Face of New Labour

A new breed of ac­tivists is de­mand­ing labour rights across in­dus­trial units. They keep their own coun­sel and most are not af­fil­i­ated with any po­lit­i­cal party.


They are a new breed of ac­tivists who are not af­fil­i­ated with any po­lit­i­cal party.

Big labour is back. The Maruti em­ploy­ees’ stir hogged the head­lines for months but it’s not the only re­cent in­stance of labour un­rest. Trade union dis­putes are spread­ing across the coun­try. Maruti Udyog, Dun­lop, Dhan­laxmi Bank, Coal In­dia, Bosch, tex­tile work­ers in Ludhiana—the list of dis­pute-hit en­ti­ties is long. The num­ber of man-days lost has shot up from 9 lakh in 2002 to 16 lakh in 2010. In the first half of this year, nearly 1 mil­lion man-days have been lost. Tak­ing own­er­ship of these protests are new independent trade unions and a set of young ac­tivists cut­ting across unions and party lines. Some of them ul­ti­mately suc­cumbed to money and pres­sure but the rest are as­sid­u­ously build­ing unions at or­gan­i­sa­tions where it was hith­erto in­con­ceiv­able.

IFB Au­to­mo­tive, at Bi­nola in Haryana, is a lead­ing tech­nol­ogy provider for safety- and com­fort-re­lated prod­ucts in the au­to­mo­tive sec­tor. Its client list in­cludes the big­gies such as Honda, Ford, Toy­ota and Hyundai. “Ev­ery time you push back your front seat in the car, re­mem­ber that our hard work has gone into mak­ing it pos­si­ble. We worked to make life com­fort­able for oth­ers, of­ten work­ing over­time with­out ex­tra wages. Now, over 250 work­ers have been ex­pelled with­out an ad­e­quate ex­pla­na­tion,” says Manoj Ku­mar, 25. He is not your text­book trade union leader. A po­lit­i­cal sci­ence grad­u­ate, he heads IFB Mill Work­ers’ Union which is spear­head­ing the protest against the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to ter­mi­nate the work­ers. “A day af­ter 250 work­ers were packed off by the man­age­ment on June 11, we de­cided to form a union. I had never been af­fil­i­ated with any po­lit­i­cal party. I thought I should put my ed­u­ca­tion to good use to lead these work­ers,” he says. Ku­mar has al­ready pre­pared an over­time bill of Rs 62 lakh for the work­ers and sub­mit­ted it to the district labour com­mis­sioner for in­quiry.

In Ludhiana, two young men, Ra­jwinder, 29, and Lakhwinder, 28, have led 1,500 power loom work­ers on an in­def­i­nite strike since Septem­ber 22 for bet­ter wages, rea­son­able work hours and safer fac­tory floors. A poor brick-kiln worker’s son who now heads the pow­er­ful Tex­tile Maz­door Union ( TMU) that has stalled all work in 95 medium tex­tile units in Ludhiana’s in­dus­trial district, Ra­jwinder says even as a child, while help­ing mix the clay with which his fa­ther made bricks, he knew some­thing was “hor­ri­bly wrong”. His fam­ily, like scores of other house­holds of brick-kiln work­ers, was forced to live on the brink of star­va­tion while the kiln own­ers grew rich.

“A whole new world opened to me in col­lege,” says Ra­jwinder, re­call­ing the time when he first read free­dom fighter Bha­gat Singh’s jail diary. The young man de­voured the ex­ten­sive lit­er­a­ture on labour move­ments, from the Howrah rail­way­men’s ag­i­ta­tion for shorter work hours in 1862 to more con­tem­po­rary move­ments in the 1980s led by Datta Sa­mant. In 2005, Ra­jwinder and Lakhwinder, a diploma-holder in cast­ing and mould­ing plas­tics from Chandi­garh’s Cen­tral Sci­en­tific In­stru­ments Or­gan­i­sa­tion, headed for Ludhiana. They launched the independent Karkhana Maz­door

Union ( KMU) in June 2008, whose mem­ber­ship grew rapidly as work­ers got in­creas­ingly dis­il­lu­sioned with older party-af­fil­i­ated labour unions. The sub­se­quent suc­cess of a tex­tile work­ers’ strike in Septem­ber 2010 es­tab­lished the KMU’S dom­i­nance across Ludhiana. It paved the way for a sep­a­rate TMU with plans to unionise Ludhiana’s cy­cle in­dus­try, au­to­mo­bile an­cil­lary units and hosiery work­ers.

Pun­jab con­tin­ues to have one of the low­est rates of min­i­mum wages in the coun­try, which, TMU claims, has not been com­pre­hen­sively re­viewed since 1970. Pri­vate fac­tory own­ers are re­luc­tant to pay even this low wage. “Tex­tile work­ers are ter­ri­bly ex­ploited. A sin­gle worker runs twice the num­ber of ma­chines he did a decade ago, yet takes home less money than he did then if one ad­justs for in­fla­tion. Work­ing con­di­tions are ex­tremely un­hy­gienic,” says Ra­jwinder, re­count­ing an in­stance in 2008 when a lo­cal tyre­man­u­fac­tur­ing unit’s man­age­ment sim­ply dis­owned a worker who was killed in a shop floor ac­ci­dent. “These are very poor peo­ple who live in unimag­in­able squalor. Work­ers have no choice but to fight. Things can’t get any worse for them,” he says.

Ra­jwinder and Lakhwinder be­lieve the stage for the cur­rent labour un­rest in many parts of In­dia was set with the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the econ­omy that was ini­ti­ated in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The new un­rest, the duo says, comes af­ter a long “ag­i­ta­tional gap” since the 1990s wherein tra­di­tional labour unions, es­sen­tially geared to deal­ing with pub­lic sec­tor man­age­ments, were un­sure of how to tackle pri­vate own­ers, new sec­tors and mam­moth so­cial sec­tor schemes of the Cen­tral Govern­ment. “The new independent unions have a younger lead­er­ship and are more in sync with the as­pi­ra­tions of an equally young work­force,” says Lakhwinder.

Rakhi Se­h­gal, 41, with short hair and a care­free grin on her face, lifts her fist as she says, “I love a good fight.” Her union, the National Trade Union Ini­tia­tive ( NTUI), has grown from


a mem­ber­ship of just 500 work­ers when it was founded in 2006 to nearly 11 lakh now. While tra­di­tional trade unions were still for­mu­lat­ing their strat­egy, NTUI for­ayed into unor­gan­ised labour, pri­vate fac­to­ries and or­gan­is­ing women work­ers.

Se­h­gal, a post-grad­u­ate in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions from Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Washington, first came to Gur­gaon in 2003 to con­duct field study for her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion. “I was taken aback by the prob­lems work­ers faced and de­cided to stay back and or­gan­ise them,” she says.

“Un­like tra­di­tional unions, we lis­tened to work­ers and made the or­gan­i­sa­tion demo­cratic. The cen­tral lead­er­ship isn’t al­lowed to turn down de­ci­sions taken at the grass­roots,” she adds. NTUI en­gages with em­ploy­ers and the state on is­sues of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and reg­u­la­tion of em­ploy­ment in work­places. Its in­ter­ven­tions span from DHL em­ploy­ees across the coun­try to health work­ers in Pun­jab.

Tra­di­tional trade unions have failed to in­no­vate and re­stricted their ac­tiv­i­ties to pub­lic sec­tor units. The once pow­er­ful Left trade union, All In­dia Trade Union Congress, has lit­tle clout among work­ers in new in­dus­tries. A.R. Sindhu, 38, sec­re­tary of the All In­dia Fed­er­a­tion of An­gan­wadi Work­ers and Helpers af­fil­i­ated to the

CPI(M)’ s trade union Cen­tre of In­dian Trade Unions ( CITU), is one of few trade union­ists who have tried to reach out to work­ers em­ployed in Govern­ment so­cial sec­tor schemes. “They are the driv­ing force be­hind all Govern­ment pro­grammes but they live in abysmal con­di­tions. The Govern­ment has on its rolls the ser­vices of 41.39 lakh women who re­ceive an av­er­age of Rs 50 per day for work­ing in so­cial sec­tor schemes,” says the physics grad­u­ate from Ker­ala who had moved to Delhi in 2000 when her hus­band Kr­ishna Prasad be­came national pres­i­dent of the Stu­dents Fed­er­a­tion of In­dia, the CPI(M)’ s stu­dent wing. Prasad re­turned to Ker­ala and be­came a leg­is­la­tor. Sindhu opted to stay on in Delhi to or­gan­ise an­gan­wadi work­ers in north In­dia. “Af­ter an­gan­wadi work­ers held a huge pub­lic protest in the cap­i­tal in 2010, the Union Govern­ment was forced to dou­ble their salary from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000,” she says.

Lead­ers are emerg­ing from the fac­tory floor. Shar­a­vana Ku­mar, 24, has all work­ers at mo­bile hand­set man­u­fac­turer Nokia’s Tamil Nadu plant in Chen­nai on speed dial. He, along with P. Suresh, also 24, set up the Nokia In­dia Tozhi­lazhi Sang­ham in 2010. Fin­nwatch, the watch­dog for Fin­nish com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in de­vel­op­ing na­tions, re­ports in Septem­ber 2010 that Nokia’s em­ploy­ees in Chen­nai are be­ing paid low salaries “even in the In­dian con­text”. “Ini­tially, work­ers were scared to unionise. Then we talked to them about their rights and asked them to come un­der the ban­ner of an independent union,” says Ku­mar. Nokia’s Chen­nai work­ers

went on strike in July 2010 and se­cured a pay re­vi­sion.

In the small fish­er­men’s ham­let of Bagu­ram Jal­pai next to Haripur in West Bengal lives De­ba­sis Shya­mal, 32, a leader of the National Fish­work­ers’ Fo­rum ( NFF) that rep­re­sents around 7 mil­lion fish­er­men. In 2004, he was in­ducted into the NFF ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee at 24. Shya­mal is a grad­u­ate but his seven un­cles are all fish­er­men. “My life changed af­ter I met Harekr­ishna Deb­nath, the late

NFF chair­per­son, and Fa­ther Thomas Kocherry, the founder of Ker­ala Swatantra Mat­sy­athozhi­lali Fed­er­a­tion,” says Shya­mal. He got in­volved in the fish­er­men’s move­ment him­self.

Shya­mal played an in­stru­men­tal role in the Machi­mar Ad­hikar Rashtriya Ab­hiyan, a cam­paign of fish­ing folk that started in Jhakhau, Kutch, on May 1, 2008 and fin­ished in Kolkata on June 27, 2008, af­ter cov­er­ing ma­jor fish­ing vil­lages along the en­tire seaboard. The cam­paign de­mands in­cluded scrap­ping of the pro­posed Coastal Man­age­ment Zone ( CMZ) no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Union Min­istry of Environment and Forests and recog­ni­tion of the rights of fish­er­men. The Govern­ment mod­i­fied the CMZ Act af­ter the move­ment.

Independent trade unions are of­ten ac­cused of a my­opic fac­tory-level ap­proach at the cost of the larger trade union move­ment. Sonu Ku­mar aka Sonu Gu­j­jar, 25, the union leader who brought Maruti Suzuki to its knees, is ac­cused of such an ap- proach. ‘Prad­hanji’, as he is called, led the young tribe of work­ers through three strikes since June, protest­ing against the man­age­ment’s “un­fair prac­tices” and de­mand­ing that their union, the Maruti Suzuki Em­ploy­ees Union, be recog­nised. Maruti Suzuki In­dia wit­nessed a pro­duc­tion loss of at least 50,000 units and over Rs 1,800 crore in rev­enue since June. Sonu took a set­tle­ment pack­age worth over Rs 40 lakh and quit in early Novem­ber, leav­ing col­leagues to their fate. An In­dus­trial Train­ing In­sti­tute Rohtak grad­u­ate, he had joined Maruti in 2006 when its Mane­sar unit was be­ing set up and de­cided to stand for the Maruti Udyog Kam­gar Union ( MUKU) pres­i­dent’s post in April. MUKU be­ing Gur­gaon work­ers-dom­i­nated body, Mane­sar work­ers de­cided to launch their own union. He was elected pres­i­dent. “He raised such im­por­tant is­sues and with such

>> con­vic­tion that he man­aged to in­spire us,” says Parvin­der, a worker.

Sonu now faces both crit­i­cism and ful­some praise for the fi­nal agree­ment reached on Oc­to­ber 21 be­tween the man­age­ment and the work­ers. “We thought he had the ca­pa­bil­ity and the con­vic­tion to lead us,” says Rishi, a former aide. His sup­port­ers say it was dif­fi­cult to se­cure the work­ers’ ini­tial de­mands as the govern­ment largely spoke in man­age­ment’s favour. Su­ber Singh Ya­dav, leader of the Suzuki Pow­er­train In­dia Em­ploy­ees Union, says part of the prob­lem is Sonu’s age. “There was a lot of pres­sure from all sides. A leader shouldn’t be scared; he is too young,” he says. Sonu is re­fus­ing to talk to the me­dia now.

New unions run the risk of not putting demo­cratic pro­cesses in place and get­ting hi­jacked by a leader who treats it like a fief. “The task is to im­bue the spirit of democ­racy among the work­ers. In north In­dia, work­ers of­ten fol­low a leader with­out giv­ing se­ri­ous thought about the or­gan­i­sa­tion and its mis­sion,” says Sindhu.

Many work­ers in the BPO sec­tor ap­proach unions only if they face a cri­sis. “We of­ten end up play­ing agony aunts. The first salary of many work­ers is of­ten more than the last drawn by their par­ents. It is very dif­fi­cult to build a cred­i­ble and com­mit­ted lead­er­ship be­cause we face the same cri­sis the in­dus­try faces: heavy at­tri­tion,” says Kar­tik Shekhar of UNITES, a

BPO in­dus­try union.

SONU GU­J­JAR, Gur­gaon



Pres­i­dent, Maruti Suzuki Em­ploy­ees Union Diploma from In­dus­trial Train­ing In­sti­tute, Rohtak

Sonu was the face of the labour un­rest in Suzuki’s Mane­sar plant. The com­pany wit­nessed a loss of 50,000 units and over Rs 1,800 crore due to a labour dis­pute since June. He has since ac­cepted an exit pack­age and left the union.


Sec­re­tary, All In­dia Fed­er­a­tion of An­gan­wadi Work­ers & Helpers

Ed­u­ca­tion Physics grad­u­ate

Claim to fame Sindhu is one of few trade union­ists who have tried to reach out to work­ers em­ployed in Govern­ment so­cial sec­tor schemes. Af­ter an­gan­wadi work­ers held a huge pub­lic protest in the cap­i­tal in 2010, the Govern­ment was forced to dou­ble their salary from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000.

REUBEN Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

SU­BIR Halder/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

Haripur, West Bengal Ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber, National Fish­work­ers’ Fo­rum

Grad­u­ate from Prab­hat Ku­mar Col­lege, East Mid­na­pur


Claim to fame

Shya­mal played a prom­i­nent role as con­vener of the protest move­ment against the pro­posed nu­clear plant in Haripur. It re­sulted in the West Bengal govern­ment scrap­ping the project al­to­gether in Au­gust this year.

HK Ra­jashekar/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

Chen­nai Founder, Nokia In­dia Tozhi­lazhi Sang­ham

Pur­su­ing Bcom by cor­re­spon­dence


Claim to fame

Ku­mar, along with P. Suresh, set up the Nokia In­dia Tozhi­lazhi Sang­ham in 2010. Work­ers at the Chen­nai plant of the hand­set man­u­fac­turer went on strike in July 2010. Ku­mar had the last laugh as Nokia agreed to a long-term pay re­vi­sion.

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