In mineral-rich Chhattisgarh, factory employees and farmers are uniting to fight Centre's 'anti-worker' policies

In Chhattisgarh, where voting has concluded for all the 11 Lok Sabha seats, political parties weren't the only ones reaching out to the electorate. Trade unions did their own outreach.

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Durg: In Chhattisgarh, where voting has concluded for all 11 Lok Sabha seats, political parties weren't the only ones reaching out to the electorate. Trade unions did their own outreach.

Polling for Chhattisgarh seats was spread over the first three phases (11, 18 and 23 April) of the Lok Sabha polls. The mineral-rich central state is dotted with factories, both government-owned and private. Thousands upon thousands work in these, and many, if not most, of them are trade union members. They are agitated by labour laws and believe the solution to their woes lies in electing lawmakers who understand their concerns. In the months leading up to the elections, these unions joined hands to press for their demands.

Pramod Mishra, general secretary of Bhilai unit of Hind Mazdoor Sabha, one of the largest trade unions in the country, said a consortium of unions held a meeting and agreed to support the party that agrees to fulfil their demands. He said a charter of 35 demands was prepared on 5 March and presented to all the political parties in New Delhi. The parties haven't responded to the charter, he added.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Hindustan Steel Employees’ Union (HSEU) general secretary DVS Reddy cited the nationwide strike called by central trade unions on 8 and 9 January. Ten central unions and many affiliate organisations, including two bank unions, went on strike to decry the Centre's policies. This was one of the largest strikes in recent times and had a major impact, with vehicles in many cities staying off roads. Reddy said the seeds for this strike were laid in the first-of-its-kind meeting of various unions on 28 September, 2018, in New Delhi, under the banner of National Convention of Workers.

Unions' anger against the Centre began spilling on the roads in September. The Congress' call for Bharat Bandh on 10 September, 2018, witnessed a good response in Chhattisgarh. In fact, the members of Chhattisgarh Chamber of Commerce and Industries supported the bandh by urging its members to keep their shutters down, foregoing the need for the Congress to enforce the shutdown.

Union leaders claimed that the 8 and 9 January strike saw unprecedented participation from around 80 percent of the workforce of the famed Bhilai Steel Plant owned by the Centre. In Chhattisgarh, the bandhs in September and January saw participation not only from public sector employees, but also those from the private sector.

Common cause

Reddy said the common grievances of all the workers, including farmers, brought them together for this mega strike. He said a workers' manifesto was drafted and extensive campaign launched to create awareness about issues plaguing the working class. He alleged that labour commissioners at the state and central level do not heed them, which is why they had to launch a nationwide campaign to be heard. He said the drive was aimed at educating the electorate about choosing candidates sensitive to the plight of workers and farmers.

He elaborated that they reached out to people, explaining how the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre has brought trouble upon them by introducing one unfriendly policy after another.

Reddy underlined that no wage revision has taken place for two years. He said the government held a meeting in this regard on 5 March, but it was a mere formality. He said the Centre has introduced an affordability clause, which says wage negotiation will be done only if the Public-Sector Unit concerned earns profits for three years in a row. The clause further says the profits should continue for the next three years as well and that downward revision of salaries will be considered in case of losses.

HSEU office-bearer Dhanraj Ellamkar said workers are being denied the basic minimum wage of Rs 350. He alleged that the workers are being paid only about Rs 150 to 200 and the contractors pocket the remaining amount. Further, he alleged that the contractors have been fudging documentation about Employee State Insurance and Employee Provident Fund, with the labour department too ignoring the complaints.

SK Baghel, general secretary of Indian National Trade Union Congress — the trade wing of the Congress — seconded these allegations. Apart from honouring the agreed minimum wage, he said they want an increase in the insurance amount to be paid to the employees' kin in case of a fatal accident. He said pension was discontinued in 2004 and it ought to be revived. He said the current system of contributory pension hasn't worked out well.

A flyer calling for the unions to strike on 8 and 9 January. KN Kishore

A poster calling for the unions to strike on 8 and 9 January. KN Kishore

Workers fear backlash

Some workers — names withheld to protect their identity — have alleged that their payments are being delayed by two or three months. Further, they shared how some of their co-workers landed in trouble after reports in local media quoted their grievances about contractors' erratic payment habits. Allegedly, their contractors started harassing them and began paying them less than others after the news broke.

The fear of repercussion is so pronounced that many workers outright refused to speak, citing the threat of a backlash.

Much like in the bandhs, strong anti-BJP sentiment was visible in interviews with workers and trade unions' representatives. Reddy and other leaders said they were wary that if the saffron party forms the government again, workers' very right to form unions could be outlawed.

Responding to these allegations against the BJP, the party's Durg district president Usha Tawri conceded that there has been a lapse in the monitoring of implementation of the Centre's schemes. She said the party is committed to welfare of workers and would try to convince them about the same.

After BJP came to power it has changed the definition of Factory Act, due to which around 70 percent of factories in the country which had around 10 to 20 workers have been excluded from the Act. Some have said this move has directly benefited industrialists and denied workers their rights.

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Most affected were small-scale industries like beedi manufacturers. The other 15 welfare schemes are also being tampered with, labour unions alleged. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has been labour arm of BJP, but being in government  it has been ineffective, said other union leaders. They assure that the issues will be taken up with party leadership, but it has not been.

Union leaders claimed that the BJP, at the insistence of industrialists, wants to bring around 44 amendments in different laws related to industry and workers. For example: Allowing women to work night shifts in the name of gender equality, hiking working hours from 8 to 10 or 12 hours in private companies. Such amendments have been blocked for the past four-and-a-half years due to protests by workers, they added.

The author is a Durg-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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