Feeling like a slumdog millionaire: Gujarati textile workers strike, organize
Posted by redpines on February 17, 2012
Working folks are rising across India. Labor unrest and workers’ struggles have exploded all over the country, parallel to the intensification of adivasi tribal people’s movements and battles for popular self-determination from Kashmir in the northwest to Manipur in the northeast. Amidst this wave, activists have published a report on a strike at a massive textile factory in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat (a province of over 60 million people in western India). The document shines a light on the working conditions in India’s burgeoning industrial sector and the autonomous struggle that has bursted out among the Reliance textile workers at the Naroda plant. Those familiar
with the contemporary labor situation in places like the United States or Europe may feel a certain sense of deja vu reading about the use of temporary workers, the management-friendly unions, and even the ban on carrying mobile phones at work.
Since February 2nd of this year, the 5,000 Reliance Textile Industries workers have been on strike. They have formed a new, independent union and published a list of demands, which are reprinted here. Thanks to Sanhati for publishing this report. [Introduction by Joe]
Gujarat – A Report on the Workers’ Strike in Reliance Textile Industries, Naroda plant, Ahmedabad
February 8, 2012
Highly exploitative wage structure and abysmal working conditions have led the over 5000 workers to strike work in the primary manufacturing plant of Reliance Textile Industries in Naroda, Gujarat, which is at a halt since 2nd February 2012. While the company posted its highest ever turnover of over USD 44 billion and its net profit increased to USD 3.6 billion, workers in the factory (‘dressing up India’ with ‘fabrics which make you feel like a millionaire’ its website says) which started this empire’s journey find their lives getting cheaper by the day. Spread over 120 acres and with assets of over 300 crore, this plant in Naroda Industrial Estate, located in a GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation) near Ahmedabad is India’s ‘most modern textile complex’ (according to the World Bank) and Reliance’s first manufacturing facility set up by Dhirubhai Ambani in 1966. Producing the ‘Only Vimal’ brand and housing sophisticated machinery, it says it is ushering in ‘a new era in fabrics, include suitings, shirtings, home textiles’.
But the skeletons in its closet are coming tumbling out, as the most of the around 1100 permanent and 4000 contract workers assert their rights and continue their strike which started from the second shift on 2nd February. The company meanwhile responds with police deployment, intimidation, arrest of workers’ leaders and a media campaign which says that the workers have only been miffed for not being allowed to carry mobile phones inside the factory. On the first day of the strike itself, Modi’s willing police forced the striking workers away from the factory gate, and when they assembled in the shamshanghat complex, around 20 minutes away, were forced out of there too. Declaring the strike to be illegal, and arresting the leaders, police has posted itself in the factory gate.
According to the workers, for last 20 years (when the company’s profits increased ten-fold), the wages for the workers and karigars has more or less been the same, whereas the salary of the staff increased many times. While the permanent workers earn a paltry Rs. 5000-6000 per month, the contract workers are paid Rs.85-100 per day. No legality of paymentin terms of pay slips etc. is maintained, only a voucher is signed. Overtime is paid in single rate, while strict surveillance is maintained and late entry is severely punished. For the last 20-25 years, two anti-worker unions have been there in the plant. One is ‘Majdoor Mahajan’, the union that was originally established by M. K. Gandhi after the Bombay textile strike in the 1920s and has many unions across Gujarat, and the other is ‘Mill Mazdoor Sabha’, affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha. The workers, fed up of both these Unions’ corrupt practices, say how they act as “extended office of the management”. Every three years, a settlement is brokered between these two Unions’ officials and the management, but workers are kept out of it and do not even get to know of the deal brokered. No notice is put up. Four years back, both these Unions even agreed to accept that there will be no recess hour for the workers to have tea. So the workers were henceforth forced to have tea on the way to the bathroom, and in the location of work in an unhygienic and dirty atmosphere, so that work is not disturbed and time ‘better managed’.
Workers strongly emphasise that the reason for the strike is not as the popular media reporting and management statements on it goes, that of the prohibition of mobile phone inside the factory. It is only to delegitimize their struggle, that they are sought to being portrayed as flippant, lazy, like the recent struggle in Yanam was decried as being done by anarchist ‘killer workers’, or how the Maruti Suzuki struggle was sought to be portrayed as ‘innocent young workers under the sway of outside elements’.
The demands and the inhuman working conditions from which they have arisen are clear to the workers. Even as the company site says that it ‘endeavours to create a workplace where every person can realise his or her full potential’, the workers specifically stress on the abusive language of the management staff. Though they have raised their demands again and again earlier, the workers now organized as Reliance Employees Union submitted a 16-point demand list to the management again during the strike, which include a 60% hike in wages and regularization of contract workers, besides double rate overtime, a 20% increase in bonus, increase of daily wage of contract workers to Rs. 200 per day, renewal of fixed salary system, uniform rights for wage board, tea-snacks in the canteen, no fine for 10 minute late entry, to fill accident forms according to procedure, an end to harassment of workers, and an assurance that striking workers will not be fired and no deduction of wage for the strike period is made.
Figure 1. Scanned copies of the list of demands
Disregarding all these demands, the management apart from the disinformation campaign, has resorted to police force, arrest and intimidation on the striking workers and their leaders, and are now bringing in temporary workers from outside, paying them Rs. 400-500 per day, to show that the plant is running, though at much below its capacity. Continuing with their anti-worker stance, both the pro-management Unions were against the strike, but the majority of the workers emphasized the strong unity among striking workforce. “We have formed a new union named ‘Reliance Employees Union. The strike will go on till our demands are met”, said Hasmukh Patel, President of the new Union. The workers’ complete disillusionment and anger against Narendra Modi and his ‘vibrant Gujarat development model’, and against the Reliance management is becoming more and more evident, from their own experiences. Sagar Patil, a striking worker, said, “With 9.5 crore, the money we produced, Nita Ambani bought an IPL team. They are making jalsa with our money, but it pains them to even part a few thousands to us who produce.” No trade union, or political group or even the huge number of ‘humanist’ organizations in Gujarat have even made a single statement in favour of the workers till now, but the striking workers continue with their struggle.
The following is a tentative translation of the list of demands as spelled out in the Gujarati pamphlets posted above –
Reliance Employees Union
Reliance Industries Limited, GIDC
In front of Petrol Pump, Near Raj Pan Centre, Naroda, Ahmedabad
Subject: Demand for Workers Rights
* Total current salary to be increased 60% according to grade.
* Make badli workers permanent on the basis of seniority
* Increase salary even if days less than 240; Increase salary according to grade
* Implement fixed salary system
* Give double overtime
* Give tea-snacks in the canteen
* Agreement salary should be given
* Give 20% bonus
* Begin 10-minute late entry
* Fill accident forms according to procedure
* No employee should be harassed in future
* Workers involved in strike will not be fired.
* Dissolve the worker mahajan and their sabhas. All workers do not approve of these unions.
* Give all workers working in contract Rs 200 according to 8 hours work
* The loss of working days haziri during strike should be remitted.
* Give written acceptance of all these demands.