On Friday morning, Delhi's Okhla Industrial Area wore a deserted look. The area is home to approximately 3,000 factories that manufacture garments, plastics and electrical panels but most of these units had locks on the gates. Employers had declared Friday a no-production day as workers here indicated that they would be joining approximately 15 crore people around the country in a nationwide strike called by ten central trade unions to oppose the dilution of their rights through changes in labour laws.

Shankar Agarwal, labour secretary in the central government, claimed that the strike had only a limited impact. “Only banking, coal, income tax etc were affected,” he said. “Among regions, only Kerala, Tripura, Odisha, parts of Telangana were affected.”

But trade union leaders said that the strike had also had an impact in Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha.

Though the government had attempted to negotiate with the unions in the days leading up the strike, labour leaders refused to accept any compromise. They said that the government provisions granting higher wages actually excluded most workers from their purview, bonus payments had not been made for two years and that social security schemes for workers in the unorganised sector had yet to be implemented.

Work jam

In Okhla, some workers said that the strike wasn't long enough. “Why are the unions organising a strike for just one day?” asked Mannu, a garment worker in his 20s. “The situation in Okhla is so bad, there should be a work jam here all 12 months.”

Other workers spoke of how most units do not even pay a minimum wage, offering workers Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000 a month for shifts that are between eight and ten hours. Women workers in plastic and toys factories claim that they are paid only Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000.

The workers were not impressed by the central government's announcement two days before the strike that it would increase wages for workers in central spheres of job categories from Rs 246 to Rs 350 a day. “The government wants pay Rs 80,000 to one railway staff, and Rs 350 to another worker?" noted Jeetendra Kumar, a printing press worker. "What exactly do they mean by this?”

By late afternoon, a few small units in Okhla's bylanes had resumed production.

“The trade union leaders stood at the entrance to Tehkhand slum holding red flags early in the morning, but the police also came to stand at the same spots,” said another worker. “The policemen kept telling the union members that they were forcing workers, stopping them from reaching the factories and union leaders had to keep clarifying their position.”

Several units in Delhi's Okhla had locks on gates, with employers declaring Friday a no-production day. Photo:Anumeha Yadav

Contract workers on strike

In Haryana, workers' representatives also reported a heavy police presence in the automobile belt in Manesar. The police took 13 workers and union leaders into preventive detention before 7 am. On August 13, the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union had given management at the company's Manesar plant a strike notice. “We reached Manesar very early to start campaigning for the general strike but the police detained us six hours,” said Khushi Ram, a former Maruti worker who is now a member of Workers' Solidarity Centre, which organises automobile workers in the region. “The police even went inside workers' colonies at Aliar and Dhana villages where more than a 1,000 short-term contract workers of Maruti live near the plant, telling the workers to reach the factory and begin work.”

Ram and others were let off on personal bonds at 1 pm. The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Manesar, did not respond to phone calls and text messages about this allegation.

An estimated 1,500 automobile units, including large manufacturers like Hero Motorcorp and Honda as well as smaller vendor companies in Manesar, Bawal, Dharuhera were affected by the strike.

However, garment and pharmaceutical manufacturing units in Gurgaon region stayed open.

Automobile workers in Bawal, Haryana

Ripples were felt in Neemrana, Rajasthan, the site of a Japanese manufacturing zone, where 450 permanent workers in Daikin, a Japanese air conditioners manufacturing unit, struck work. “We organised a strike and a demonstration to the Sub Divisional Magistrate office,” said Manmohan, a worker dismissed from Daikin factory after an agitation in 2015, who is now a member of Neemrana Mazdoor Manch. “But only the permanent workers in the plant were able to come out though, but nearly 2,000 workers who are on short term contracts could not as they feared the repercussions.”

Partial success

The strike, the biggest strike call since Modi government came to power, was a partial success in other regions as well.

Lakhan Lal Mahto, of the All India Trade Union Congress union of coal workers in Jharkhand, said that the strike was at an “unprecedented level” in Bharat Coking Coal Limited mines in Dhanbad. But it was not so successful in the Central Coalfields in Bermo, Hazaribagh, Ramgarh. “The contract workers have the greatest anger as their job terms have not been made the same as regular workers despite the Coal Ministry's committee decision on this in 2013,” said Mahto.

Coal trucks at the Bharat Coking Coal Limited mines in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Trade Union said that the central unions will meet to discuss why they had failed to mobilise transport workers in greater numbers. “In 2015, we had got the spontaneous support of transport workers among even private operators in 18 states,” he said. “ This year, in states like Haryana and Uttarakhand, it did not happen.”

He added workers in iron ore mines in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand had also struck work in large numbers.

Union members in coal mines in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. Photo: Manob Chowdhury