By Archana Prasad
“Good economics seldom makes for good politics and therefore it is important to communicate to the masses the importance and necessities of reform measures… almost 12,500 crore have been lost in respect to disruptions in business and trade,” (CII statement on General Strike 2 September, 2015).
This predictable reaction of the CII to the joint general strike of all trade unions, in which more than 15 crore workers participated, reflects the impact of the protests against the anti-worker policies of the central government. Labour Minister Bandaru Dattaray, who was mandated to negotiate with the Unions, remarked that the strike was against the interests of both, the worker and the nation.
The equating of the interests of the neoliberal ‘nation-state’ with that of the working people shows that the government is deliberately spreading a hegemonic discourse that the corporate captured state apparatus is in favour of the workers.
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In keeping with this mirage, the Modi government, on its part, has largely ignored the strike call and attempted to break the unity of the trade unions by forcing the Sangh Parivar backed Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) to withdraw from the strike. The fact that the government waited for almost three and a half months (the strike call was given by all unions on 25 May, 2015) before it started negotiating with the unions, shows that it was not serious in its efforts to have a meaningful dialogue. At another level the U-turn by the BJP-led government has further strengthened the resolve of other unions to force the central government to negotiate with them on the question of labour reforms.
In this context, it is pertinent to ask why the Central Trade Unions called for a general strike with demands that span beyond traditional labour issues. As is well known that among the 12 demands in the demand charter, there are the more general demands for the curtailment of unemployment and price rise as well as the withdrawal of the anti-farmer land acquisition act.
Such demands address the needs of lower middle classes, the unemployed youth and the agricultural workers and peasants. Apart from this, the demands for job protection, universal social security and the regularisation of contract workers are particularly significant in the wake of the growing casualisation and informalisation of labour. As the Annual Survey of Industries, 2012-13 shows, today almost 92 per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector where the rate of exploitation is very high. This increase in exploitation is represented by the wage-profit rati0 which has dramatically declined from 2.5 in the early 1980s to 0.3 in 2012-13.
Thus, even though mainstream economists would fudge the figures and argue that the working class is better off, in effect its exploitation has increased and inequalities have grown. When corporates argue that both workers and industry have lost Rs 2 billion due to the strike , they are only speaking a half truth. In reality, most of the wealth generated by the corporates is harnessed as profit by them and not as wages by the worker. This means, that it is natural for the workers of all social strata to support the strike which is against the interests of the corporates, but which raises issues in the common public interest of all workers from diverse social classes.
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In the light of these factors, it is important to note that the claim of corporates and the government, that labour law reforms will benefit workers, is nothing but an eyewash. In fact, the labour law reforms are geared towards attacking the tripartite system of negotiation on labour issues. They also attack the workers fundamental right to protest against anti-worker policies.
Further, the reforms are geared towards severing the links of the workers with the larger democratic movement that has been representing their interests since the freedom struggle. Thus, the proposed labour code on industrial relations clearly states that workers union within factories can not be affiliated or led by representatives of larger workers organisations and limits their right to strike. Moreover, both, the proposed labour codes on industrial relations and wages, fail to provide any adequate safeguard to contract workers. There is hardly any regulation of night work or overtime working hours, neither is there a satisfactory revision on the parameters by which minimum wages are to be fixed.
Hence, instead of having pro-labour reforms the Modi government is busy pursuing pro-employer reforms. It is doing this by dismantling the tripartite system which is necessary for workers in both the organised and unorganised sectors.
Given this situation, the success of the general strike is heartening, because it reaffirms the workers right to fight against anti-public and anti-worker neo-liberal policies. Hence this strike is in the larger public interest.
– The author is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed by the author are personal.