Millions strike in India over Modi's labour reforms

Trade unionists at a protest rally against the BJP's proposed labour reforms in Bangalore yesterday. The one-day strike caused major disruptions in transport, banking and industrial activity.
Trade unionists at a protest rally against the BJP's proposed labour reforms in Bangalore yesterday. The one-day strike caused major disruptions in transport, banking and industrial activity.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Unions protest against minimum wage calculation, moves to ease hiring and firing

Millions of workers went on a nationwide strike in India for the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May last year, protesting against proposed labour reforms and disrupting transport, banking and industrial activity in several parts of the country.

Yesterday's one-day strike, called by 10 major unions, came after talks with the government failed over the calculation of the minimum wage and other issues.

Factories were shut in Delhi and its satellite cities, while clashes broke out between striking workers and police in some parts of the eastern state of West Bengal, while both public and private transport was disrupted in a number of cities.

Trade unions are unhappy with what they see as Mr Modi's anti-labour policies. The government, on the other hand, said in a statement on Tuesday that it is working to address their concerns.

The Prime Minister had come to power on the back of promises to grow the economy by attracting investments through a series of business-friendly reforms including labour reforms. These could include making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers, and tougher for workers to form unions.

WIDESPREAD SUPPORT

There is a lot of frustration among workers. Even independent unions have participated. We were not expecting such a magnificent response.

MR D.L. SACHDEVA, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, one of the unions that took part in the strike

The striking unions claimed "unprecedented" support for their industrial action, saying 150 million workers had taken part in it.

"There is a lot of frustration among workers. Even independent unions have participated. We were not expecting such a magnificent response," said Mr D.L. Sachdeva, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, one of the participating unions.

Among the unions' list of grievances against the government are a lack of "concrete measures" for job creation and a proposed minimum wage of Rs7,000 ($149) which they deem too low, demanding that it be raised to Rs15,000 instead. The current minimum wage is Rs4,800.

Mr Modi's reform agenda has hardly gotten off the ground. He has taken many small steps like opening up sectors such as insurance to greater foreign investment but has been unable to bring in promised big-bang reforms.

A land acquisition Bill, which was proposed to make it easier for business to acquire land, has been stalled in Parliament by the opposition parties, on grounds that it diluted the rights of farmers. The government has now agreed to drop contentious clauses, earning criticism from the corporate sector.

Labour reforms have also not moved forward even though states ruled by Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, have changed laws to make it easier to hire and fire workers.

Mr Modi is also looking to merge 44 labour laws into four laws.

"The understanding of the proposed labour laws is still at a very nascent stage. These are big laws that would have significant impact on trade unions. I think this churning will keep on happening," said Prof N.R. Bhanumurthy at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, explaining the strike.

The strike also comes amid growing frustration over a lack of job creation. In Gujarat, Mr Modi's home state, widespread unrest took place last week over demands for affirmative action through government jobs and other employment for the Patidar caste, who are mainly farmers and landowners.

Trade unionists who organised yesterday's strike said they would continue to monitor the government's labour reforms.

"If the government doesn't come to its senses, we may have to intensify the struggle. We may even call for an indefinite strike," said Mr Sachdeva.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Millions strike in India over Modi's labour reforms'. Print Edition | Subscribe