By Sarbatrik Brahma:
For the strike that was called on September 2, 2016, the conveners included all national bodies of employees and workers at the all-India level. The state and local-level bodies not linked with them had joined the call. Then independent federations of employees in coal, steel, electricity, banking, insurance had joined. This was followed by organisations of university and college teachers and associations of engineers in some private sectors. Moreover, support has been extended by the All India Newspaper Workers Federation as well as the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), the oldest body of journalists in Delhi. Since more than 150 million people participated in it, it is imperative to look at what was being asked for.
1. A minimum wage of INR 18,000 for every working person in India.
This is the minimum amount required to sustain a family of three in India today. Now it may appear that with two earning members, any family may earn INR 36,000 and acquire a middle class lifestyle. But in reality, things don’t pan out like that. At present, the national minimum wage is around INR 8000, but most families as a whole earn less than that. Also in cases like say, assistant of a shopkeeper/plumber, things are different. There the government will have to bear some portions of the wage as part of the state’s social welfare. Many things will have to be discussed and decided. Moreover, the figure of INR 18,000 isn’t arbitrary. It was unanimously agreed upon at a conference some years back, where the central government was also a party.
2. Universal pension of 3,000 for every retired person in India.
Till recently, people used to receive a good amount of pension if they in government jobs. Private sector employees never had anything at all. At present, they are getting INR 2500 after retirement based on contributions from their own salary during years of service. The demand is to provide INR 3000 pension to every Indian above 60 years at government expenditure. Is this too much to askfor?
3. Same wages and benefits for people working under contract.
A large section of people who are employed in both government and private jobs, are not regular employees, but work on temporary contract. They never become permanent even after doing the same job for the same company for many years. Why do employers do this? Because they are made to do the same work as permanent employees by paying a third of the salary they would pay to a permanent employee coupled with no benefits. Employers and government officials say that businessmen should have this freedom to decide so that they are encouraged to provide more jobs. But there must be some limits. Providing employment and paying employees for their work is not charity.
4. Need to control price rise of food.
This thing need not be explained. Farmers have been committing suicide because they are not getting sufficient selling price for their crops, but we end up paying more. The people who end up gaining are big businessmen who buy crops and sell them to the wholesale market. They buy and keep stock and then sells them at higher prices when there is a shortage in the market. They control the price of food. It is called ‘stock holding’ or ‘forward/future trading’, which the government has not banned despite repeated calls. On top of that, agricultural production has been going down because farmers don’t have any money to invest. The government at least needs to control the prices of seeds and diesel, while constructing wells, providing irrigation and crop insurance. The price of not doing all these is that, after 70 years of independence, 48% of our irrigable land depend solely on rainwater. If things go like this, we will soon see a mass famine or mass starvation.
5. Allow employees to form their own organisations and allow them to negotiate their own issues with their employers.
Right to organise is a fundamental right everywhere. But still if employees in an organisation form their own association, it is considered to be a cardinal sin. In India, many employees belonging to middle class believe that forming unions is for lower class employees and manual workers; and is not for ‘dignified’ white collar jobs. Look at the IT Sector today. Most IT professionals work for around 12 hours a day, against the international norm of 8 hours a day. After office hours, many try to complete their assignments at home and end up working on holidays too. Still, many don’t have the right to have their own organisation and negotiate their salaries and other benefits with their respective employers. Ironically, these employers are represented in respective Chambers of Commerce to negotiate their issues with the respective governments at any time. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) which monitors employee-employer relations throughout the world had declared the right to organise and negotiate as a fundamental right of every worker, high or low-earning, a long time back. But the Indian government hasn’t signed this declaration yet. That should be done.
6. Don’t sell away Public Sector Companies
The government says that they require money, but this is not the solution. Many public sector companies are highly profitable, but many of them are undergoing losses because the government takes away the bulk of their profit and then doesn’t invest extra money in them. However, a huge amount of unrecovered debt from wealthy business people are lying at government-run banks. A small portion of that will be sufficient to update their infrastructure and make them more competitive and profitable. This makes way for a permanent source of income. Moreover, these companies have a very important role in our economy since independence.
1. Will a one-day strike solve everything?
The problems discussed above are not new. They have been with us ever since independence, but have been magnified in last 20 years. It took a long time to unite these many associations for a common purpose, since most of them have their own political beliefs that clash against each other. Even then, at some point of time, people have to come together. That’s why, this strike has no political colour and should not be given one. Earlier, an annual strike on these same issues didn’t get that much attention, but it was only because of massive unity, that it has got a lot of attention since last year. And after many such strikes, it is only last year, that the government formed a committee to discuss these issues. Sadly, after 1 year, only 1 meeting has been called, i.e. the opening meeting. So you see a greater unity this time, with even a section of journalists supporting the strike.
2. Do strikes ever solve anything?
In the industrial world, there have been strikes since the great Industrial Revolution. In those days, people worked in factories from day to night for 15-16 hours and lived in underground slums. Demands were met by employers only when their profits were hurt by continuous strikes. These are all stories from today’s developed world. None of the things like free education up to a certain stage, unemployment benefits, maternity benefits, pension and other social welfare schemes that the people in Europe and US enjoy now came as charity from the government or employers. All those things had to be forcibly acquired by the working people in a similar manner.
3. Do strikes happen in developed Western countries?
Yes, it happens. The people there happen to be very conscious and will easily strike back. Workers and employees are now in a big struggle against some decisions of the government in France. France saw a lot of country-wide protests just months back. In US, workers are striking for increase in minimum wage.
4. What should the government do to solve this and avoid such problems?
Firstly, the government has to change its outlook towards development. Only encouraging investors will not mean anything. Giving any amount of concessions to big industries, in the hope that they will provide employment doesn’t help. Instead, the main focus has to be on ensuring a minimum decent standard of living for all. Education, health, equal opportunities and social welfare benefits for are key starting points. Our economy won’t grow if 90% of Indian families earn below Rs. 10,000 a month.