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-Garment workers exploited, denied basic human and labour rights: tribunal


STAFF REPORTER, The Hindu, Bangalore

The report of the ‘National people’s tribunal on living wage for garment workers’ has recommended strengthening of the Labour Department so that it can enforce labour laws, and monitor and tackle industrial disputes.
The report of the ‘National people’s tribunal on living wage for garment workers’ has recommended strengthening of the Labour Department so that it can enforce labour laws, and monitor and tackle industrial disputes

The verdict was based on testimonies of 250 people heard over four days

Workers in the garment industry here are exploited and denied basic human and labour rights, the ‘National people’s tribunal on living wage for garment workers’ observed in its verdict on Sunday.

Over four days, testimonies of 250 garment workers were recorded. A common thread that ran through these stories were tales of labour and human rights violations ranging from unfair wages and work hours to sexual abuse and inhuman work conditions. These put together, the jury observed in a 37-page report released here, created conditions which amounted to “bonded and forced labour practices”. The report added that there has been an “effective undermining” of the freedom of association of workers.

The jury was headed by Gianni Tognioni, secretary-general of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, Italy.

The verdict dealt with ‘living wage’, which the jury said, should be implemented as a human right. “The components which are essential for the calculation of a living wage must not only include adequate food to the worker and her/his family, but all elements to live a life of dignity, which includes housing, medical care and education for children, rest and leisure, social and cultural opportunities,” the jury observed. Noting that resources allocated to labour ministries were “largely insufficient”, the tribunal said that the Labour Department must be strengthened to enable it to enforce labour laws, and monitor and tackle industrial disputes.

Understaffed

Deputy Labour Commissioner Sripad Rao accepted these recommendations. He also said that the Labour Department is “severely understaffed”. Mr. Rao asked workers to collectively articulate their woes and submit their grievances in writing, while imploring them to form stronger trade unions and get them registered.

 

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.”

 

 

U.S. Women Poised for a Radical Tune-Up; Here’s Why #gender


By Ellen Chesler

WeNews commentator

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tonight’s Roosevelt Institute panel at Women’s eNews looks at the challenges of low-wage female workers. That recalls a 1981 classic book by Zillah Eisenstein, who understood the condition of women as a dimension of larger patterns of oppression.

 

Ellen Chesler
Ellen Chesler

 

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s too soon to declare “The End of Men and the Rise of Women,” as Hanna Rosin has done in her highly controversial new book by that title.

Instead, it’s just the right time, in my view, to dust off the covers of a 1981 book that rocked the feminist establishment more than 30 years ago, Zillah Eisenstein’s “The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism.”

Eisenstein applauded the efforts of liberal feminists to achieve equal protection and greater opportunity for women through political and legal reform that would benefit large numbers of individuals.

But she warned of the potential limitations of that strategy and predicted a paradoxical situation of uneven gains, much like what we see today. Eisenstein understood the condition of women as a dimension of larger patterns of oppression. She called for a more inclusive feminist vision, where bonds of gender would transcend other differences and disagreements.

This is hugely important today, when wage stagnation for most workers in this country combines with the dogged persistence of sex segregation in many sectors to contribute to an alarming growth in inequality and to hit women especially hard.

Since 1977, the number of hours worked by dual or single wage-earning adults has increased by an average of 12 hours a week, and yet median family income for the majority of Americans has seen negligible growth or has even declined.

True enough, men suffered palpable losses in the recent recession, but most of them still continue to have greater opportunities in highly compensated and now reviving trades like construction. Layoffs and wage erosion, on the other hand, are still attacking “pink collar” and many public sector jobs, such as teaching and health care, where women dominate.

Women are also more likely to be employed in non-standard jobs, part time, freelance or self employed – all still without health care and pension benefits. Working women have a bigger slice of an increasingly smaller pie.

Compounded by Discrimination

This gender disadvantage is compounded by racial discrimination in a country with a growing minority population.

Just over a quarter of white women, but a third of African American women, and fully half of Latinas who work full time still earn wages at or below the poverty level. Even women who start out on a stronger footing tend to lag behind over time as a result of stereotypes that persist in trivializing women’s work, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

This “glass ceiling” is a dilemma often discussed in connection with women in corporate and professional positions, but it is also a real barrier for middle and working class women, whose earnings level off at age 35.

That’s when many women get stuck with the burden of balancing work and family. It’s tough going in a country that–alone among advanced nations in the world–still provides little meaningful public funding or tax incentives for child care and deploys only scattered and inadequate resources for after-school and summer school programs. With a few states such as California serving as prominent exceptions, the U.S. public sector mandates no paid leave or flexible work arrangements.

Far from resting on our laurels, American women need to revive the feminist movement and focus its agenda on the urgent needs of the middle and working classes.

Happily, we are poised to do that as never before.

Extraordinary Advances

Over the past half century, American women have made extraordinary advances in education and employment. Assumptions about our abilities and ambitions are transformed, along with views of marriage and family obligation. Fifty years ago at the dawn of second wave feminism, women made up a third of the labor force but were typically employed episodically, and once married, still identified primarily as homemakers with long stretches of time off for childrearing.

Today women are nearly half the labor force and more than half of all college graduates and those with advanced degrees. In nearly 65 percent of American families, mothers are either the single working parent or responsible for anywhere from a quarter to more than half of total family income, with little choice but to work through the life cycle.

The headlines are flashy. The proportion of women in management and professional occupations today is 51 percent of the total. Women are now a third of all lawyers and 32 percent of doctors, up from negligible numbers in the 1960s. Small businesses owned by women are growing at twice the rate of those owned by men.

Profound shifts in the economy – away from agriculture, heavy industry and manufacturing and toward information and services – have eroded the traditional advantages men enjoyed and opened opportunity to women. A powerful second wave of liberal women’s rights advocates drove necessary changes in cultural norms. And perhaps most important they revolutionized law and public policy.

Holding Advances

Starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women have been direct beneficiaries of laws and policies mandating remedial inclusion (better known as affirmative action) in education, employment, government and military contracting, and in lending. Our gains derive from aggressive enforcement by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, by state and local agencies and, of course, by federal and state courts. Despite a tidal wave of conservative backlash in recent years and some nasty, high profile defeats, critical advances for women have held.

With these many achievements to build on, it’s time to address the challenges that still remain for most American women and their families.

As many reviewers of Rosin’s “End of Men” have pointed out, the gender wage gap has narrowed, with big gains in some fields, but American women overall still earn only about 77 cents on the male dollar.

A recent World Economic Forum analysis places the United States only 19th out of 134 countries surveyed on a range of indicators of women’s progress, outranked predictably by all of Western Europe, Canada and Australia, but also by small emerging democracies such as Latvia and Lithuania.

The time is ripe for movement building. American feminists have a great deal to be proud of, but it’s way too soon to declare victory. The time to redouble our efforts on behalf of working women is right now.

Author and women’s rights activist Ellen Chesler is currently a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, which will host a panel tonight on challenges for working women posed by continuing occupational segregation and other obstacles to getting ahead. For details, please go to www.RooseveltInstitute.org.

 

Supreme Court upholds verdict matching NREGA pay with state wages


NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court has refused to stay a recent Karnataka High Court verdict that has said the central government is liable to pay higher wages under the country’s flagship rural employment programme in tandem with that of the state minimum wage rate. It has further asked the government to find a way to end the disparity between the wages paid under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) and state mandated rates under the Minimum Wages Act.

The move might mean an additional outgo of around Rs 900 crore in the current financial year from the central government to six states which have a minimum wage rate that is higher than the MGNREGA rate. The Karnataka High Court had in September directed the central government to match the wages under MGNREGA with the state’s minimum wage rates.

The central government had however decided to file a Special Leave Petition to the SC contesting the order. The SC, however, stayedthe order on the payment of arrears prior to the Karnataka high court order providing the central government some relief. The Court stated that non-payment of minimum wages under the scheme is tantamount to forced labour.

It had further strongly urged the Solicitor General to harmonise the MGNREGA wage rates with minimum wages in a manner in which the state Minimum Wages Act is respected. The court also said that the matter should not be treated in an adversarial manner and asked the government to resolve the issue in a consultative manner.

Earlier rural development minister Jairam Ramesh had favoured softening the central government’s stance by complying with the KHC order while suggesting an amendment to create a special wage rate for MGNREGA under the Minimum Wages Act to tackle the issue on a long term basis.

Ramesh, however met opposition from the Finance Ministry and the Law Ministry and on the insistence of PM Manmohan Singh had to file the SLP. The six states with disparate wage rates are Andhra Pradesh , Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka , Mizoram and Goa.

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