As part of a nationwide call for strikes, labour and trade unions in Chandigarh gathered at the Sector 17 underpass on Wednesday afternoon to place their demands and protests against the government’s “anti-people” policies.
The all India strike, which was mobilised under central unions including the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the All India Union Trade Union Centre (AIUTUC) at Chandigarh, consisted workers from hospitals, government schools and universities, amongst other trade unions from the city.
“I am here to protest against the hiring of new contractors at government colleges, where people who have been working for ten to fifteen years have been thrown out by the new contractors because they have not passed the tenth grade. How can do this to us?” asked Lallan Singh, an employee of the Government Home Science College from Sector 10, Chandigarh.
Singh believes the implementation of Government e-marketplace (GeM) portal through which no contractors have been hired, have made those already employed at institutes vulnerable. “Now every new contractor comes and asks proof of our qualification, even though we have already been working here most of our life!” added Singh.
The government has condensed extensive labour laws into four labour codes, which dilutes the provisions that have been provided to our workers, including specific terms on timely payment, hire and fire policies and unionising practices. It is also to demand a rise in minimum wages.”
A group of unionised security guards at Government Hospital College and Hospital (GMCH) Sector 32, had similar complaints with the new contractors.
“New contractors come and ask for money from us in order to retain our job. We would have been on the streets by now if we had not been so united and rebelled against this injustice,” said Alka, a guard at the hospital.
Apart from alleged harassment meted out by contractors, many workers gathered at the strike to express their concern over the increasing financial burden on workers. “There is so much inflation, yet our minimum wage remains the same. What will we feed our children if this keeps going on? How are we to survive at all? And if not increase our wage, then at least bring in strong policies that make sure that our pay is given to us on time!” said Ishu Chaudhary, who transports bricks by carrying them on her head for a living.
Like Chaudhary, many women actively participated in the strike, challenging not only labour laws in the country but also the status of women in society. “Women labourers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the society, most exploited and most marginalised. A lot of them struggle to get work or get paid, some are harassed by their male employees, some are paid less despite the Equal Remuneration Act in place since 1976,” said Alka Rana, member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the women’s wing affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Kanwaljeet Singh, a political activist from the city, stated that the strike had been called to protest the ‘dehumanising’ labour policies which have been put in place by the Central government.
“The government has condensed our extensive labour laws into four labour codes, which dilutes the provisions that have been provided to our workers, including specific terms of timely payment, hire and fire policies and unionising practices,” said Singh, adding, “It is also to demand an increase in minimum wages.”
The new code of Wages Act, which was passed in 2019 and is yet to be implemented, had fixed a nationwide floor for minimum wages at Rs 9,750 per month. The protesting workers are now demanding the wages to be increased to Rs 21,000 per month.
Beyond the wages, workers fear unionising will be made difficult under the labour codes passed in 2019, which state that a Union can be formed only if ten per cent of the total population of workers in that trade commit to forming the union. “Earlier, only seven people were needed to form a union. Now, it will be harder to mobilise, because people will be asked to sign to commit to the union, and so many people will never give their signature out of fear of being persecuted by their employers,” said Singh.