At 9 am on Tuesday, instead of starting work at the assembly line, men stood in huddles outside several factories in Delhi’s Okhla industrial area. It was the first day of a two-day general strike called by 10 central trade unions, planned just months before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

In the last such major industrial action in September 2016, trade unions claimed 15 crore workers had taken part, including in industrial areas in and around the Delhi-National Capital Region.

But on Tuesday morning, in newspapers in Delhi, there was no news of the strike. Instead, front page headlines focused on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government’s announcement of 10% reservation in educational institutions and state jobs for the economically backward among the upper castes, reversing the principle of affirmative action for Dalits and the historically marginalised.

Santosh Kesri, a migrant from Bihar’s Khagariya district, who belongs to a low-income rural upper caste family, will be eligible for the 10% quota if it becomes policy. But he was not convinced that it will benefit him.

“Just do the math. Of 125 crore [people in India], the general castes will be at least 10%, or 12 crore-15 crore,” he said, standing outside a courier factory closed for the strike. He works as a courier delivery agent for an IT support company in Okhla. “They will be further divided among the professional graduates, simple graduates, and those who did not attend college. The government will open a handful of public jobs, while lakhs will apply. And then, there will be questions of who is well connected, or able to give bribes.”

Kesri’s scepticism is valid: the Indian economy is not generating enough formal jobs. Even the government is hiring workers on short-term contracts rather than as permanent staff.

One of the demands raised in the strike was, in fact, to end of the contractualisation of work. But many doubt the government will act on this.

“When all political parties in government are employing everyone through thekedaari [contractual labour systems], will firms do any different?” quipped Durga Devi, who has sold biscuits and snacks outside factories in Okhla for more than 20 years.

In fact, the strike itself received a tepid response in Okhla. Part of the reason, said union leaders, is the difficulty in mobilising contract workers caught in insecure jobs with long hours.

Neither reservations nor agitations seem to offer such workers any new possibilities.

Low wages and temporary work

India’s gross domestic product has grown by 6%-7% in recent years but this has not created enough secure and remunerative employment.

The State of Working India report, an analysis of labour market trends by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, shows that even a 10% increase in gross domestic product now results in less than 1% increase in employment, and estimates the rate of open unemployment at a high 5%.

Even in manufacturing sectors like plastics and leather, which generated more employment in the last 10 years than it did before, the rise was in the form of short contracts and temporary jobs that paid less than regular factory jobs.

Most households work in the unorganised sector and face a low earnings problem. In 2015, 92% women and 82% men earned less than Rs 10,000 a month, far lower than the monthly salary recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission of Rs 18,000 as a living wage, according to the report.

Even in organised manufacturing, an analysis by economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh shows, despite increased profits, workers’ wages accounted for only 10%-11% of value added in 2012, one of the lowest shares anywhere in the world.

A workers' rally in Okhla, Delhi on Tuesday. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

‘No government is with us’

In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government had cited this failure of the “trickle down theory” when it had announced a 46% hike in minimum wages in 2016, becoming the only state in the country to announce such a significant wage hike.

Industry associations contested this, but the Supreme Court on November 1 restored the government’s 2017 notification on the increased minimum wages.

Despite the AAP government’s move to correct for stagnant wages, without enforcement, the measure failed to draw the workers to the government’s side.

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, a workers’ broadsheet published from the the National Capital Region, in its January edition, listed the firms in Okhla Industrial Estate where workers had successfully negotiated increased wages after the court order. The list was short: only five firms. In 14 others, workers were in advanced stages of negotiations.

But workers said most of the 4,000 factories in Okhla, producing plastics, leather and engineering equipment, had not paid the new notified wages even after the Supreme Court order. As per the government notification, an unskilled labourer was to get a minimum monthly wage of Rs 14,052, up from Rs 9,568. For semi-skilled labourers, it was revised from Rs 10,582 to Rs 15,471, while skilled workers were to get Rs 16,962, instead of the earlier Rs 11,622.

Arun Singh, a middle-aged worker, said he had worked at the same printing press for 11 years. He was hired through a labour contractor who paid him Rs 220 a day. He worked all days of the month, without a weekly off. At Rs 6,600 a month, this figure did not come to even half the minimum wage the AAP government had notified.

Women workers in garment units worked similar long hours for even lower rates – Rs 180 to 200 a day.

The workers saw the wage hike as a partial measure. “Ultimately, the government machinery is not with workers,” said Singh, the printing press worker.

Manu, a young garment worker, derided the AAP government’s public announcement of a 10-day drive it called Operation Minimum Wage, in which Labour Department officials conducted raids across the city to check if workers were paid the minimum wage. “The department did organise a few raids, but what was the point when they announced in newspapers that they were about to do so?” he said. “They ought to have conducted surprise raids.”

Mrigank, the vice president of the Delhi unit of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, also criticised it as a half-hearted measure as it was not accompanied by enforcement. “There are 74 posts for labour inspectors in Delhi, but only 11 are appointed,” he said. “The government had not even implemented the previous wage grade, when it announced the hike and then failed to get firms to comply.”

Suresh Kahar, a migrant who works as a tailor for part of the year in Okhla and has been spending the rest of the year for the last 10 years on a small farm in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, said: “Something will be done, only if workers unite.”

Municipal workers did not join the strike in Delhi. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Weakening organisation

While workers were skeptical of the adequacy of government measures, trade unions and traditional workers’ organisations have not made much headway in representing working class interests.

One of the key demands in the 12-point list of demands laid down by the central trade unions that are affiliated to political parties was that the government take back its proposed amendments to labour laws.

“The government is presenting this move as if it was codifying labour laws from 44 laws to four or five labour codes, but it is systematically undermining working class interests by removing protective measures,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

Sudhir Katiyar, who heads the Prayas Centre for Labour and Action that works among brick kiln and construction workers, had organised a protest in Ahmedabad of construction workers, one of the largest economic sectors that employs 10% of workers. He said it was difficult to organise workers around such demands.

“Majority of workers are completely out of the purview of these labour laws and codes, and the norms do not apply to them,” said Katiyar. “If we say, these laws are being changed and new norms are coming in, it has no effect on most segments of workers who are working on extremely short temporary work contracts, or without contracts since decades.”

He added: “It is harder to respond to the needs of unorganised sector workers.”

Mrigank of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions said that on the first day of the strike, 40% units had remained open for production in Okhla. “The temporary nature of jobs, long hours, and workers going from one factory to another in search of contractual work make it difficult to have a regular base of members for the union,” he said.