Dynamics of Labour Discontent discussed at Asian College of Journalism

Addressing the students of Asian College of Journalism, Marco S, a labour rights activist from Germany who visits  India every year as part of his associations with the workers of the Faridabad industrial belt and the workers’ journal ‘Mazdoor Samachar’, said that the disruption caused by the 2008 global recession has brought the workers across nationalities together and  there are underlying connections between the labour unrest at the shop floors of Manesar and the Occupy Movement of Wall Street.

Presenting the case study of Gurgaon where around 150,000 English speaking BPO workers live in the same areas inhabited by around 400,000 blue- collared workers, he said,”These two groups which never had anything in common suddenly found their jobs being threatened and sometimes taken away because of similar reasons….Like in 1970s when after feeling cheated out of the promised jobs disillusioned students expressed solidarity with the workers, white-collared workers today are realizing that they have a lot in common with the ordinary, illiterate or semi-illiterate workers.”

Attributing  the recurrent violences in the factories in and around Delhi and Haryana to the impoverished living conditions and the increasing in formalisation of the jobs of the workers, Marco tried to place the workers’ plight in a historical context. Late 60s saw the emergence of Faridabad as an industrial hub when following political upheaval  a lot of workers from West Bengal migrated to areas around Delhi. The emergent labour force was quite settled in nature as land prices were low and factories provided a rudimentary social safety net in the form of pensions and medical insurance. “Today, the workers live in a state of flux. Due to exorbitant land prices and temporary nature of their work they keep moving, from their villages to cities and also between cities,” he said while comparing the past with the present.

The first significant episode of labour unrest was the Goodyear strike of 1972. The Emergency years particularly  whetted workers’ angst as along with the owners benefiting from the suspension of Fundamental rights there were the ignominious cases of forced sterilizations specially trageting the workers’ colonies. Workers’ discontent soon  blew up the status quo. The ‘Neelam Chowk’ episode was the peak moment when strikers were fired upon and the fleeing crowd was pursued for about three Kms and shot at by the police forces. Official death count was 70 while independent sources claimed 100 to 150 deaths.

This brutality suppressed workers’ activism and an era of silence followed till the introduction of neo-liberalist policies since 1991. Mumbai (Bombay)  became the  centre of strikes and protests when new technologies caused massive lay-offs.  The strategy of lock outs soon took the fire out of workers’ agitation and they started to accept contractual jobs and lesser pay outs. The Maruti episode of 2011 which claimed the life of a Manager represents the start of new cycle of workers’ movement with new elements such as advances in the communication technology introduced in the whole dynamics.

Madhumita Dutta, researcher and labour activist, drew attention to the living conditions of Chennai workers living in areas like Sriperumbudur. “The same things as in Faridabad are happening here…but it is hard to capture main-stream media’s attention.” She said.

Vijay Bhaskar, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies shared the case-study of apprentices working in Coimbatore. Entrepreneurs here suffer from labour shortages due to high attrition rates. The diploma holders are extremely mobile and instead of seeking a permanent status they want to grow out of manufacturing and build their careers in other areas. Terming such a situation as a “strange paradox” Mr Bhaskar said,”Increased levels of of automation produces high level of deskilling at the entry level while the already skilled work force gets larger pay outs.”

Deliberating on the suggestible resolutions to worker capital conflict the speakers favoured the adoption of a floor minimum applicable to all Asian countries in order to halt the race towards the bottom in the area of workers’ wages and welfare in these countries. However, such implementation will be enormously difficult as it would mean increasing the average wages by 1.3 times in India and by three times in Bangladesh.

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