We gather every year across the country today to salute the martyrs who gave up their lives in the struggle for an 8 hour workday over a hundred years ago and the countless women and men who have made and continue to make enormous sacrifice in the struggle to advance the rights of the working class. As we do so on this May Day, we also evaluate the challenges before us and our ability to address these.
Government’s agenda: Take from Workers – Give to Capital
The BJP government when it came to power a year ago set itself the task to weaken laws that define workers rights, including trade union and collective bargaining rights and the laws that regulate the workplace, through amendment of existing laws or through new legislation. While these proposals remain on the table, the significant changes the BJP government had hoped to bring forward have not yet found their way through parliament. In some measure this is because of the united action of trade unions including through the successful country-wide general strike on 2 September last year. Yet the BJP governments in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and most recently Maharashtra have followed the ‘Rajasthan’ model making substantive changes in laws that have undermined critical workers rights including on factory closure and on workplace health and safety.
This, of course, does not mean that the BJP led union government has given up its plans to lower the threshold of workers’ rights. Having used the ordinance mechanism in the first year in government, the BJP has now turned to the mechanism of ‘executive orders’. Legislatively guaranteed retirement (Employee Provident Fund) and healthcare (Employee State Insurance) provisions have been changed through executive orders. Although in the case of the EPF the critical changes have been reversed, now for the third time, most notably through the remarkable protest led by garment workers in Bengaluru and elsewhere in Karnataka, the intent of the BJP government very clear.
It will seek every possible route, including unilateral actions, to undermine workers rights and it will do everything within its power to move workers out of legislatively guaranteed social security towards arrangements that are guided by market forces and bring profit to private sector. This is not just part of the ideological core of the BJP but the inability to deliver this would undermine the BJP government’s capacity to move on its key proposals for liberalising markets further. Savings of wage workers and their healthcare expenditure constitute large volumes of money. So long as these remain within the domain of legislative guarantee and therefore within the public sector, the privatisation of the financial sector will remain incomplete. Hence the BJP government must force this shift if it is to succeed in accomplishing its task of opening up the mainstay of our economy.
The BJP government has not restricted itself to only PF and ESI. Through two successive union budgets, the government has in real terms forced wages down by effectively freezing wages of ‘honorarium workers’ and restricting government expenditure on social security and social protection. In the last month, the promise of enhanced minimum wages notwithstanding, the BJP has caused to force down wages further by notifying wages under the NREGA at levels lower than the lowest (agricultural) minimum wage in many states.
For the BJP government, wages must be driven by market forces. Wages must indeed be kept down since the agricultural sector is in crisis and industrial production remains low. The most recent data shows that employment is on a decline: workers are not just losing permanent jobs, the number of available jobs on contract too is declining. Despite this and the drought situation in about half the country, the BJP government is still unwilling to address the question of livelihood and wages.
Law is more than Intention
For the BJP government, its intention is law and that is what it has signaled to the private sector. There is a wilful violation of existing laws. There is perhaps no employer, public or private – multinational or Indian, in the country today that is not violating labour laws. And both the BJP government at the centre and state governments are now actively engaged in allowing these violations. All sections of the working class movement have effectively resisted this and have been faced with an even greater offensive.
If until now government assisted employers in violating the right to freedom of association, today government is at the forefront in violating the right to free speech and free assembly. If until now government broke trade union struggles through employing the police in making preventive arrests, today government is actively engaged in trumping up charges so as to employ criminal law to put away activists who use democratic means of dissent against government actions.
The BJP’s attack is however not restricted to workers and peasants. It seeks to change the very notion of what a nation is and what citizenship means.
In its first year in government the BJP enforced a ‘ban’ on beef. The government effectively told us what we can and cannot eat. In the past few months through its efforts to put down students, even pushing them to their death, if they ask for what is rightfully theirs or who express a views that may be at variance with the BJP, government is effectively telling us what we can say and what we cannot and what we allowed to think and what we must not think. This, the BJP must do because it not just seeks to ensure that wages are reduced to increase profits but it seeks to alter the rules of our society by taking away the rights of those who are underprivileged and hence discriminated by class, caste, religion, gender and region. This is the India that the BJP seeks to make.
Stop the Attack on Workers – Resist and Reclaim
We have between us led many struggles in the past year. Some of them have been successful in bringing long awaited relief. We have seen an enormous resistance across the country in response to the BJP governments attack on democratic rights be they in economic, social or political life.
Across the world and in the region there is, today, a rise of conservative politics that promotes individual liberty over collective rights, private sector expansion, free markets and social and political values that artificially presupposes homogeneity amongst peoples negating the enormous diversity of peoples within societies and countries and a strong national defence. This comes with a sharpened attack on institutional social protection and security, on role of public sector and therefore on democratic rights. While in the Global North, this attack manifests itself against immigrants, against religious minorities, mostly muslims, in our own country the attack has manifest itself against migrant workers mostly dalits and adivasis and against muslims (who together constitute nearly 40% of our population) – all leading to widespread xenophobia.
Our resistance, therefore, in the coming days, has to be stronger and more united and more focused to ensure that every person irrespective of class or community enjoys the right to free speech, the right to free assembly and the right to form or join an association of their own choice. In whichever country we may be in, we join them in solidarity for it is together and together alone united in our strength and purpose, both at home and abroad, will we succeed in our resolve to:
Right to Free Speech
Right to Freedom of Assembly
Right to Freedom of Association