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4 Instances When Women Workers Marched For Their Rights, And Kicked Ass

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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.

The Munnar Strike

strikers in the victory of munnar strikeMobile 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).

The ASTI Struggle

13071863_1013147142105003_175919846858617016_oOn 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.

The Baxter Strike

13123400_1013690802050637_5704325107431424451_oOn 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 Irikkal Samaram (Sitting Strike)

13139043_1014906995262351_7248898086095702377_nThe 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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