Statements of Radical Socialist

Support the Contract Workers' struggle for living wages and tolerable working conditions

The Telegraph, one of the principal mouthpieces of the ruling class of India, of its imperialist allies, and a newspaper that functions more like an ad agency (witness the way it “covered” the launch of the i-pod Nano, and more recently, the i-Pad), ran news items on the strike of 12t February 2010 that are worth looking at, if only in order to understand the mind of the ruling class. The Metro page had a headline: Citu strikes at supply line - Day of disruption with strategic stops.

The news item was about how terrible was the plight of ordinary people, like the young professional who had to borrow money from friends because ATMs were closed, or the Salt Lake tech firm employees who had to go out and buy food as food and water supplies were affected, just because the Centre of Indian Trades Union was flexing its muscles.

A  strike that covered 2.5 million contract workers was, from the point of view of the ruling class, nothing but trade union bureaucrats flexing their muscles. A look at the basic demands will however give us a better idea of what it was all about.

1.    The government must ensure payment of the statutory minimum wages to all workers.
2.    The minimum wage must be increased to Rs.260 per day.
3.    Minimum wages must be amended every 4 years and dearness allowance must accurately reflect price rise.
4.    All workers in the unorganised sector must be given identity cards, pay slips and proof of attendance.
5.    All agents and labour contractors must be licensed before they are allowed to take migratory workers out for work.
6.    All unorganised sector workers must be covered under social security legislation and their inclusion in the BPL list must be made compulsory.
7.    Under NREGA, 100 days of work must be provided to all workers under NREGA.
8.    Contact workers must be made permanent and   be given equal wages for equal work.
9.    Men and women must receive equal wages for equal work.
10.    Legal action must be taken against dishonest labour exploitation and existing labour laws must be implemented properly.

So what do these demands tell us? The first three demands make it clear that these are people who live in below subsistence level. They want an increase of minimum wages to Rs. 260 per day, i.e., Rs. 1560 per week for six working days a week. At current rates, a room in a slum without water and with common toilets, in Calcutta, can cost Rs. 600 to 800, plus separate electricity charges if provided. A kilo of very ordinary rice costs about  Rs. 18, and a family of five consumes about 25 kilogrammes a month. A kilo of cheaper varieties of fish like tilapiya costs Rs 70-80, making that the cheapest animal protein after eggs at Rs40 per dozen, against pulses shooting up to Rs. 100 and more . Schooling is a big expense, since private tuitions are a must in the education system of the present. In other words, if the minimum daily wage was raised to Rs 260, a family of five would barely keep its collective nose above the waters in times of good health. In times of illness, one illness, say one appendicitis operation, could take away the savings of a decade for such a family.
Demand 9 tells us that regardless of anything the Constitution of India may say, women workers still get wages lower than those paid to men. So the assumption continues to be, that women merely earn additional money, their incomes are less central to the family than men’s income, and so they can be paid less even though they might be doing the same job.

Demands 4, 5 and 8 deal with their conditions as contract workers.  Contract workers are hired through agencies who routinely steal part of the money due to them. Lacking proper identity cards, they are often unable to protest. Let us look, not just at the lowest rungs, but even higher rungs of contract workers to show the massive disparities. College teachers all over India have received news of their new pay scale, and in many provinces, including West Bengal, they have received the pay scale or a close approximation in the form of Interim Relief. They are now placed in Pay Band 3 (for Assistant Professors, Assistant Professors Senior Scale and Assistant Professors Selection Grade and Associate Professors of up to three years’ seniority), and Pay Band 4 (for Assistant Professors Selection Grade and Associate Professors of above three years’ seniority). What it means is that an Associate Professor of above three years service in that grade will be now taking home, in West Bengal, after taxes, around fifty thousand rupees per month. Against that, there are the contract teachers. They take about the same number of classes, perform other duties such as correcting answer scripts, take their turn as invigilators, and the rest. The official government rate for them is Rs 7000 to Rs 10,000, depending on the number of years of experience. In reality they are paid around Rs. 2000 to Rs. 4000 per month – i.e., less than what the demand of the strikers of February 12 was. We make this point, not to argue that college teachers who hold secure jobs are overpaid, though we have no doubt that The Telegraph’s sister paper, Ananda Bazar Patrika, would make such a point (as it has done, ad nauseum, over the last decade and a half, whatever they are paid). We make the point, rather, that capitalism is trying to turn every kind of salaried job insecure, tremendously exploitative, underpaid.

This is not surprising. Neither the 8 hour day, nor the minimum wage, was a gift from above. In every country were any variant of these have been given to the working class, they were wrested after bitter ad bloody battles. For capital, the reserve army of labour, with which it fights to push down wages to subsistence levels, and to redefine subsistence to levels unthinkable, is not an abstraction. When the ruling class and its hired intellectuals argue that the free market is essential, when they assert that without it jobs would not be created, they are concealing the reality. Jobs can be created in more meaningful ways. If ATMs have to be kept open for 24 hours, 365 days a year, there is a need to hire full time workers who will work for 8 hours a day and get a certain number of days off in a year. So if the country, that great abstraction, truly needs say 100,000 ATMs, well over 300,000 full-time jobs should be created. Instead of creating two categories of workers, one of whom (including children whose labour is hugely exploited even though formally it is illegal) are so ill-paid that they are held up as a threat to the other, relatively well-paid sector to blackmail them into accepting cutbacks or at the least not agitate for more wages or benefits, we need to see a country where every adult is gainfully employed and every child is able to attend school without the burden of work, and with sufficient food as well as the necessary educational material. Such an economy, however, cannot be to the liking of the rulers and their hangers on. In a society where everyone worked for fixed hours and for decent wages, the rate of profit would go for a toss. If every adult was gainfully employed, then the lever which could be used to depress wages and increase working hours would be much weakened.
Above all, it is the collective power of the working class that threatens the owners. This is what they cannot stand. When they and their hacks wrte that a trade union was “flexing its muscles” one can almost hear the teeth of the bosses grinding. Instead of humbly begging individually for a little more, workers have dared to band together in an organization of their own class, and have shown what determined class action can do. And so, the goal of the capitalist class s to ridicule the union, to show the strike, not as a class struggle, but as union bosses flexing their muscles.

We salute the struggling workers and stand by their side and wish their struggle every possible victory. In this context, it is important to note that the casualisation of labour wrought by neo-liberal economic and political practices have played havoc in the lives and the livelihoods of billions of workers in this planet. Like any part of the globe, the conditions of toilers are pathetic in the state of West Bengal. With the recent price rise and inflation their situation is far more precarious than any other sector. It is appalling to note that a state which has a “left” and “progressive” government for more than the last three decades present such a deplorable condition of the unorganised sector workers. Not only are wages abysmally low, the situation is as well being exacerbated by non-implementation of labour laws, as well as the lack of provision for punishment of erring employers in the law. If we have any criticism of the CITU, it is that in its fixation about saving the Left Front government from alleged conspiracies, t has not fought in a much more sustained manner, and it has soft-pedalled cases where the state government is responsible for contract labour and outsourcing. The fact that one demand calls for fulfilling the NREGA is a telling commentary on how the West Bengal government s working in the interests of the toilers.