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Bharat Bandh: Millions face-down Modi’s labour agenda

by Tom Barnes on October 20, 2016
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A massive, nationwide strike caused major disruption to India’s economy on 2 September, popularised as Bharat Bandh (literally ‘India closed’ in Hindi/Sanskrit). Some unions have claimed this was the largest general strike in history, with up to 150 million workers involved and costs to business of around $US 2.7 billion. While these figures are probably impossible to verify, the strike was highly significant with virtually all public sector units, banks—including at least 500,000 bank workers—and electricity power stations closed, as well as insurance companies and, in many regions, trains, bus services and schools. Tens of thousands of coal miners joined the strike as well as university and college teachers. Many large private sector firms were also closed down or substantially affected.

The strike reflects a clash between 10 of India’s largest trade union federations and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A rightwing populist and member of the fascist-like Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Modi was elected in a landslide victory two years ago with promises to facilitate development and higher living standards among India’s majority-rural population. Part of Modi’s agenda has been to reform India’s system of labour laws as well as his ‘Make in India’ initiative which aims to transform India into the global destination of choice for manufacturing investment.

Understanding the longer-term context is helpful here. While previous governments liberalised trade, investment rules and finance, there have been very few changes to labour laws until now. The core of India’s employment relations system is based on laws enacted shortly after independence in 1947. Many of these were based upon colonial-era laws. Their persistence is controversial today among policymakers, industrialists and intellectuals. In the narrative of the political right, supported by many powerful industrialists, these laws are anachronistic and reduce ‘formal sector’ employment in industry, forcing millions of workers and businesses to operate informally—i.e., outside the formal system of state regulations—due to the burdensome regulations they supposedly impose on businesses.

But most of these laws are not implemented in practice or relatively easy for employers to avoid. For example, the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 formally requires businesses with 100 or more workers to seek state government permission to close operations or sack workers. Yet many businesses have used ‘voluntary redundancy schemes’ to avoid this requirement. The Contract Labour Act 1970 limits the use of temporary or labour-hire work in medium-to-large firms. But field research in various parts of India finds that this law is routinely ignored, often via corruption between industrialists and state officials. And India has a plethora of minimum wage laws for workers in different sectors—but few of these are applied in practice and many workers are unaware they exist.

Despite the evidence, the BJP has ploughed ahead with labour law reforms supposedly designed to create more formal jobs in industry and attract more foreign investment. Since its election, the Modi government has sought to consolidate changes pioneered by several BJP-led state governments by introducing two ‘Labour Codes’ that, they argue, simplify existing national laws. The most recent of these bills, introduced in April 2015, seeks to unify three key laws into one. The new law would lift the threshold for large firms seeking state permission for layoffs from 100 to 300 employees. The revised law also imposes a penalty of ₹20,000-50,000 (about $US 300-750) and possible imprisonment for individual workers who participate in a strike for which two weeks’ advance notice has not been given—a decree previously only reserved for public sector workers. Trade unions are also angry at the Bill’s proposal that union office-bearers must be employed in the same industry as union members, a decree that contradicts the longstanding practice of workers seeking leadership from ‘outsider’ union federations.

For the past two years, these changes have caught the ire of India’s unions, which are dominated by several enormous federations—known as Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUOs). Most, though not all, CTUOs are affiliated with competing political parties, including the ruling BJP, the Indian National Congress (INC), the different Communist Parties and other parties based on versions of nationalism, regional identity or caste politics. The recent Bharat Bandh is the result of coordinated action by 10 CTUOs who have been promoting a 12 point charter of demands on the Modi government. These demands include calls to expand subsidised food schemes, enforce existing labour laws including minimum wages, implement universal social security, an end to privatisation of public sector units and a ban of foreign investment in railways and defence. The same CTUOs organised a national strike 12 months ago which attracted a similar number of participants. In February 2013, tens of millions also joined a national strike. However, the BJP-affiliated union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) once again pulled out of this year’s strike after negotiations with the government.

This most recent general strike comes on the back of important conflicts in different industries. In March, over 70,000 mathadi workers (head loaders), especially those employed in railways, transport and government warehouses, struck in Navi (New) Mumbai in response to labour law changes by the BJP and its rightwing allies in the state government of Maharashtra. In the auto industry, a strike by 3000 Honda workers in Tapukara, 100 km southwest of New Delhi was heavily repressed by the state BJP government, with over 1000 workers arrested, 136 workers fired and dozens jailed. This comes after the most serious conflict in the auto industry to-date, at Maruti Suzuki in the nearby town of Manesar which resulted in thousands of sackings, the tragic death of an HR manager and 147 workers jailed, of which about a dozen were still in jail without conviction at the time of writing, over four years since the dispute ended.

A significant feature of these strikes was the involvement of thousands of temporary workers, very few of whom have representation or support from trade unions. Another important strike took place recently in Bengaluru (Bangalore) where up to 400,000 workers emptied the city’s garments factories and flooded the streets in response to government changes to state pensions (the Provident Fund or PF). Key features of this strike included its primarily ‘wildcat’ character—local CTUOs were taken by surprise, despite having organised their own, much smaller response to the changes—and that the strikers were overwhelmingly women. This massive protest succeeded in deferring the Modi government’s plans.

Given that women tend to work outside the male-dominated structures of most trade unions, another highly significant development occurred in the tea plantations of Munnar in Kerala in September 2015, when female plantation workers established a new women migrant-led  union—Pembila Urumai (‘Unity of Women’ in Tamil)—to break with male-dominated unions that had virtually ignored their interests.

No doubt, many of these erstwhile ‘unorganised’ and informal workers participated in the 2 September general strike. But the real challenge remains what happens in between these set-piece events, in a society in which the labour laws and social protections that have provoked such ferocious debate among industrialists, union federations and the political classes are so rarely applied.

Based on a version first published in Made in China, a Quarterly on Chinese Labour, Civil Society and Rights

Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a postdoctoral research fellow at the newly-established Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at the Australian Catholic University. He did his PhD in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His new book, Informal Labour in Urban India: Three Cities, Three Journeys, is out with Routledge in early 2015. He blogs at http://tombarnes.info/.

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