The South African Federation Trade Unions congratulates the 200 million workers in India who brought the country to a halt on 8-9 January, in what must be the biggest ever general strike in a single country.
They were protesting against the government’s anti-labour policies which favour corporates over the interests of the working class, and the government’s arrogance and contempt towards workers.
The unions accused the Modi government of ignoring their 12-point charter of demands that raises issues of unemployment, price rises, minimum wages, pensions, increasing contractualisation, disinvestment, universal social security cover and strict compliance with labour laws.
Among the demands raised by the protesters were minimum wages of 18,000 rupees a month (ZAR3600), assured pensions of at least 3,000 rupees (ZAR600), fixed-term employment, an end to privatisation and disinvestment from Public Sector Units (PSUs), an end to contractualisation and foreign direct investment in defence and railways, and social security for all workers.
“They are winding up PSUs and surrendering our natural resources to big capital,” said Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Unions Congress (AITUC).
She also criticised Modi government’s move to introduce fixed-term employment which lets employers hire workers for specific projects that are seasonal in nature. This encourages contractualisation and is against the spirit of the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act. Contract workers are considered the most vulnerable as they are rarely paid minimum wages or receive any social security benefits.
Discontent against the codification of the 44 existing labour laws is also widespread. “In the garb of codification, they are diluting provisions meant to protect workers. ‘Hire and fire’ regime is being encouraged,” says Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)
Workers were also opposing a move to replace the Industrial Disputes Act with a new labour code on industrial relations that increases the threshold from 100 to 300 workers – i.e., allows factories with up to 300 workers to retrench workers or shut down without the government’s permission. Kaur says that 86% of industries employ less than 300 workers and will now be free to exploit workers using this provision.
Another issue was a government move to bar the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) from all tripartite meetings, which the unions say is being done because of a political vendetta and an attempt to delegitimise them. In retaliation the federation is boycotting meetings with the labour ministry.
The workers are angry at the Modi government’s failure to create jobs and contain price rises. “The Modi government promised scores of jobs, but in reality, we have seen rising unemployment and farmer suicides. Anti-worker policies are being introduced. We fought the British to secure rights like the Trade Union Act, but this government is trying to dilute these laws in favour of big businesses,” said Santosh Rai, Delhi state secretary of All India Central Council of Trade Unions.
Very importantly, the strike was not called by only one union, but jointly by ten trade unions and with the support of almost all major federations, representing industrial, service and state workers and the employees of banks, insurance, telecom, transport and other sectors.
The strike also brought together workers from unorganised sectors like construction, beedi (cigarette) street vendors, domestic workers, home-based workers, rickshaw, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers and agricultural workers. It also and achieved solidarity from farmers, students and teachers.
Workers have vowed to bring down the Modi government if their demands are not addressed.
SAFTU also applauds the workers of Mali who are staging a three-day action plan which started on Wednesday, against the high cost of living and calls for “the harmonization of the retirement age and workers’ bonuses”.
The secretary general of the National Union of Workers of Mali (UNTM), Yacouba Katilee, says that the strike has attracted 95% support throughout the country. The government administration, the banks and services as well as the public transport have slowed down after the first day of the strike.
The Malian Radio and Television (ORTM) has switched between instrumental music and international news instead of its usual news and regular programmes.
These general strikes provide further evidence that, just as in the Zimbabawe public sector strikes, workers all over the world face exactly the same attacks by employers and governments, and are making exactly the same demands.
They are all raising the issues on which SAFTU and its community and civil society allies are campaigning, and which will be the main demands of the mass action culminating the national stayaway and marches oo 26-27 March 2019.
The Indian strike also shows the importance, just as in South Africa, of trade unions breaking out from their traditional base of workers in secure employment and forging links of solidarity with all the oppressed majority of people.
Workers of the world unite!
An injury to one is an injury to all!