Experts say the anger and frustration among millions of Indian workers is likely to hurt the electoral prospects of the ruling BJP, as the countdown to the 2019 national election in April begins.
NEW DELHI — As many as 200 million workers in India took part in a two-day strike on Tuesday to protest the government's labour policies.
The streets of New Delhi reverberated with slogans “Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao” (meaning: remove Prime Minister Modi, save the country), as thousands of workers, including construction workers, bank employees, students, teachers, factory workers and frontline health staff walked off the job and marched towards the Indian parliament on the second day of the strike, to protest against what they describe as Modi’s “anti-worker” labour reforms.
The strike was organised by 10 major trade unions, impacting essential services countrywide, including transportation and the banking sector. The unions accuse the government of ignoring their various demands, ranging from the minimum wage, social security and permanent employee status to adding more employees to government payrolls.
The trade unions also criticise the government's plan to turn 44 existing labour laws into four simplified codes. "They are making drastic changes to kill the labour laws,” said Amarjeet Kaur, National General Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), one of the leading labour unions in India.
“By codifying the labour laws, the Modi government is actually trying to take away the labour rights provided under laws like Industrial Disputes Act, Trade Union Act, Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, etc," he added.
With just a few months to go before the national elections, this strike may prove to be major roadblock for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is still recovering from the losses in the recently held five assembly elections. The defeat in the five states, some of which were BJP strongholds, was also attributed to a massive agrarian crisis and multiple farmer protests across the country.
“If Modi thinks he can bulldoze workers’ rights and their dignity in the service of Ambani and Adani [two of the largest industrial families in India], then this two-day strike all over India has given him a clear answer. This will have a political impact,” Brinda Karat, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) told TRT World.
The government has also been facing criticism for the bill to amend the Trade Unions Act, 1926, which was recently approved by the union cabinet. “Through that amendment, the government is being given the discretion to recognise central trade unions rather than following a tripartite [government, management and labour] process like in the past. The attempt to completely undermine and dilute the labour laws is one of the key issues that is being raised here. Another key issue being raised is the demand of 18,000 rupees minimum wage per month,” Kavita Krishnan, politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), told TRT World.
Generating employment through concrete measures also features in the 12-point charter. A report released by the think tank Centre for Monitoring India Economy in December 2018, revealed the unemployment rate in the country to be at a 27-month high of 7.38 percent with the number of those employed falling by 1.09 crore (10.9 million) in the last year.
“This government, during the last general election, had promised that it will create 20 million jobs every year. If one looks at the statistics, there is a major decline in jobs in the public sector because this government is not filling the vacancies,” Krishnan said.
Most of the workers present at the march alleged that the government is trying to privatise every sector, which would endanger jobs and is also seen as a probable reason for not filling vacancies in the public sector.
Workers from public sector undertakings, or PSUs, which are government-owned, were also present at the march, opposing the centre’s disinvestment plan. Last year, the centre cleared a proposal for a 100 percent stake stale with the transfer of management for 74 ‘sick or loss-making’ Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs). Workers and activists say this move will lead to severe job losses.
“The Modi government is bringing in privatisation for its own personal interest. Our enterprise has been making profits continuously for four years but still, this government is trying to sell it to one of his corporate friends. If that happens, 2,000 people will be unemployed. If the government cannot create employment, they have no right to take it away either. It basically wants to sell the country. That is why we are on the streets and no matter what it takes, we will keep fighting Modi,” Hina Azhar told TRT World. A member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Azhar works at Central Electronics Limited, which is one of the enterprises being considered for disinvestment.
Giving permanent employee status to contractual workers has been a long-standing demand of trade unions. Workers brought in on contract are reportedly not only paid less but have no provisions such as medical cover, a pension, provident fund or job security.
“Under the Contract Labour Act, 1970, if a worker has worked for more than 240 days for an employer as a contract labourer, then he or she will be given the status of an employee. But far from implementing it, this government has brought in ‘fixed term employment’ under which no worker can demand a permanent employee status,” Abhishek Kumar, Delhi General Secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), told TRT World.
Fixed-term employment is a contract under which an employee is hired for a specific time period only, with the payment fixed in advance. Workers hired under this contract will not be on the company’s payroll and will not receive certain benefits like other employees.
“This strike has given a very important message - no matter how much this government tries to spread communal hatred, when it comes to the poor and the real issues of their life and livelihood, they will teach this government a lesson,” Kumar told TRT World.