Confront attacks on workers’ rights
President, Centre of Indian Trade Unions
The Covid -19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed in many countries to contain the virus is a learning experience for the workers and employees in our country. It is an occasion which makes workers look at the employers and the government, and understand the character of the prevalent capitalist system. It enables them to draw lessons about the way forward through their own life experiences.
The sudden announcement of the countrywide lockdown by Prime Minister Modi, with just 4 hours’ notice created havoc in the lives of crores of workers and toiling people.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) estimated that 14 crores jobs were lost during the lockdown period. Of course, some jobs have come back after the “unlockdown” has started in phases. But even today the unemployment rate, which was already the highest in 45 years before Covid-19, continues to be high. Even today, thousands of employees including IT employees are being retrenched by IT companies, including big multinational companies like TCS, Infosys, Cognizant, etc.
Workers paid the price of the lockdown
The lockdown was expected to be utilised to strengthen health infrastructure. But instead of creating a scientific understanding of the coronavirus, the BJP government and the ruling party sought to spread unscientific myths in tackling the health crisis. Even today, pujas and hawans are being held in many places to please ‘Corona mai’.
The first case of Covid-19 was detected in the end of January 2020. But the BJP government at the centre took a long time to respond. The lockdown was announced only after the Prime Minister’s ‘Namaste Trump’ in Ahmedabad, and the planned toppling of Madhya Pradesh government were over. Lakhs of people were mobilised for these events.
Following the demand of the trade union movement, the BJP government issued a directive that workers should not be retrenched during lockdown; their salaries should not be withheld; those who were on leave but could not come back due to lockdown should be treated as being on duty. Workers should not be evacuated from their houses during the lockdown period. But nothing was done to ensure their implementation at the ground level. Instead, when this order was challenged in the Supreme Court, the government silently withdrew the order even before the Supreme Court started hearing it.
Jobless, hungry and shelter-less, lakhs of migrant workers wanted to go to their native places. But the BJP government did not make any arrangement for their safe transport. Only after a lot of pressure from the people, it arranged special trains. Even then the workers were forced to pay for their tickets. Several state governments treated the migrant workers walking on the roads as criminals, booked cases against them, talked of putting them in jails, sprayed disinfectants over them, etc. Some state governments as in Karnataka cancelled the trains as demanded by the employers, who wanted the workers ready whenever they planned to open their establishments.
Neoliberal agenda pushed during the pandemic
The other, even more appalling aspect is its project of choosing the lockdown period to fast-track its neoliberal agenda of anti-worker labour law amendments, privatisation of the entire public sector and handing over the country’s natural resources to the private sector, both domestic and foreign. The Labour Secretary wrote to all state governments directing them to consider increasing working hours to 12 a day, to increase the threshold number for retrenchment and closure etc. under the Industrial Disputes Act to 300 from the present 100 etc. Several state governments went a step further to exempt employers from implementation of most labour laws. The BJP state government in Uttar Pradesh exempted 38 state labour laws, almost all, for 3 years; the Madhya Pradesh government exempted them for 1000 days; the Gujarat government for 1200 days. The Haryana government announced exemption from labour laws for newly recruited workers. 13 state governments in the country increased working hours from 8 to 12. The threshold level for retrenchment and closure has been increased to 300 in several states.
The Rs. 20 lakh crore ‘package’ announced by the Prime Minister and detailed out by the Finance Minister through lengthy speeches spanning over five days contained nothing for the workers and almost nothing for small enterprises. It was not aimed at putting some money in the pockets of the people so that their purchasing power would be increased, demand would be increased and the economy would be stimulated. Instead it was aimed at providing cheap loans and promises of guarantees to corporations.
The Finance Minister announced that only 1–4 public enterprises would be allowed in strategic sectors, to be decided by the government. All others would be disinvested, privatised or sold off. The government has already started the process of privatisation of railways. The Prime Minister himself inaugurated the bidding for commercial extraction of coal from our coal mines. Ordinances have been issued dismantling the Agricultural Produce Marketing Societies. Minimum Support Price and government procurement will become diluted and the public distribution system would be dismantled. Peasant farming, predominant in our country, will be converted to corporate farming. Our poor peasants will be left at the mercy of big food processing and agricultural products marketing monopolies.
The government has resorted to the most dubious means of naming this entire package as ‘Atmanirbhar (self-reliance) Abhiyan’ totally concealing the subservient character of these measures. The entire project is meant to destroy whatever self-reliance we have achieved after independence; destroy our indigenous manufacturing capacities and make our country dependent on foreign monopolies including for our defence requirements.
The path to resistance
To suppress all voices of resistance and opposition, the BJP government is also resorting to autocratic measures. Anybody opposing its policies is being targeted and arrested. It is using the State machinery, the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, the National Investigation Agency, etc. to threaten and intimidate them. Dalit rights activists, human rights activists, social activists who were active in the anti-CAA and anti-NPR protests — are being labelled ‘anti national’, ‘urban Naxals’, charged with sedition and put into prison.
These disastrous policies must be resisted and changed to save our country and our people from being pushed into conditions prevalent during the exploitative and oppressive British rule. It needs to be understood that all these are part of neoliberalism, an integral part of the capitalist system. Neoliberalism, which was brought forward by the capitalist class as a solution to the capitalist crisis of the 1970s, has proved to be a failure. It now stands discredited across the world. But the Modi government is adamant in implementing it.
While resisting these anti-worker and anti-national measures, the working class and the broader sections of the people, the progressive sections of society need to understand the inability of the capitalist system to meet the basic needs of common people and the need for an alternative system devoid of exploitation. They should be helped, through their own experience, to understand the real reasons behind the present issues like job losses, unemployment, wage cuts, attacks on their hard won rights etc., the link between these issues and government policies and the reality that it is the big corporates, the capitalist class that direct these policies. While being elected by the common people, the governments at the centre have been working to benefit these classes.
Overcoming these issues and achieving the genuine demands of workers and employees and other toiling sections require a change of the existing system. The most developed capitalist country in the world, the USA, is the most affected by Covid-19, with the largest number of infections and deaths. It has no significant public health system. At the same time, socialist countries which have strong public health systems and universal health care, have been able to contain the virus effectively with low infections and very few mortalities. The struggle for change to such a system requires unity of the entire working people, workers, employees, peasants, agricultural workers, artisans etc. and a conscious and determined effort.
The oppressed masses refuse to sell the country
It is a welcome development that the broad trade union movement and the united peasant movement have synchronised their calls for satyagraha/jail bharo etc. across the country on 9th August 2020. The trade union movement has given the call of ‘Save India’ with the slogan that the working class would not allow the country to be sold. The peasant movement has extended its solidarity and support to this call. At the same time both the movements have raised issues of immediate cash transfer, free distribution of food grains, work under MGNREGA and its extension to the urban areas etc. among other demands specific to their classes.
The resistance and defiance struggle on 9th August, the historic day when the call to ‘Quit India’ was given against British rule, should be taken to further heights, with the objective of changing the pro-corporate policies of the ruling class to pro-worker and pro-people policies. This is the immediate task before the working class.