All workers unite

...especially in the gigantic unorganised sector, and suddenly the labour fringe becomes the mainstream

By Rita Anand
Published: Monday 31 July 1995

All workers unite

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)OLD-style trade unionism, combined with some committed and timely activism, has helped the growth of unions of exploited labour over the past decades. The leaders of the movement, at least those over the past 2 decades, are now merging their individual expertise to help unionise 92 per cent of India's workforce that goes unrepresented -- its unorganised labour.

The National Council of Labour, formed on May 28 this year, is the outcome of 5 years of quiet but intense discussions among Ela Bhatt of SEWA, Thomas Kocherry of the Fishworkers' Cooperative, D Thankappan of the Kamani Tubes Workers Union, and representatives of 20 other unions. Its maiden meet on May 28 at Bangalore was attended by 60,000 enthusiastic workers from the unorganised sector -- a drop in the ocean but meaningful nevertheless.

"We will fight for recognition and representation for 243 million Indians who work in key sectors of the economy -- such as agriculture, fishing and forestry," says Thankappan. So far, the miniscule but inordinately powerful organised sector has hogged all the benefits that come from organising and empowering the ranks. "But," says Thankappan, "the percentage of organised workers has declined from 10 to 8 per cent over the past 5 years."

Finally, now, the unorganised sector has been recognised as the "real" mainstream and not a corollary. The NCL has a membership of 600,000 workers from many disparate organisations. SEWA pursues a Gandhian line while Nirman Panchayat Sangam's approach is loosely Marxist. To tide over differences, NCL's leaders are sticking to "democratic pluralism". "Let's build bridges and work together," says Thankappan. Membership is open to all combinations of unorganised labour, even if they are unregistered. They must conduct regular elections and collect a membership fee.

Strategies have changed too. "Economic demands have to be linked with the workers living conditions," says Thankappan. "Older methods of demand strategy are obsolete since there is no employer-employee relationship." Tripartite boards consisting of employers, workers' representatives and government nominees have been proposed. They would work together to ensure speedy justice to workers and deliver social security. Labour boards exist in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala. But workers' representatives are not elected, employers are conspicuously absent and compensation paid is a measly 1 per cent of the workers' earnings," points out Subhash Bhatnagar, coordinator of the Nirman Panchayat Sangam.

Ten million people live off India's forests and NCL takes up issues of their access to minor forest produce and control over natural resources. Rural labour is targeted with demands for an across-the-board minimum wage policy. Says Bhatnagar, "In Delhi a worker may be paid Rs 60 per day, and Rs 30 in Haryana for the same work."

Women comprise 50 per cent of the workforce and have been given 60 per cent representation by NCL. Of the 7 members in the secretariat, 3 are women. And Ela Bhatt takes up the cause of 30 million home-based workers by lobbying for a bill which would protect them from the avaricious onslaughts of middlemen.

Child labour makes up 6 per cent of the national workforce and NCL's draft resolution speaks of eradicating it. "It is the children of workers in the unorganised sector who are forced to work. By helping their parents we can curb this," says Thankappan.

"NCL is not a political organisation," points out Bhatnagar. "But we will politicise our demands. The best time to do this is obviously during elections." Established trade unions have welcomed NCL's entry, but cautiously. P K Ganguli of CITU formed the All India Committee of Unorganised Sector Workers in 1991. He expresses the general sentiment when he says, "We were unaware of these developments but we are working along similar lines." The unorganised sector suddenly presents new opportunities for mainstream unionists. And everybody wants a piece of the action.

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