World Economy
0

180m Indian Workers Strike for Higher Wages

There’s a general sense that instead of targeting poverty they are targeting the poor, and there has been a real running down of spending on essential public services
Trade unions say the government has not addressed the demands of the workers in banking, telecommunication and other industries.Trade unions say the government has not addressed the demands of the workers in banking, telecommunication and other industries.

India’s labor unions wielded their clout on Friday with 180 million workers going on strike demanding higher pay and in protest of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s economic policies.

These workers belong to 10 of the country’s biggest trade unions, and include employees of banks, government telecom companies and coal mining firms. But Indian railway workers, central government employees, and members of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh—a sister body of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—are not participating in the one-day strike, news outlets reported.

“Besides ports and civil aviation, essential services like transport, telecom, and banking will be paralyzed,” SP Tiwari, secretary of the Trade Union Coordination Committee, a labor union, said on Sept. 01. “The workers will go on strike in hospitals and power plants but the protest will not affect their normal functioning.”

Last-minute concessions by the country’s finance and labor ministries, including a 104 rupee hike ($1.59) in unskilled workers’ daily minimum wage, failed to ward off the action.

Last year, a similar strike cost the economy more than Rs 25,000 crore ($4 billion).

The workers have presented a charter of 12 demands, which includes a monthly minimum wage of Rs 18,000 and a pension of Rs 3,000. They also want the government to stop disinvesting at various public sector units, change the foreign direct investment policy, and ensure universal social security for all workers.

Workers are also demanding the government dump plans to shutter unproductive factories, raise foreign investment caps in some industries and sell off stakes in state-run companies—over fears that creeping privatization will jeopardize jobs.

Banks, shops and schools shut down in several parts of the country including southern Karnataka and Kerala states where public transport stopped running, stranding commuters and travelers.

The government has, meanwhile, promised to look into the protesters’ demands. “In the last one-and-a-half years, the inter-ministerial committee had met with central trade unions,” India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said. “The government has taken some decisions with regard to those (demands) on the basis of their recommendations.”

The government says the reforms are needed to revive the economy.

The strike has paralyzed public transport across some Indian cities. In some states, protesters have clashed with the police.

Modi's Liberalization Program

Modi won power in 2014 promising to replicate across India the double-digit economic growth he oversaw as Gujarat’s chief minister. He steered a landmark national goods and services tax through India’s parliament last month and has opened up sectors such as defense and aviation for foreign investment.

The government has also raised more than 564 billion rupees ($8.44 billion) by selling shares in state-owned industries but pulled back from full privatization and left labor market reform largely to the states.

“The Modi government is probably the most pro-state sector government we’ve had in 25 years,” said Mihir Sharma, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. “The unions are the only people who have bought the idea that the government plans big reforms.”

Sharma said the protests, the fourth all-India strike since 2009, were to “remind the government of the cost of moving forward with its liberalization program”.

Prof Jayati Ghosh, a development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said Modi’s changes had built on a 25-year neoliberal reform agenda that had left workers across the country worse off.

“Less than 4% of workers in India come under labor protection, and even those protections have become more and more eroded. There’s a general sense that instead of targeting poverty they are targeting the poor, and there has been a real running down of spending on essential public services,” she said.

She said health workers in some states had not been paid in months, food subsidy and distribution schemes were being neglected and “private employers who wish to discourage any kind of unionization are being actively encouraged by the central government”.

Financialtribune.com