February 28, 2012
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NEW DELHI // Millions of government workers are set to strike today in one of the biggest industrial actions in Indian history. All 11 of India’s central trade unions – each with at least 400,000 members – will take part.
They will be joined by about 5,000 local unions, after last-minute appeals for talks with the government were rejected over the weekend. The strikes will hit every sector of the government, including state-run banks, energy and telecom companies and the civil service, but will not include the railways.
The unions say they are protesting against rising prices, privatisation of state-run companies and the widespread violation of workers’ rights. “The policies of liberalisation over the past 20 years have made workers poorer in real terms and led to extreme disparities of wealth,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “The workers are creating all the profit but are treated like beasts. There is a resentment and anger churning at the ground level that has created the atmosphere for these strikes.”
The display of unity among the unions – whose affiliations stretch across the political spectrum – reflects their desire to regain the power they held during the years of militant labour activity in the 1970s and 1980s. “The traditional trade unions in this country came out of the manufacturing sector,” said Bibek Debroy, an economist with the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank.
“Their membership is quite old and losing relevance compared with local unions in the services and rural sector. They are looking for a peg to re-establish their identity and influence.” Many question how relevant the unions can be in a country where nine out of 10 workers are in the informal sector, with no job security or possibility of union representation.
“It’s laughable for these unions to say they represent the poor,” said Samir Saran, the vice president of the Observer Research Foundation, another Delhi think tank. “Members of trade unions have formal jobs. They are far better looked after than the majority of workers in this country.
“The reality is they represent a very organised political force from the past that wants to reassert itself.” The strike offers a chance for some of the country’s most oppressed workers to protest very real issues. In a developing state such as Chhattisgarh, for instance, which has seen a huge influx of energy companies, mines and manufacturing plants in recent years, small unions are struggling for the most basic rights.
“Workers here are attacked by thugs or thrown in jail on false charges if they try to set up a union,” said Bansi Sahu, of the Chhattisgarh Engineering Workers Union. “Land is taken from farmers to build a power plant and then the jobs are given to people from other states because the owners don’t want local communities protesting against the low wages and terrible safety conditions.”
In India, desperate levels of poverty often force workers into a grudging acceptance of exploitative labour practices. The one-day stoppage comes at a difficult time for the government, which has been rocked by corruption scandals and has struggled to contain inflation, which was more than 9 per cent for the first 11 months of 2011 and only recently moderated to about 6.5 per cent.
“The danger for the government is not the strike itself, but whether it becomes fashionable,” said Mr Saran. “Like we saw with the anti-corruption movement last year, these agitations can have a spiralling effect. “The unions smell blood. If even one of their demands resonates in one or two of the provinces and gets taken up by opposition parties, then suddenly the government could have a serious problem on its hands.”