Every Day Is A May Day

S. R. Praveen May 1, 2016

Celebrating people, occasions, and other things, shorn of their significance or context is an art perfected by the modern society. So it is with May Day. Only a minuscule percentage of those who enjoy a holiday on that day (ignore the fact that it has a fallen on a Sunday this time) will remember the fact that it’s the commemoration of the winning of a right that they have taken for granted- the eight-hour long working day. At the Haymarket square in Chicago in 1886, several workers perished to police bullets, raising that demand.

Let’s concede it to those who are ignorant of history for not knowing the reason for their holiday. But then, one can notice that kind of apathy and even a sneering contempt to present-day struggles too. On April 18 this year, textile workers from several factories in Bangalore came together to demand the cancellation of the notification restricting complete withdrawal of Provident Fund issued stealthily by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on February 10, 2016. The reaction of a majority of the media houses and the general public to these protests told us how unaware they were of their own rights being taken away. When they lampooned and abused the protesting workers and harped on the traffic blocks and other inconveniences caused to "normal life" by these protesters, none of them realised that these workers were fighting for their rights of PF withdrawal too. It is another matter that the Central Government, realising the potential of the strike to spread to other states too, quickly withdrew the PF notification. Again, the fruits of that protest will be enjoyed by the majority too, who sneered at the protesters.

The women who work as salesgirls in the textile were made to work 7 days a week, for a paltry monthly wages of around Rs.6000. But getting even this money in hand depended on several other factors. The various fines imposed by the management.

A feature of the textile workers’ uprising was how it happened independently of organised trade unions. This has been a feature of some similar recent protests, especially those of the unorganized sector workers. In August last year, around 60 employees of the Seemas textile in Alappuzha gathered in front of the shop in protest against the inhuman attitude of the management.

The women who work as salesgirls in the textile were made to work 7 days a week, for a paltry monthly wages of around Rs.6000. But getting even this money in hand depended on several other factors. The various fines imposed by the management included — For talking among themselves- Rs.200 For using the lift (supposedly meant only for customers) — Rs.500 For not wearing the ‘Seemas’ tag — Rs.50

The cost for the ‘uniform’ supplied by the company was also deducted from the salary. In addition, half-day pay was cut for being even one minute late or for taking more than 30 minutes for lunch. The women were given hostel facilities on the top floor. They were allowed to go out for only 1.5 hours per week. One of the employees who went to meet her father and overshot this time limit was given a punishment to walk up and down the stairs of the five-storied building twice. It was in this scenario that they all sat in protest in front of the textile shop. Soon, the CPI (M) under the leadership of MLA T.M.Thomas Issac , G.Sudhakaran and P.P.Chitharanjan joined them in solidarity. That evening, when the left leaders went to participate in the statewide human chain protest against the NDA and UDF Governments, the textile management got the police to arrest all the women without any specific reason. The leaders went straight to the police station and secured their release.

The strike was stepped up, forcing the management to call them for talks. Initially, the owners threatened to close down the shop. It’s a common scare tactic used by managements everywhere. The CPI(M) leaders said that they will give a call for protests in front of all Seemas shops across the state. In the middle of the peak Onam shopping season, this was something the management did not want. After several rounds of talks, they gave in to the pressure and agreed to most of the women’s demands.

The salary for permanent staff was increased to Rs. 8300 (still a paltry sum). For the training staff, this was increased from Rs.5500 to Rs.7500. The bonus was set at 8.33 to 8.75 % of the salary. All the fines were stopped. Weekly one off day was provided. Double pay for working on that day. In addition, 13 public holidays was provided. The lunch break time was increased to 45 minutes. No transfers or dismissals for those who participated in the strike. Improvement of hostel facilities. Employees will have a say in the hostel menu.

This was as much a victory for the 60 women as much as it was for the left in Kerala. The left has been facing much criticism for its neglect of the unorganized sector. An independent union called the Asanghaditha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU) was formed a few years back. They led a similar struggle at the Kalyan textiles early in 2015.

As per the amendments, a factory employing fewer than 300 workers will be allowed to lay off workers without government permission, unlike the current requirement of factories employing 100 workers or more needing approval for layoffs. It will also make the ground tougher for workers to form unions. The contract workers would not have any rights with amendments made to Contract Workers Act.

On 2nd September 2015, the country witnessed one of the biggest workers’ strikes in recent times. Ten major trade unions participated in the strike, with the RSS-backed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) backing out in the last minute. But the fact that even they were forced to take a strong stand against the anti-worker attitude of the Modi Government, does say something. The charter of demands included a rethink of the new Labour Law amendments proposed by the Modi Government. This Government has systematically watered down the Labour Laws and struck at the root of workers’ rights. As per the amendments, a factory employing fewer than 300 workers will be allowed to lay off workers without government permission, unlike the current requirement of factories employing 100 workers or more needing approval for layoffs. It will also make the ground tougher for workers to form unions. The contract workers would not have any rights with amendments made to Contract Workers Act. The workers would be deprived of ‘same pay for same work right’. There will be a cut on the existing social securities like EPF, ESI benefits. Lax rules on the inspection of factories, making it unsafe for millions of workers. Already, India ranks high in the incidence of industrial accidents. The unions also demanded compulsory registration of trade unions within a period of 45 days from the date of submitting applications; and immediate ratification of ILO Convention C 87 and C 98.

Though the media tried to play down this strike, it did affect the Indian economy and forced the Government to tone down its attack on workers’ rights. The Government through the Corporate media has been trying to sell us the “need” to water down labour laws to cultivate a ‘business-friendly climate’ and improve ‘investor sentiments’.

This excerpt from Vijay Prashad’s brilliant book ‘No free left’ is illustrative of what ‘investor sentiment’ really means — “In 1942, G.D.Birla and J.R.D. Tata, joined others in signing a memorandum to the Viceroy against the subcontinent-wide Quit India movement. They say — ‘We are all businessmen and therefore we need hardly to point out that our interest lies in peace, harmony, goodwill and order throughout the country.”

In short, ‘fuck independence for the masses and the nation. We need a business-friendly climate’. This ugly selfish mentality is what the contemporary media calls by the pet name ‘investor sentiments’ and uses it to push through legislations that are openly anti-people. This is the same sentiment, for which the current Government is amending the Land Acquisition Act, watered down environment laws, forest acts and has already amended the labour rules. This is the same sentiment for which trade unions are stifled and worker’s rights trampled. P.Sainath’s favourite example of this particular sentiment is the way the stock markets surge after huge natural calamities like the tsunami, in anticipation of the reconstruction revenues that the companies are bound to get in the near future. A couple of years after this letter, in 1945, these same businessmen inked the Bombay Plan, for the development of the post-independence Indian economy. Eight leading Indian industrialists, proposed state intervention in the economic development of the nation, something which they all campaign against now. Vijay Prashad writes — “Early in its career, the big bourgeoisie sought training wheels in the import-substitution and license raj policy. When it had made the most of these supports, it turned against them — turned against them with vehemence, making the case that they had always been against these policies. This is, of course, untrue. The advantages gleaned from those earlier policies had run their course. By the 1980s, the rate of profit — even on monopoly prices -had declined. Anachronistic factories and strong unions had put pressure on capital to increase investments, which they were not willing to do.”

Workers' struggles, big and small, organised and unorganised are happening every day across the country. Every day is a May day here, though much of these struggles have remained out of the otherwise prying eyes of the media.

Prashad also cites an instance during the 1928 mill workers’ strike, when G.D.Birla deliberately used Muslim casual workers against the workforce that was largely Hindu to stir up communal riots and break the strike. He calls Birla the ‘engineer of social difference for private gain’. In the Bombay Plan, the industrialists suggested that for their vision of the future, ‘some measure of compulsion (read force) appears desirable’. We have witnessed the usage of the policing/military power of the state for corporates to forcibly acquire land or to suppress worker’s strikes violently. But when it comes to giving up land for ‘development of the nation’, these industry biggies come across as the biggest obstructionists. We saw an instance of this last year in Kerala when the big textile group ‘Seematty’ refused to give up 32 cents of their land for the Kochi metro project. This, when hundreds of families and small shopkeepers along a 16 km route willingly gave up their land for the same project.

Workers' struggles, big and small, organised and unorganised are happening every day across the country. Every day is a May day here, though much of these struggles have remained out of the otherwise prying eyes of the media. On this May day, let’s remind those around us of the struggles and sacrifices of those who went before us and those who are amid us, to win us those rights which we take for granted.

Essay, May Day 2016, Politics, Globalisation, Ideology, India, Industrialisation, Labour, Neo-liberalism, World, Struggles Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

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