AICCTU Initiative : Towards All India Conference of Construction Workers
An all-India conference of construction workers will take place on June 28-29, 2008 in Patna, under the leadership of AICCTU, to form an All India Federation of Construction Workers. In many states today, including Delhi, Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, W. Bengal, Tamilnadu, Pondicherry, Gujarat, Orissa etc. construction workers unions affiliated to AICCTU are leading their struggles. In Bihar, the Central legislation for construction workers has been implemented only after a sustained battle conducted by AICCTU. 'Bihar State Construction Workers Union' affiliated to AICCTU, represents the construction workers in the newly constituted Board. In Rajasthan, our union 'Rajasthan Construction Workers Organisation' has emerged as the most active force on a range of issues including implementation of central Act for construction workers. In Punjab, our 'Red Flag Kiln Workers Union' has grown as the biggest and most militant force among the kiln workers, scoring many important victories including wage increase. In W Bengal, we are conducting a campaign for workers’ registration in the newly constituted Board while in Delhi, a sustained battle is going on for ration cards, houses, higher pension etc., along with the campaign for registration in the Welfare Board.
Construction workers constitute the second largest contingent of working class in the country, second only to the agricultural workers. Today their number is around 3.25 crores. The construction sector is today the most blooming and profit-making industry in the country. The excessive profits in the industry are based on the inhuman exploitation of the construction workers who are mainly contract labour. Public and private sector included, in all, there are 83% contract workers in the industry, out of which 50% are women and children.
The life of construction workers is miserable. Often they have to live in the dirtiest parts of the cities or in slums beside dirty gutters and roads. Their work places lack basic civic amenities and they are often prey to accidents and diseases. The dwellings of labour engaged in the construction projects of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, showcased as the model of country’s progress, are worse than pigsty where dozens of workers recently fell victim to a fatal epidemic of meningitis. And the Central as well as State Congress governments were only interested in covering up this occurrence. Big indigenous companies as well as MNCs don’t even allow workers to form unions. In fact a big section of construction workers are immigrant labourers, belonging to oppressed castes/communities, who are cursed to live under conditions of intimidation, discrimination and all sorts of humiliation. They have got no proof of identification and they have to work at lower wages than other workers. Besides facing the brunt of state repression, these migrant labourers are victims of violence perpetrated by fascist-reactionary forces like Shiv Sena, ULFA etc. Along with gender discrimination, sexual exploitation and rape with women workers is a common phenomenon. Migrant workers are deprived of multi-purpose I-cards, proper rehabilitation, ration cards, healthcare and education facilities for children, etc. And above all, there is no guarantee of jobs and wages.
It is ironical to note that this pathetic condition of the construction workers persists despite the fact that a central legislation in the name of their welfare was passed way back in 1996 itself. Obviously the Act was the result as well as reflection of the growing strength and assertion of the construction workers. However even after 12 years, this Act is not implemented in most of the states including UP, Rajasthan, Jharkhand etc, or it is in the initial stages of implementation or just at the stage of governmental assurance. Where Welfare Boards have been constituted, they are manned by people close to ruling parties (for example in Bihar, it is in the hands of those close to BJP) or the representatives of construction mafia and NGOs, as in Delhi. The Board registration amount is very high for workers and above it they have to pay the renewal fees. Obviously it is nothing but official loot of the hard-earned income of the workers. Also, only an extremely small portion of the money deposited in the Boards of different states is being spent on the welfare of the workers. In Delhi, by November 3, 2007, the Board had collected Rs 140 crores through a cess but not a single pie was spent for the workers. The pension amount too is quite meagre, like Rs. 500 in Delhi and Rs. 400 in Tamilnadu. Besides, there are many flaws in the Central legislation. There is no provision for residential schemes. Many sections of the workers related with construction activities e. g. kiln workers or those engaged in sand excavation/extraction etc. are not covered under this Act. As a result, lakhs of construction related workers are deprived of the facilities which are available through this Act.
AICCTU has demanded that the central Act for construction workers must be implemented in every state, all unorganized workers must be included in the PDS, the minimum wages recommended by the 6th Pay Commission should be declared national minimum wages and be implemented for all unorganized sector workers, 2% cess should be made mandatory for all states, a National Commission be constituted for the protection of immigrant workers against discrimination and oppression and necessary amendments be made in Inter-State Immigrant Labour Act, 1979.
AICCTU is committed to build a powerful countrywide movement of the construction workers and by uniting construction workers movement with the movement of agricultural workers as well as other un-organised sector workers, turn the broad unorganized workers into major combat force of the working class movement.
Hunger Strike in Gorakhpur Against Arrests of Sanitation Workers
On 14 May in Gorakhpur the Administration arrested the Sanitation Workers Union members and CPI(ML) activists who had been on a hunger strike for last five days at the Commissioner’s office, with the simple demand that the Town Corporation take the workers under a direct contract and thereby free them from exploitation by private contractors. Protesting the arrests the CPI(ML)’s UP State Committee member Com. Rajesh Sahni along with activists of RYA sat on hunger strike on the day of the arrests. It is to be noted that the Mayawati Government has not yet acted on its announcement to make permanent all casual sanitation workers. It was only after a written assurance by the Administration that the hunger strike was withdrawn on 16th May.
Indian Diaspora Workers on the Warpath
Taxi drivers in Australia, (mostly youth of Indian and Pakistani origin) staged a spontaneous and ultimately successful protest on April 29-30, shutting down a major intersection in Melbourne for more than 22 hours, after the near fatal stabbing of a young driver. Some 500 drivers, the majority of whom were of Indian or Pakistani background, (and many of whom are also students) blocked the road with their cabs.
Though the militant protest and blockade was sparked off by the near fatal stabbing of a young driver Jalvinder Singh, the reasons for frustrations and anger are much deeper. The taxi drivers face constant racist bias and police do not take their complaints or even emergency calls seriously. Taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors and so have none of the employment rights afforded to most other workers. They are not subject to the federal minimum wage.
After initially refusing to meet with the drivers until the protest was called off, the transport minister finally met with a contingent from the Victorian Taxi Drivers Association and a Transport Workers Union representative. The Minister conceded a number of the drivers’ demands, including the mandatory fitting of safety shields, 50% of which will be funded by the state, as well as making pre-paid fares compulsory between 10pm and 5am.
Meanwhile, protests of Indian workers in the US, reported earlier in Liberation, (see Liberation April 2008), continue. A group of five Indian workers have launched a hunger strike in front of the White House demanding a US Congressional investigation into their exploitation by American company Signal International. They represent the more than 500 Indian welders and pipe fitters campaigning to expose the abuses of the US Government's H2B guest worker programme, under which they have faced inhuman treatment and enormous exploitation. “We know the US is a powerful country, and we know that Signal is a powerful company. That is why we are asking the Indian government to support us as we stand here with our lives shattered”, said one hunger striker Muruganantham Kandhasami. “If we, the workers of India, can have the courage to talk to US Congressmen and US federal authorities, then surely the Indian government can do the same so that no other Indian worker suffers as we did”, the workers' statement said.
The workers are demanding that Indian parliamentarians press the US for a Congressional investigation into abuses in the US guest worker visa programme. They also want the ministries of foreign affairs and overseas Indian affairs to press the US State Department to secure the workers' right to participate in a human trafficking investigation into Signal International and its American and Indian recruiters. “Indian envoy to the US Ronen Sen offered the workers only symbolic reassurances and apologies for protocol. Now they are risking their lives in the hope that the Indian government will find the courage to pressure the US government to grant them dignity, and protect future workers”, said a worker's advocate. The workers had also demanded a CBI probe into their case. Coming to Washington, after a nine-day satyagraha, or 'journey for justice' from New Orleans, the workers had in March taken their protest to the White House where they raised slogans and tore up photocopies of their H-2B visas in a symbolic rejection of the guest worker programme.
AICCTU Preparatory Body Formed in AP
On 26th of April an organisational convention of All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) was held at Vijayawada. The meeting was presided over by CPI(ML)'s Andhra State Secretary and Polit Bureau member P. Murthy. DP Bakshi, PB member and S. Balasubramanian, Vice President of AICCTU and in-charge of Andhra along with the leading activists of Vizagapattinam, East Godavari, Khamam, Adilabad, and Ananthapur districts were present in the meeting. Com. DP Bakshi stressed the necessity of the organized trade union work in Andhra. It was decided to reach a membership target of 20,000 before the national conference of AICCTU to be held at Chennai. A seven member preparatory committee was formed with Com. CH Nageswar Rao as its Convenor. It was also decided to launch a campaign for the forthcoming founding conference of construction workers to be held in Patna at the end of June 2008 towards the formation of Federation of Construction Workers Union. The preparatory committee also decided to hold a State level conference in the last week of June.
Contract Workers in Anpara Thermal Power Project Score Victory
Contract workers in the Anpara Thermal Power Project scored a major victory when the Plant Management, after all its efforts to defame, divide and suppress the 3-month long movement of the contract workers failed. The management ultimately bowed down in face of the sustained pressure of the mass movement, and issued orders to implement with immediate effect the MD’s order to pay minimum wages to the workers through cheques and immediately reinstate 7 out of 8 dismissed workers.
AICCTU started its intervention here 3 years back against the government's move to privatise Anpara C. Through this effective intervention, a good impact was created among the organized workers. It was during this time that work was started among contract workers centring on the demands for minimum wages, facilities like PF, ESI and compensation for victims of accidents etc. As a result of peaceful democratic movement, the MD Production Corporation ordered payment of minimum wages to the contract workers through cheques as well as strict implementation of the labour laws. However these orders were not implemented, thanks to the manoeuvring of powerful vested economic interests enjoying clout in the Plant administration. The Union then started an indefinite dharna on Feb 11. Retaliating sharply the management dismissed many leaders employed in Store Division including Union President Surendra Pal. The Dharna was converted into a relay hunger-strike. Defying the threats of contractors and management, workers kept on joining the movement. On March 30, a 'Save Democracy Convention' was organized. Many workers, employees unions and other democratic organizations participated in the convention. On April 16, the Union President went on a 48-hour hunger strike and a massive torch-light procession was taken out on April 18. In the meantime an appeal was made to the Chief Minister and a ‘people’s hearing’ was fixed with the CM's Principal Secretary for May 22. Extremely irritated, the management made efforts to provoke anarchy in the movement so that the movement could be maligned and crushed. First the GM himself, along with CISF, reached the protest venue and tried to forcibly remove workers from there. However under massive protest of the workers, they had to beat a retreat. Finally, under the pretence of Jaipur blasts and the High Alert in its name, the management, without any written notice deployed CISF to attack the dharna and forcibly remove the workers. As part of a well orchestrated conspiracy, a story was managed to malign this popular movement, the very next morning in the daily 'Hindustan'. This conspiracy of the management was foiled by the democratic movement. Next morning, workers gheraoed the Police Station demanding an FIR against those who were responsible for attack on the dharna. There was an undeclared strike-like situation in the Plant. Braving the reign of terror, around 1500 workers joined in the thana gherao. Under tremendous pressure, the management ultimately came to the negotiation table acknowledging its fault and declared to accept most of the demands of the agitating workers. However in the name of so-called confidential inquiry at governmental level, they expressed inability to withdraw the dismissal of Union President Surendra Pal. Actually in this so-called inquiry Surendra Pal and reportedly AICCTU State Joint Secretary Rajesh Sachan as well as Shramik Solidarity Forum Convener Engineer Durga Prasad have been charged with involvement in ‘Naxal activities’! This reveals the essence of the ‘anti-Naxal’ campaigns in UP and beyond: they are nothing but an excuse to crackdown on workers’ struggle and people’s movements. Despite all this the workers have scored victory in the battle. And the movement is all set to enter a new phase demanding action against the officials responsible for the malicious inquiry against the workers leaders and revoking dismissal of Union President Surendra Pal.