Special Report

Peenya workers’ revolt

WHAT HAPPENED in Peenya Industrial Estate, on the outskirts of Bangalore, was some kind of a mini-uprising by the workers. It was a spontaneous revolt against deterioration in their condition due the impact of globalisation. Factory closures and job cuts plague this industrial estate – supposedly the largest in the country – reeling under industrial slowdown and deindustrialisation. The sprawling industrial estate and its adjoining areas were engulfed in flames of workers’ revolt on 24 July. The workers fought pitched battles with the police. More than 18 government buses were torched and around 100 buses were damaged. A Deputy Commissioner of Police and an Inspector were admitted to hospital while more than 20 policemen were injured. One policeman, who manhandled one of the agitating women workers, was stripped of his shirt and pants. Tens of thousands of workers, mostly young women workers from export garment units, gathered within a couple of hours, for this unprecedented confrontation. The bureaucracy and the police administration are still unable to believe what they saw. And so they are on a lookout for some ‘unseen hand’ behind the incident, that they could never track down.

The immediate provocation was the refusal by the local provident fund office to hand over provident fund withdrawal forms to some workers who had lost their jobs. In the face of massive job losses the provident fund deposit was their last fallback. The workers became restless hearing this. The unorganized women workers started gathering since 10.30 a.m. in the morning at a vantage point called Jalahalli Cross, located on the Bangalore-Pune Trunk Road. Another huge group assembled near the local PF office in Peenya. The 10,000 strong, spontaneous gathering of workers was totally peaceful till 1.30 p.m. They wanted clarification regarding the rumour that the PF dues would be settled only after workers attained 45 years of age. They demanded that either they be allowed to march to the Assembly or the Chief Minister SM.Krishna meet them on the spot to give necessary clarification. The police, waiting for reinforcements, refused to concede any of their demands. There was no leader, no organization, and many unknown “leaders” and orators emerged on the spot and delivered speeches. The police remained mute spectators, as they were small in number.

Another group, numbering around 5000, that had gathered at the local PF office went on a rampage and ransacked the PF office. While thousands of women workers were seething with anger outside the office, the PF officials closed the doors and were hiding behind the walls. The agitators refrained from damaging the records but broke the glass panes only, conceding to a request made by the local police. The bloody confrontation started only around 1.30 p.m., when the police got reinforcements from outside. Then they started cracking down on peaceful demonstrators at Jalahalli Cross. Innocent women workers were brutally lathicharged, and their sarees and chudidars badly torn. The police used tear-gas shells to disperse the crowd. Some police officers also fired 25 rounds of buckshots in the air. The workers, too, paid back the police for the unexpected crackdown. The enraged workers, retreating under the police onslaught, also set fire to some vehicles. Only government-owned buses were targeted while private vehicles were untouched. Stones were thrown on buses, on police and on all those whom they considered their immediate enemies. One police jeep was also burnt down but there was no looting or ransacking.

What was the cause of such an unprecedented, large-scale, and spontaneous upsurge-like situation? That too enacted by totally unorganized women workers, who have never enjoyed the fruits of any of the labour welfare legislations, and who never even dared to exercise their legitimate right of forming trade unions to fight the onslaught of the employers. The militancy displayed by this neglected, lower stratum of the working class – never protected by any of the labour laws in spite of the presence of a number of legislations, law enforcing machinery, etc. – is rather remarkable. Apparently, the so-called ‘rumour’ is said to be the immediate provocation for such a widespread upheaval of the workers. It would be a body blow, mainly to the garment workers, if at all any such change comes into effect regarding PF withdrawal. More so, because they are the lot who are terminated for a few days once in 6 months or so, and then, reappointed as new recruits. Their PF accounts are settled and a fresh account number is issued almost once in six months. This is the modus operandi adopted by most of the garment industry employers to evade regularization of their employment and implementation of labour welfare legislations.

The PF higher-ups denied that there was any change and dismissed it as merely a rumour. It appears that there was an understanding at the level of local PF officials to discourage workers from settling their PF dues as and when they are terminated from service, even if there had been no official circular or amendment to the PF rules to the effect. Some officials who operate in connivance with unscrupulous employers have really outdone themselves to show their loyalties to the employers. According to reports, it is the local PF office staff who said that PF account would be settled only after the retrenched workers reach 45 years of age. The PF settlement forms were not issued to some of the workers. It is a different matter that the PF Commissioner later denied all the accusations, after the workers’ unprecedented outburst.

The state government and the administration are trying to address the issue only as a law and order problem rather than addressing the real issues. In fact, the Peenya outburst is a warning to the policy-makers in the central and state governments, who are preparing to “liberalise” labour laws, as is evident from the anti-labour proposals in the last Budget. The root cause of the problem, and the reason for the widespread upsurge, has to be located in the policies of liberalization and globalisation.

It is not just a question of PF settlement or the question of manipulation by PF defaulters or the floating nature of garment workers; rather it is the question of increasing job insecurity. One cannot just belittle the whole thing as an outburst for some minor ‘economic’ demands, i.e. for securing a few thousands of rupees from the PF office for immediate relief. Often, workers’ uprisings erupt on a single, small issue but that is the dynamics of any spontaneous uprising. The question is as to how communists can cope with such outbursts and consciously orientate such a spontaneous movement. Only someone with no idea of the dynamics of spontaneous movements can look for some ‘unseen hand’ behind it. The fact that there was no looting itself explains that the role of anti-social elements, who are otherwise expected to operate during such incidents, was absent.

The workers’ instinct for survival has really led them to display such unprecedented militancy in the face of a so-called ‘rumour’. The simmering discontent was visible for quite some time. The workers were unable to accept that they would get their PF dues only after attaining 45 years of age, because neither their job nor their employer is “permanent”. These poor, neglected workers have been witness to the closing down of a number of garment factories at owners’ whims and fancies, while the very same owners are free to open new factories with new names in the same area. And it is the workers who are the ultimate losers. Most of the young women workers depend heavily on these PF dues to get married. Most of them may also leave the job after getting married. So, settlement of PF dues only after attaining 45 years of age would amount to losing their entire savings. Hence, the issue is to be addressed, at one level, from the angle of ensuring job security for the unorganized workers and, at another level, from the angle of overhauling the law enforcement machinery, including the PF system so as to severely punish the PF defaulters.

The Peenya phenomenon is a classic example of the famous saying that a ‘small spark can create a prairie fire.’ The unorganized garment workers could get mobilized in tens of thousands in no time mainly because of their floating nature, in this case a blessing in disguise. One particular group of companies has 22 garment units in Peenya Industrial Estate itself and that single group alone has employed more than 12,000 workers. There are 3 such groups in the industrial estate. When the workers heard the distressing news, at first only thousand workers or so came out on the streets. But, the same became a contingent of tens of thousands of marchers and culminated in a Rasta Roko at Jalahalli Cross. It was a concentrated expression of workers anger and discontent, growing job insecurity and fear. There is no way one can explain the militancy displayed by the workers on that eventful day, on an otherwise not so significant issue of PF settlement.

The Peenya incident has also blown up the theory that unorganized workers cannot be organized on a sustained basis. The incident has only shown that conscious orientation of the movement in a proper direction can really help building up powerful workers’ movements against anti-labour policies of the government, with the very same workers who are otherwise passive. In that case, Peenya phenomenon is only a warning to the rulers. Given the anti-labour approach of the government many more outbursts and uprisings are to follow suit in the days to come. So, the relevance of the Peenya phenomenon is not just restricted to Bangalore but is a lesson for the whole country and for the rulers who are implementing liberalization in a rapid pace. In fact, this is an indication that they need to reverse the process of liberalization if they want to avoid such violent outbursts in future.

– Shankar

Bangalore police raid CPI(ML)-AICCTU office in Peenya and arrest leaders

The police let loose unprecedented terror in the wake of the workers’ outburst in Peenya. Section 144 was clamped for more than 10 days. Workers moving in groups were arrested and harassed. More than 100 workers were arrested, according to official figures. The Peenya development remains a riddle for many trade union leaders and left party leaders, as they never expected such a spontaneous upsurge among totally unorganized garment workers. Hence they were taken unawares and are trying to build a story of an ‘unseen hand’ behind the incident. Ironically, all the traditional, established unions were religiously marching towards Vidhan Soudha while Peenya was witnessing such an unprecedented uprising. Left trade unions like CITU, AITUC, etc. did not even like to issue a statement in support of the struggling workers fearing a police crackdown on them. Even the opposition parties were only talking about the ineffective police handling etc. There was not a single democratic voice to be heard. The approach of the traditional trade unions, whether that of avoiding issuing a statement in support of workers or that of not organising the unorganised workers, is very much consistent with their social-democratic politics. It was only the AICCTU that actively intervened.

As a first step, the AICCTU issued a statement in support of struggling workers on 26th July. Then, it planned to hold a demonstration on 29th July, demanding regularization of garment workers, overhauling of the PF system, release of innocent workers and compensation to the victims of police high-handedness. AICCTU had applied for police permission to hold the demonstration. On the 28th itself, Shankar, Central Committee Member of CPI(ML) and V.Govindarajan, National Council Member of AICCTU were arrested from the office in a police raid. The police went on a search throughout that night looking for leading activists and arrested T.M. Poonacha, secretary of Bangalore City Leading Team of the Party.

More than 250 policemen and some water cannons were deployed at the demonstration venue despite its cancellation. Policemen in mufti were seen all around. It all showed the overreaction of the police administration in Bangalore. Even a legitimate, democratic right of organizing a demonstration is refused and democratic voices are crushed with an iron hand in the so-called peaceful, hi-tech Bangalore.

Conference of All-India Railway Party Branch

The Fourth Conference of All India Railway Party Branch was held on 28-29 July at Vinod Mishra Nagar (Santragachi, South-Eastern Railway) in Howrah district of West Bengal. Altogether 62 delegates and observers participated in the conference. Inaugurating the conference, Com. PV Srinivas, who was also the Central Observer, termed the recommendations of Rakesh Mohan Committee as a major attack on railway workers and the social utility character of the Indian railways. The Rakesh Mohan Committee report recommends division of railways into ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ sectors and pushing the railways towards commercialisation. It also recommends dissolution of the railway board and constitution of Indian Railway Control Authority in its place, which will privatise railways step by step and run it on profit basis. Com. Srinivas called for mobilising railway workers to bring them once again on the forefront of Indian working class to lead movements against imperialism and socio-economic exploitation.

The Draft report presented at the conference analysed party work among the railway workers while underlining attacks of capital at national-international levels and the basic trend of resistance struggle by the working class. Whereas the role of railway workers in the formation of Indian Railway Artisan Staff Union (IRASU) and increasing party influence within All India Railway Employees Confederation (AIREC) and formation of workers solidarity forums were considered positive, serious concern was expressed on increasing passivity of Railway Workers’ Vichar Manch and laxity in publication and distribution of Rail Darpan and Rail Prawah. The report emphasizes combating decay in party sense, restructuring the party and expanding its units in the railway colonies. The outgoing secretary of AIRPB clarified that situations in various zones of Indian Railway are different. Therefore, while at some places we would have to work within All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), at other places we may have to work within AIREC, and at still other places we may have to set up our own organisation, or work within some catagory unions. But, in our overall work, we must maintain our own independent identity and initiative.

The representatives vigorously participated in the debate, expressing their opinion frankly and freely on various issues connected to party work. At the end, the conference elected a 17-member Party Branch Committee. Party Polit Bureau members Com. D.P. Buxi and Com. Kartick Pal, and Com. Pradip Jha, member of Editorial Board of Shramik Solidarity also addressed the conference.