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
RAJWINDER AND LAKHVINDER LEADING A WORKERS’STRIKE IN LUDHIANA
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.
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.
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.
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.