of a democratic republic. The demands of the industrial strike of 20 and 21 February 2013 are just and should have been met without workers having to go on strike. However, this government, hitched as it is to the sentiments of private capital, is highly unlikely to accede to these demands. It is necessary therefore for industrial workers to build alliances with the struggles for livelihoods in all parts of the country.

India’s clothing workers: ‘They slap us and call us dogs and donkeys’


Human rights tribunal hears allegations of abuse and low pay against clothing companies that supply high street stores

Suma, of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union

Suma, of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union, gave evidence on human rights abuses.
Photograph: Gethin Chamberlain for the Observer

Workers making clothes that end up in the stores of the biggest names on the British high street have testified to a shocking regime of abuse, threats and poverty pay. Many workers in Indian factories earn so little that an entire month’s wages would not buy a single item they produce.

Physical and verbal abuse is rife, while female workers who fail to meet impossible targets say they are berated, called “dogs and donkeys”, and told to “go and die”. Many workers who toil long hours in an attempt to support their families on poverty wages claim they are cheated out of their dues by their employers.

The allegations, which will be of concern to household names including Gap, H&M, Next and Walmart, were made at a human rights tribunal in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. The “national people’s tribunal for living wages and decent working conditions for garment workers” was convened to investigate widespread human rights abuses in the garment industry.

Sakamma, a 42-year-old mother-of-two working for Gap supplier Texport in Bengaluru, told the tribunal she earned just 22p an hour and that when she finished at the factory she had to work as a domestic help to top up her wages.

“It hurts us to be paid so little. I have to do this and they sell one piece of clothing for more than I get paid in a month,” she said. “We cannot eat nutritious food. We don’t have a good life, we live in pain for the rest of our life and die in pain.

“Low wages is the main reason. How much burden can a woman take? Husband, children, house and factory work – can we manage all these with such a meagre salary? So we are caught up in the debt trap. Is there no solution for our problem?”

Like many of the women giving evidence, she said workers faced abuse if they failed to meet quotas. “The targets are too high. They want 150 pieces an hour. When we can’t meet the targets, the abuse starts. There is too much pressure; it is like torture. We can’t take breaks or drink water or go to the toilet. The supervisors are on our backs all the time,” she said. “They call us donkey, owl [a creature associated with evil], dog and insult us … make us stand in front of everyone, tell us to go and die.”

According to Indian government figures, the national textile industry is worth £35bn a year and employs 35 million people. Garment exports are worth £21bn. But human rights campaigners accuse international brands of subcontracting to firms paying poverty wages to the people who make their clothes.

A spokesperson for Texport denied setting unachievable targets and said abuse of workers was not tolerated. Gap said: “These allegations describe conduct that violates our Code of Vendor Conduct. We are looking into this matter and will take appropriate action with our vendors, depending on our findings.”

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), which organised the tribunal, wants companies to pay a minimum living wage of 12,096 rupees (£138) a month, equivalent to 58p an hour. But the tribunal heard that a factory supplying Gap and Next paid as little as 26p an hour. The supplier – Pearl Global, based in Gurgaon, in Haryana state – admits it has underpaid workers for overtime and has required them to work illegally long hours, but said it had now repaid them. It insists it complies with the legal minimum wage, though evidence submitted to the tribunal by one worker indicated that he was paid below the legal rate.

Pearl Global was first exposed by the Observer for rights abuses in 2010when it traded as House of Pearl, but it has continued to operate and supply the brands under its new name.

Many workers at the tribunal claimed that long hours and poor health and safety conditions made them ill. One worker said that a colleague was electrocuted by a bare wire last year in a factory supplying Gap. Ashok Kumar Singh, 29, who works for Gap supplier Modelama Exports in Gurgaon, gave evidence that he was paid just 5,097 rupees a month (24.6p an hour), although the legal minimum rate for his job was 5,300 rupees.

He said workers were taught to lie to auditors sent to check up on working conditions. “Before a visit they gather all the workers around and tell them what to say. If we don’t say what we are told, we are fired,” he said, adding that some workers had been dismissed after complaining to auditors about conditions.

Workers who failed to meet targets were verbally and physically abused, he said. “They call us motherfuckers and push us around and some people get slapped by supervisors and managers,” he said. “I feel the companies look at the workers like enemies.”

The tribunal, in front of an international jury, took evidence in person from workers and will consider written evidence compiled at regional hearings.

Gap and Next were accused of using suppliers that paid below the minimum legal wage, paid below the legal rate for overtime, and required workers to work excessive and illegal overtime. They also faced allegations, along with H&M and Walmart, of using suppliers that verbally abused staff, while there were allegations of physical abuse against a supplier for Gap, H&M and Walmart.

H&M sent representatives to the tribunal and insisted it was committed to improving working conditions. “The social and environmental responsibility that we take puts H&M’s sustainability work ahead of the field in the fashion industry worldwide,” said a spokeswoman. “We clearly see these issues as industry problems that need to be addressed at industry level by government, suppliers, trade unions, workers, buyers, etc.”

A spokesman for Next said: “Next identified that Pearl Global was falling well short of the group’s standard codes of practice in 2010. As a result, Next ceased using this supplier in 2011, after making a determined effort to bring about major change at Pearl Global. Next last reviewed the supplier in July, when the decision to remain disengaged from it was maintained. Next has no plans to recommence manufacturing at Pearl Global.”

Anannya Bhattacharjee, international co-ordinator for the AFWA, told the tribunal that despite the recession the garment industry continued to bring in profits. She said workers continued to suffer “shocking, inhuman conditions” and were being paid poverty wages. “Nothing can be more important than a decent living wage for workers working day and night to clothe the world.”

 

 

Indian nurses still an exploited lot: Study


Agencies Posted online: Sun Oct 14 2012, 11:15 hrs
Thiruvananthapuram : They are hailed as “angels on earth” but the personal and professional lives of nurses in India are rather ‘miserable’, especially of those working in private health sector, with low salary, poor working conditions, among others, compounding their woes, a study has revealed.

Recent strikes and agitations by nurses in private hospitals in different parts of the country demanding better wages and working conditions have not made any significant change in their state of affairs, according to the recent study on Keralite nurses working in hospitals in New Delhi.
continued to be a major problem faced by nurses.They face ill-treatment not only from doctors and the management, but also from co-workers, said Sreelekha Nair, Junior Fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, who conducted the study.
Corroborating her findings, Indian Nursing Council member P K Thampi said nurses are being exploited by hospital managements. “It is virtually a slave-landlord relationship between nurses and managements’, Thampi said.
Referring to the modest salary the nurses get in private sector, he said a majority of them have done their courses by taking educational loans of Rs four to six lakh.The minimum instalment they had to pay would come to around Rs 6000 to Rs.10000 while the salary they receive is only around Rs.2500 to Rs.6500, Thampi said.
“Despite the poor state of affairs majority of them stick to their job as they have no other option,” Thampi said.
According to Sreelekha, who published a book titled ‘Moving with the Times-gender, status and migration of Nurses in India’, “not just their superiors but even the relatives of the patients verbally and, like in some cases as reported in newspapers, physically harass them.”
Nursing being a “women majority profession” also contributes to their low status and this had been pointed out by most nurses interviewed as part of the study, she said.
“Nurses share several stories of their saving the patients’ lives;However, they feel that their contributions in patient care were not valued.It is true that the name of doctors who participated in important events, for example, the first heart surgery or such historical occasion, are known to everyone but the nurse who is part of that event is not mentioned even in records,” the study said.
Another method of exploitation of nurses is the bond system enforced on entrants to the profession by hospital managements.In most cases, managements “confiscates” certificates and this would prevent them from seeking better opportunities in India or abroad.
“Women who formed the sample of the study vouched for this fact and revealed this happens across the country”, Sreelekha said.
Nurses in private sector hospitals are also cheated in many other ways. The actual amount paid to them is lower than what has been recorded in the payment register on which the nurses are compelled to put their signatures, the study said.
In the private sector,their pay structure ranges between Rs.2500 to Rs.6500 at the entry level and there are instances of nurses being paid as low as Rs.1000 a month.
“Difference in salary in private and public sector hospitals is very high, especially after implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations.Increase in pay is core demand of the nurses who went on strike,” the study said.
Regarding working conditions, both private and public hospitals are on the same footing. “Very poor nurse-patient ratio is a central characteristic of both private and public sector hospitals in India.”
Public sector hospitals are so overwhelmed by patients that they are admitted even on floors because beds are not available, it was pointed out.
“Low salary, poor working conditions, special circumstances of work of nurses that involve caring for strangers and that include handling of body fluids make the status of nurses low in the society”, the study said.
“Low status is not limited to professional sphere alone but rather spills over to their personal lives. All aspects of their personal lives are influenced by the fact that they are women nurses. There are stories of rejection and resistance by future in-laws just due to prejudices surrounding only this group of women workers…”, the study said.
Referring to migration of Indian nurses abroad, mostly from Kerala, looking for better jobs, the study said they choose nursing as a career and undertake a number of adventures.
“Nursing is not a livelihood option alone but a life strategy for many.The moment they take the decision to be a nurse, a life plan, where they plan for their career, societal upward mobility and marriage and family, gets readied. But only time can tell whether every plan is executed on time”, Sreelekha added.

 

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