As the Modi government celebrates its second anniversary of capturing power through vulgar gala events, glamour and glitz hobnobbing with CEOs, a no-holds barred media blitz and ministers heaping vacuous praise, it is striking that India’s majority – over 50 crore working people – are completely absent in word and spirit from all this. This is not surprising – Narendra Modi, his colleagues in the government, his party and the mentor, the RSS, have never given any thought to those who labour. In fact these two years have seen not just neglect but an active and aggressive attack on the lives of working people matched in its intensity only by the craven support and sycophancy exhibited towards big business, both domestic and foreign.
A three-fold attack has been launched on the working people of the country. Let us look at it in detail.
1. Attacks on jobs: Even as the country is reeling under high joblessness and the inability of the government to create jobs, there is a continuing wave of closures and retrenchments across both industrial and services sectors. In manufacturing, different industries like steel, electricity, textiles and garments, leather, automobiles, etc. are witnessing losses of thousands of jobs. This is visible in Punjab, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, etc. in stark form, while in other less industrialised states the effect is hidden but equally rampant in smaller units. Why is the Modi government responsible for these diverse crises? Some are caused by crashing international prices or plunging demand (as in steel) others are caused by Western downturns – so is the government responsible? It is because not only has it failed to cushion our country against these effects, it has actually been actively trying to link up Indian production to unstable international markets and investments, as in its notorious failure, the ‘Make in India’ programme. The Modi government has been relying on an old, failed strategy of export led ‘growth’ which has not taken off at all. It has failed to initiate domestic demand, cut back on domestic public investment, given concessions to import goods and handed over productive assets to speculators and rogues thereby destroying any chances of our economy growing and standing on its own feet. This is what has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of workers.
In addition, the Modi government is continuing with its foolish policy of disinvestment of public sector undertakings which leads to loss of jobs on a large scale and much more onerous conditions of work.
2. Attack on wages: Simultaneously, the Modi government has allowed and encouraged an all-out attack on wages of working people through direct cuts or freezes or indirectly through price rise of essential commodities which impoverishes the already hard-pressed working people. Since regular employment is not growing, more and more people are forced into low paying casual jobs both in rural and urban areas. This leads to hidden unemployment – people are technically employed but at a pittance, often doing 2-3 types of jobs in a day, and with no social security. This harsh system has been in practice in India for decades but in recent years, with MGREGS faltering and food inflation rising, it is playing havoc with people’s lives. The Modi government has hardly acknowledged this crisis except for some lip service to unorganized workers. It has made active efforts to whittle down social security benefits by trying to put restrictions on PF advances or lowering PF interest rates which were forced back by angry workers. It has been actively selling India as an attractive destination for foreign investment by highlighting its cheap labour.
In November 2015, the Modi government revealed its intent by suggesting that a national minimum wage of Rs 273 a day or Rs 7,100 a month. This is less than half of what it ought to be if the Supreme Court guidelines, and the norms proposed in the Indian Labour Conference 1957, were applied to current prices. As pointed out by trade unions, by these norms every worker needs be assured of at least Rs 15,000 as monthly wages. Since then, the matter is hanging fire. In most of the small and unorganized sector even statutory minimum wages as notified by state governments are not implemented in almost 90% of cases. In many units, workers have to work a 12-hour shift in order to get the minimum wage that was due to them for 8 hours of work.
3. Attack on Labour Laws: To facilitate more exploitation (and more profits), the Modi government has been straining at the leash to cut down various labour laws which provide some protection to workers from ‘hire and fire’ and ensure basic wages and benefits. Five new labour bills are ready to be brought in which will replace 40 existing ones and make the whole labour protection system redundant. These bills are the Industrial Relations Code Bill 2016, Wage Code Bill 2016, the Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, the Shops and Establishments (Amendment) Bill, and Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill.
The net effect of these changes will be to make it easier for employers to: dismiss workers without having to go through a process of getting approval, change their working conditions, force workers to accept social security plans linked to stock markets, force workers to work under contractors (and by implication, at less wages and no job security). More changes are in the offing in trade unions related laws so that it will get even more difficult for workers to organize and fight to protect their rights. The labour inspection system is planned to be virtually dismantled. Employers are to be exempted from filing information about their employees and labour law implementation status.
Since labour laws are in the Concurrent List of the Constitution, State Governments also have a role in this. The BJP led state government of Rajasthan, acting as a laboratory for future reforms has already gone ahead and allowed greater freedom in firing workers, relaxed norms for licensing of labour contractors, and relaxed the application of the Factories Act. There are also suggestions to increase the limit of overtime work.
Meanwhile, the Modi government has completely ignored demands for social security protection for all unorganized sector workers, for some kind of floor level minimum wage for agricultural workers, and for more job security and better wages to lakhs of govt. scheme workers like anganwadis, ASHAs and mid day meal cooks.
Government figures indicate that the policy of reducing its own employees and appointing contractual employees has gained more speed in the last few years as a result of the govt.’s neo-liberal commitment to reduce expenditure at the cost of the people.
As a result of all these policies of commission and omission, there is widespread anger and resentment among workers all over the country. This has led to unprecedented unity among various trade unions and a series of protests in the past two years. On 2 September this year a massive all India strike is going to be held to oppose the Modi government’s policies against the working class.