By Pinjra Tod:
Editor’s note: May Day, or Labour Day, observed on 1st May every year, celebrates industrial labourers and workers throughout the world. It all started in the United States where back in 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the country walked off their jobs to protest for 8-hour work days without a pay cut.
The day is now celebrated as International Workers’ Day in countries throughout the world, including India.
Where on one hand, the struggles of those who labour have shaped all our lives in direct and indirect ways, women workers have played their own very particular role in shaping this history itself. Situating the struggle of women workers in this larger history, Pinjra Tod has shared the following instances where women workers fought for their rights in the country to recognise how instrumental they have been.
Mobile phones buzzed across divisions spread out in the hill area, and women co-ordinated about tomorrow. Tomorrow arrived and thousands of women plantation workers descended to the Munnar junction. A sight so unexpected in that part of the country, when women, young and old took the streets into their hands and controlled everything, from halting traffic, blocking the National Highway to shooing away ministers and trade union leaders! This was the onset of the nine-day strike from 4th – 13th September 2015 of the plantation workers for a bonus hike against the Kannan Devan Hill Tea Plantations, the largest company in south India. Women sat from dawn to dusk, disrupting the touristic pace of this small hill station in Kerala. The administration yelled, “Law and Order! Investments! Goods deficit! Bloody Tamil women!” and women fought, being supported by the locals who fed them tea and biscuits and who ferried them from junction to the nearby hills daily. They kept the men away saying, “they are easy to buy, with money and alcohol,” and after nine days won their complete 20% bonus demand. These strikes led to independent collectivisation of women workers (primarily Dalit) in one of the oldest pinjras of the world ‘the plantation’, leading to the formation of an all-women trade union Pembillai Orumai (Women Unity).
On 1st Nov 2014, ASTI Electronics Ltd. located in the industrial hub of Auto industries, Manesar, fired all the 310 contract workers, where over 250 were women workers, most as young as 19-20. Women were employed in the day shift and a majority of them work on tedious assembling of wires in a harness which ASTI supplies to companies like Maruti Suzuki and Honda. The reason for dismissal cited by the management was a usual one: low demand of work. Random dismissal from work defines the lives of contract workers in this industrial belt, but this time the ASTI workers, especially the women, refused to take this anymore. They had had enough, enough of being constantly treated as ‘dispensable’, as ‘replaceable’, and took a pledge to fight for the ‘dignity’ and ‘izzat’ of their labour. They launched a sit-in protest from 3rd November right outside the factory gate (but were forcibly shifted to a few meters away by the management a few days later). After getting no response from the management for a month, many women sat on an indefinite hunger strike from 25th Nov for 15 days.
The ASTI protest was a historic protest. It was the first large-scale struggle by contract workers in that area. For the first time, in the history of struggles in the Gurgaon-Manesar industrial belt, women were out in huge numbers, and out at night, the forbidden night. The protesting women workers of ASTI broke many pinjras with the fire of their resistance, they fought the management, they fought the society, and they fought their families. The management said “these women are weak, they can’t protest”, and they did. They sat outside the factory gate for 2 whole months and together experienced a tumultuous journey of collective rage, struggle, disappointment, and joy. The local villagers scoffed at them, “look at these immoral women sleeping on the streets at night,” and yet they slept, slept on those streets and redefined the nights of fear with the power of resistance, with the melancholy of sorrow, with the laughter of gossip. Their husbands and families yelled, “Leave the strike right now, it’s either your tent or your home (sansar),” and yet they stood their ground with militant conviction and pride. The management made desperate calls to fathers and brothers in far-away places of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa and Kerala, to inform them of their daughters and sisters “immoral” acts on the streets and inside ‘the tent’, but the women held on drawing strength and inspiration from each other, from the exhilaration of struggle.
On 21st Feb 2014, shift A workers of Baxter India Ltd, an American pharmaceutical company for “life-saving” drugs, struck work inside the factory, later joined by B and C shift workers. The Baxter plant has around 293 workers, of which 100 are women. Permanent workers earned around Rs.7000-8000 while contract workers would get Rs.5600, which falls way below the minimum wage in Haryana. The strike was in response to the repression unleashed by the management when the workers filed for registration of their own union. 45 workers who signed for filing Union recognition were transferred to its Waluj plant near Aurangabad in Maharashtra while around 6 workers were later suspended and terminated.
On the day of the strike, female workers fought with their families and stayed back inside the plant with their male comrades, the whole night. The management security and police did not allow any food inside the premises the entire day, when workers from nearby plants tried getting food inside the plant. Late into the evening the next day, negotiations with the management got workers their demand of reinstating all 45 transferred workers back in the Manesar plant. The six suspended workers, however, remain suspended, and a court case continues regarding the same. Between 21st and 27th May 2014, 18 workers who were leading the process of union formation were suspended and the factory gate was closed on them. The Baxter workers then began an indefinite sit-in occupation outside the company gate. After facing rejection of their “union file” for three consecutive times, the union was finally registered in June 2014.
The militancy of the women workers in these strikes left everyone, from the management to fellow male workers, astounded. They were at the forefront of the struggle as they confronted the management head-on, negotiated with the police, screamed at the Labour Commissioner and challenged corrupt central trade union leaders. They also exerted pressure on their own male comrade leadership, who constantly worried after reaching a decision, “Will the women agree?”. When an HMS union leader had refused to show up at the site of strike, the women called him up and threatened to commit suicide leaving behind a suicide letter that blamed him for their death. The union leader was forced to arrive on site immediately. When their union pradhan was abducted by management goons, the women workers rushed to the police station in the middle of the night, demanding an immediate investigation and yelled at the policemen who kept insisting that they “go home”. After being fed up of returning home every night during the sit-in protest, the women defied the opinion of the male leadership and decided amongst themselves to stay back at the dharna stall at night in order to exert moral pressure on the unresponsive management and central trade unions. This led to the unprecedented incident of 20,000 workers from factories with HMS unions across the Gurgaon-Manesar Belt halting work for a day in solidarity with the Baxter struggle. On the day when the flag-hoisting ceremony of the newly registered union took place, the women collectively decided that they will wear ‘red’ to mark the celebratory occasion smile emoticon.
The Kalyan Workers Strike that began on 4th January 2015, pierced through the extravagant showrooms of silk and gold that mark Kerela’s cities, even as there was a complete blackout of this powerful protest in the media. The Kalyan Sarees is a huge network of high-end clothing shops, that had also produced a racist advert featuring a queen-like Aishwarya Rai, adorned in silk and gold, being fanned by a black slave boy. It was, after all, slave-like conditions of work that marked the lives of saleswomen in the Kalyan Sarees showroom. They were paid abysmally low wages (Rs. 4000-5000), provided no toilet breaks and not allowed to sit even once during the intensive 10-12hr long shifts. Their work lives were defined by constant surveillance and humiliation, there was stringent frisking by male security guards every day and CCTV cameras were installed even outside the toilets. When the women would ask for toilet breaks, they would be told, “Why don’t you attach a hose pipe under your sari?”
But on 30th Dec, 6 saleswomen from Kalyan Sarees showroom in Kovilakathumpadam, Thrissur district, had enough and decided to ‘sit down’. The immediate trigger for the strike was the transfer notice served to them to punish the women for their exercise of agency, evident in taking the lead in joining a union and encouraging their co-workers, all women, to join. The irikkal samaram (sitting strike) by Padmini S. K, Mayadevi P, Devi Ravi, Rajani Dasan, Alphonsa Johnson, and Beena Sojan under the Asanghaditha Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU, meaning Unorganised Sector Labour Union) banner continued for 100 days. AMTU itself emerged through the efforts of a collective of women from the unorganised sector.
In the beginning, the management scoffed at the women’s audacity, one of them claimed,“Our staff share the same washrooms as our customers, I guess they are revolting because they are provided too much comfort.” But they had to finally bow down to the strength of the women workers’ relentless protest. As per an agreement reached on 15th April’15, the transfers had to be canceled, salaries paid for the duration of the strike and now the women can leave work when the clock strikes 7 pm, get a provident fund number and a salary slip and, most importantly, stools to sit on.