2018 stood witness to the resilience of working people across the world. While the right wing attack intensified across countries, workers took to the streets.
Gig economy workers, wrongly classified as ‘independent contractors’ by their employers, struck work for recognition as workers, minimum wages, over time pay, social security benefits and against the precarious nature of work across the world.
Workers of cab-aggregators like Ola and Uber, who have been severely hit by the recent spike in fuel prices, agitated across metropolitan centres – Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Delhi demanding increased fares, incentives, bonus and over-time wages.
Internationally too, there have been several strikes among app-based delivery workers demanding recognition as workers. The Netherlands initiated an investigation into bogus self-employment contracts used by Uber and Deliveroo. Ireland banned zero-hour contracts. In the UK and US, workers won a hallmark victory when the Labour Court upheld that employees of Plimlico Plumbers, Hermes, Uber and Deliveroo are in fact workers and not self-employed or independent contractors.
Workers of Amazon came together across borders against the existing inhumane and exploitative working conditions. Strategic sales days like Prime day and Black Friday witnessed strikes across Europe and the US with workers demanding minimum wages, social security benefits and union recognition. Under pressure, Amazon in US increased minimum wages to $15 per hour, a hike over and above the government notified minimum wages.
#MeToo bared the pervasiveness of sexual harassment at workplace. Women came out with charges of sexual harassment against men in powerful positions, many of these charges stretch back many years. The movement and its use of social media created a sense of solidarity across sections and allowed women to share their experiences without fear of societal backlash.
Though most cases in India were brought forward by journalists and film personalities, the movement also gave confidence to working class women to speak out. For them harassment at the workplace is intrinsically tied to the precarious nature of their work, control in the workplace and need to earn a livelihood. In November, garment workers, domestic workers, sanitation workers came together in Bengluru to share their experiences of sexual harassment under the banner ‘#MeToo Working Class Women Share’. #Metoo has led to women groups and guilds to oppose people against whom charges were brought by women, thereby creating a societal pressure against the perpetrators, many powerful heads have rolled. MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs was forced to resign.
In the case of sexual harassment charge against journalist Vinod Dua of the Wire, the ICC dissolved the case citing ‘their inability to proceed further’, as the parties concerned have not cooperated, bringing to fore the inadequacies of the law. This movement also revealed the weaknesses of the ICC under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Despite all this, the number of registered cases has only increased from 317 in 2014 to 570 in 2017.
Fixed Term Employment and Jobs Data
The inability to create jobs got further compounded by the introduction of Fixed Term Employment through an amendment in the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946. It allows employers to hire workers for short, fixed tenures and absolves them from paying severance pay or issuing any notice in case the contract does not get renewed. The amendment also restricts workers’ claim for regularisation.
To hide the extent of unemployment, government has tried to manipulate provident fund data to show rise in employment and has discontinued publishing the Annual State of Unemployment Report.
Manufacturing in Turmoil
Industrial clusters housing cutting edge manufacturing has borne witness to trade unions fighting anti-worker policies and employers through industrial action and legal battles.
The auto hub in Oragadam saw 3,700 workers strike in three factories, Royal Enfield, Yamaha India and Myoung Shin Automotive for wage hike and reinstatement of unlawfully terminated workers. Around the same time workers of Pricol in Coimbatore struck work for 100 days over bonus and profit share dues.
In Pune, workers of Bajaj Auto and Volkswagon went on hunger strikes over management’s refusal to collectively bargain with unions of workers choosing and against wrongful dismissal of their colleagues. SPM Autocomp and Honda (Gurgaon), Daikin (Alwar) and Hipad Tech (NOIDA) too saw high degrees of militancy demanding Right to Freedom of Association and safety at workplace.
Year of workplace fatalities
The year has also been vitiated by large number of workplace accidents. Instances of death of over 200 contract safai workers were reported in just 4 months bringing to fore the rampant exploitation of workers at the lowest rung, denial of dignity, lack of safety equipment and proper training, with which these deaths could have been easily averted.
The top end of manufacturing remained marred by blasts and gas leaks costing many lives, primarily of contract and temporary workers.
February: Explosion at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd. left 4 contract and 1 permanent worker dead.
March: 3 Workers died and over 40 were injured due to a blast in the boiler room of Ramedeo Chemicals in Boisar which spread to other factories in the vicinity.
August: BPCL refinery fire in Mumbai resulted in severe injury to around 50 workers and suspension of metro services in the area.
October: 11 workers died and 14 sustained severe injuries in an explosion at SAIL, Bhilai.
Healthcare workers lead the way in services sector
ASHA, ANM and Anganwadi workers showed their mettle with continued strikes across states and union territories. Treated as volunteers and paid honorariums of ₹3000 and ₹2200 respectively, which is less than minimum wages, ASHA, ANM and Anganwadi workers demanded to be classified as government employees with commensurate wages and vociferously rejected the paltry hike in their honorarium offered by government in September.
Private ambulance service provider GVK-EMR faced flak from its workers in Assam, Odisha, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Workers sans unions went on spontaneous strikes demanding regulated working hours and timely payment of wages.Strikes across 18 states led by Nurses unions brought to fore the underpaid and overworked nature of nursing work and the inhumane and expliotative work conditions that the nursing staff is subjected to.
Transport workers defend public transport
Public road transport workers in Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Maharashtra held protracted strikes opposing erosion of public transport services. The government respond by invoking Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1968, while the judiciary clamped down on the striking workers by declaring the strikes illegal except Haryana where transport worker unions aided by overwhelming public support and solidarity succeeded in stopping privatization of fleets.
Long March of Farmers
The prolonged agrarian crisis in the country led to mass indebtedness and pauperisation of the peasantry. Distressed farmers and farm workers came together against government apathy and marched long distances to Mumbai and Delhi, in March and November respectively. Their demands included increased minimum support prices, implementation of the Swaminathan Committee’s recommendations, loan waivers, increased NREGA wages and work days and implementation of the Forest Rights Act.
Under pressure,central government announced a meager hike in MSPs for certain crops while multiple state government have buckled into granting loan waivers. However, structural issues persist ensuring that the crisis is far from averted and that the agrarian sector remains stressed.