labour laws

Workers get more militant as space for unionisation shrinks

Legal changes planned by the National Democratic Alliance government will further undermine workers’ rights to collective bargaining.

The National Democratic Alliance government's new proposed code on industrial relations will restrict the ability of workers to unionise. But as recent riots by contract workers in Delhi and Haryana show, the absence of legal means to agitate can have violent repercussions.

On June 19, more than 3,000 factory workers employed by Orient Craft, one of India’s top garment manufacturers and exporters, rioted at the company’s plant in Gurgaon, Haryana. They set fire to a fabric store inside the plant, overturned vehicles around it and set them alight.

A rumour had got around  that four workers had been electrocuted in a lift in the plant that morning. It later turned out that 27-year-old Pawan Kumar, whose job is to attach price-tags to garments, had received an electric shock but had not died. Hundreds of policemen had to keep guard at the factory for the next few days before the Rs 1,500-crore company could resume production.

It was the third workers’ riot in Orient Craft in three years, and the second instance of labour unrest in Delhi and Haryana in the last three months.

On February 12, workers from several factories in Udyog Vihar on the Delhi-Haryana border went on the rampage after a rumour spread that Sammi Chand, a contracted quality checker at the leading export firm Richa Garments, had died after being beaten by the company’s security guards. Over a thousand workers turned to violence, setting fire to cars and burning documents in the plant.

Two years ago, workers in Okhla Industrial Area in Delhi had damaged 15 factory buildings on the final day of a countrywide strike called by central trade unions. A young worker in Okhla who took part in the 2013 violence recounted what he had seen: “There were several luxury cars parked outside factories. Workers ran from factory to factory, pelting stones, overturning cars, shouting, ‘yeh car kachre ka dibba hain, jala do inhe’" ‒ these cars are waste bins, burn them.

The regular flare-ups suggest rising discontent among workers. Trade union leaders say workers’ dissatisfaction is not finding an outlet in non-violent agitation, or strikes, as both government and factories discourage the formation of trade unions and, by extension, collective bargaining.

Against this background of violence, the number of strikes has gone down sharply. Since 2010, labour department officials have not recorded any strikes in industrial areas in Delhi. All over India too, strikes in factories have declined in the last decade. The 1970s witnessed almost 100,000 strikes each year. But as per Labour Bureau reports, there were only 240 strikes in 2008, 167 in 2009, 199 in 2010 and 179 in 2011.


Drop in strikes across India over the years


The decline in strikes has occurred while the number of workers hired on temporary basis on contracts has risen. Labour historian Prabhu Mohapatra calculates that while in the 1980s only 7% of the workers in the manufacturing sector in India were on temporary contracts instead of being permanent employees, this had risen to 35% by 2012. Over 84% of workers in the unorganised or informal sector are contract, casual or temporary workers, with no job security or social security. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector estimates that even in the formal sector, over half the workers are in the "informal’ category", with no secured tenure of employment.


Contract workers in registered manufacturing


Contract workers in Okhla, Gurgaon, Manesar are hired for lower wages than permanent workers. They have no job stability or social protection. In fact, adjusting for inflation, in real terms, workers earn less today than they did in 1990.

In this changing landscape of labour unrest, the government has proposed changes to the legal framework that will further limit the scope for formal collective bargaining and non-violent agitations.

Legal changes

In April, the National Democratic Alliance government proposed integrating three labour laws – the Trade Unions Act 1926, the Industrial Disputes Act 1947 and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946 – into a single code for industrial relations.

The draft code significantly alters how trade unions can be formed in factories and registered with the government. Currently, seven members of a union can apply for registration irrespective of the establishment’s size. The draft bill proposes that at least 10% of the total employees or 100 workers be needed to form a trade union.

It modifies the definition of a strike to include “casual leave on a given day by the 50% or more workers employed in an industry”.

Trade unions across India see a grave threat in these changes. They say the new law will make it difficult for workers to form unions and will undermine workers’ right for collective bargaining.

Tapan Sen, a Rajya Sabha member and vice president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said that by enforcing a law that restricts workers’ participation in unions, the government is taking away all their outlets for grievances, pushing them towards more militancy. “If you push someone against the wall, what will they do?" asked Sen. "They will hit back at you.”

Eleven central trade unions have declared a nationwide strike on September 2 to protest against the government’s proposed changes in labour laws. The last time they had declared a strike was on February 20-21, 2013 – when the Okhla violence occurred.

Low levels of unionisation

While there is outrage over the legal changes, on the ground, the reach and strength of trade unions is already fragmented and weak.

Data show members in registered unions is low and has declined over time, though there are sharp fluctuations. Only 8.6% of the workers surveyed for the National Sample Survey of 2000 were members of trade unions or associations, according to a 2010 World Bank study. The figure varied widely from state to state: it was 22% in Kerala and only 5.7% in Madhya Pradesh. Even put together all 11 central unions' members constitute only 15% of India's workforce, and are concentrated in the public and formal sectors.


Official trade union membership numbers and rates over various years


Many challenges


In several states, unions and workers' groups say organising workers or registering unions is already quite difficult.


The Indian Federation of Trade Unions, which was set up in 1979, has presence in several states. At its South Delhi office, just 2 kilometres from the Okhla Industrial Area, Animesh Das, a doctor and president of the Delhi union, said reaching out to workers is getting harder.

“It is a huge challenge,” said Das. “At the gate of the factories, no worker can even stop and talk."

Fifty metres from Das’s office is the south district office of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Its district secretary KB Singh said that the majority of workers from Okhla and nearby industrial areas worked on contract and rarely approached the union. They fear for the repercussions on their jobs if they joined the union, he said.

Das said that in 2005, the Indian Federation of Trade Unions surveyed 293 factories – 149 in Okhla and 144 in Mayapuri industrial area in north Delhi. Less than one-tenth of the workers were being paid minimum wages or had access to provident fund and health benefits. And yet, the rates of unionisation were lower than the national average. In Delhi, of the over 10 lakh workers in the unorganised sector or working in the organised sector as casual workers, not even 1% were members of trade unions, he estimated.

Even in the few instances where workers organised themselves, they found registering unions an uphill task. Das said that officials often deny registration to unions hinted as an unwritten norm.

“Five years back, we were trying to organise workers in Denso, a German MNC that manufactures automobile parts,” said Das. "The labour officials in Ghaziabad in UP repeatedly asked for more documents and made us run in circles. Finally, we approached the Labour Commissioner in Kanpur. He told us flatly: you can form an internal, company union, but the government will not register the union.”

An “internal” or “company union” would mean no honorary members, such as labour law experts or trade unionists like Das would be allowed in the union, currently permitted under the Trade Union Act of 1926.

Another significant proposal

This last -mentioned feature is among the provisions of the Act that the NDA government plans to change. While under the Trade Unions Act, honorary members not employed directly in an industry could constitute 50% of the union's members, the new bill proposes only employees be allowed to form unions. In the unorganised sector, it permits two honorary members in a union.

Das added: “Workers often know of some rights but not what the gaps and nuances in the law are. Therefore, when the management sends Human Resources experts to talk to workers, it can become an unequal negotiation.”

In Haryana, workers' representatives said companies were cracking down on even internal, plant-level unions. Representatives of the newly formed Workers' Solidarity Center said in the previous year, several attempts by workers to form unions were thwarted, with labour officials returning applications repeatedly, turning them down as invalid.

Amit, a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Center, spoke of recent events in Haryana’s Bawal industrial area, which lies on the proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. “Every time workers submit their names and details in applications for a union, the management transfers those workers to another division, or in some instances, simply fires them,” he said. “One company filed a case in court against the workers, alleging they had tried to get signatures of others by force.”

In Uttarakhand, several groups of workers went on strikes in Selaqui, said Shankar Gopalkrishnan, who organises workers as part of the Chetna Andolan. Selaqui, near Dehradun, is one of the new industrial areas developed by State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand after the state was formed in 2000. He said the strikes were not reported or recorded by government officials – first, because the state recorded strikes only when the employer reported them, and second, because of growing contractualisation.

“All workers in an electronics factory here went on strike,” said Gopalkrishnan. “The employer immediately dismissed them immediately since they were contract workers. Similarly, in a pharmaceutical company, all 100 workers on strike were dismissed in a day.”

Since contract workers have to change jobs frequently, said Gopalkrishnan, his group has rewired its strategy to organize daily wage workers and workers at construction-sites.

Finding new strategies

Rakhi Sehgal, the vice president of the Hero Honda Theka Mazdoor Sangathan and executive council member of the New Trade Union Initiative said unions would have to seek innovative ways of organising. "Currently, unions do not do enough of community organising and synergising it with trade union organising," she said. "We also have to strategise to respond to what's going on the ground with respect to subcontracting, and in informal sectors of industry."

For now, squeezed by government neglect workers and frantic pace of production, workers’ resistance has become unpredictable. As the riots in Delhi and nearby states show, their discontent holds the potential to cause wider disruptions.

In Okhla, a young garment factory worker said he thought there were advantages to not having any unions. “Two years back, during a negotiation for better wage by our internal sangathan [informal association], our manager would tell us, ‘let one person amongst you talk, let one leader negotiate’,” he said. “We told him, we have none – talk to all of us.”

This is the final part of a series on labour law changes. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.