Democratic Rights And the Working Class

C.N. Subramaniam

The defence and extension of democratic rights are an integral part of the working class struggles, both economic and political. Democratic rights facilitate the emergence of militant and effective class organisation and movements. Needless to say they are never a sufficient condition.

Over centuries the working class across the world have fought to extend the meaning of these rights and have won through bitter struggles social acceptance for these rights. Rights which have thus been socially accepted find their sanction in constitutions and laws. Thus we have the constitutions guaranteeing citizens the right to equality, freedom of expression and movement and right to association etc. There have been innumerable laws passed by legislatures for protecting the rights of the workers. However seldom does social acceptance of a right get effectively represented in the law. The law thus retains considerable vagueness and loopholes which are used to undermine the rights. Even when the law is effective enforcement powers remain with the state authorities whose organic sympathies for the employers need no elaboration. Nevertheless the laws represent the concentrated expression and crystallization of the achievements of the world proletariat. They are both props of the working class movement and a measure of success for segments newly entering into the working class movement. As such democratic rights in general and the laws in particular play a crucial role in the emergence of the working class as an effective and self-conscious class in and for itself.

In countries like India the working class is still in the process of formation as every year hundreds and thousands of people join its ranks. They are employed under conditions where various forms of extra-economic coercion take precedence over conditions of free wage labour. Caste and tribal and regional oppression forces these workers to enter the labour market with various kinds of disadvantages - lack of modern education and skills, disadvantages heaped by low caste status etc. The democratic rights as sanctioned by the constitution or laws are also not available to these workers as a result of which they are subjected to a greater degree of oppression and underpayment. In fact most struggles of these workers immediately confront issues pertaining to the application of the existing laws - like the Minimum Wages Act, Contract Labour Act etc. Even as the workers organize themselves and fight for enforcement of these laws they join the ranks of the self-conscious proletariat and shed their earlier petty-bourgeois and caste identities. In partaking of the gains of the earlier working class movement the new segments of the class integrate themselves with the broader stream of the proletarian movement.

At this point it needs to be said that most of the organized working class movement and the trade unions have ignored the task of assimilating the new segments of workers by broadening the struggle for democratic rights. In fact this has actually led to a situation where the capitalists find it possible to pit organized workers against the unorganized and vice versa. This in turn helps to reproduce petty-bourgeois and caste identities within the working class. In other words unless the working class takes up the task of struggle for democratic rights on a broader scale it cannot effectively assimilate within its ranks all segments as one unified class. Till such times the working class will remain a fragmented tool in the hands of the reactionary trade unions.

It is in the light of these considerations that we need to see the work of organizations for democratic rights like the PUDR.

PUDR and the Workers' Struggles

The People's Union for Democratic Rights, an organisation drawn from liberal professionals, 'lawyers, journalists, teachers, students and artists' was formed in 1977 just after the Emergency. It has taken upon itself the task of investigating cases of violations of democratic rights especially in the context of popular movements and also in a limited way fighting legal battles on their behalf. The reports of the PUDR show a sensitivity to the broader context of the violation of the rights - the nature of the oppression which the people sought to challenge and the nature of suppression of democratic rights. This has always enabled the readers to place the question of rights in the context of movements. Among the memorable legal cases fought by the PUDR was the petition concerning the Asiad 82 construction workers in the Supreme Court. The case had not been filed by the workers but by the PUDR which technically was not an aggrieved party. Yet considering the fact that the workers themselves were not in a position to file a case the court agreed to accept the locus standi of the PUDR.

This landmark judgment initiated what is now famous as the 'Public Interest Litigation' (PIL). These have been used effectively in the case of bonded labourers working in various construction sites, mines, brick kilns etc. However it should be remembered, as a PUDR booklet points out. that PIL cannot substitute for real and effective organisation of the aggrieved. In the same case of Asiad workers ironically when the judgment granting compensation to the workers finally came in most of the workers had already dispersed and could not be traced. All the same the PILs have a limited role to play drawing attention to the grossest forms of oppression where the oppressed are too weak to fight or too fragmented to make an impact.

The PUDR represents one of the most committed and concerned segments of the liberal intelligentsia and a closer look at some of the reports would be rewarding. We propose to take up a few representative reports available to us.

Anonymous Struggles, 1983

This report takes up the issue of the lack of access to democratic rights in the unorganized workers. These workers are unorganized not because they did not deem it necessary to organize and struggle but because of the extremely oppressive conditions under which they work and the deprivations they suffer. The conditions of employment itself inhibit building organization for the defence of their rights.

The report has three sections, a profile of the unorganized sector, the law, unions and struggles. Labour laws cover mostly workers who have a legal standing as workers working in factories legally recognized. It is also they who have access to democratic rights and the ability to enforce even partially the labour laws. They however constitute a minority within the working class. The vast majority, not being legally recognized, work under conditions where it is not possible to organize and struggle. These workers mostly fall under the category of casual and contract workers. We can add to this category bonded labourers who are not only engaged in agriculture but in large number of manufactories, mines and quarries too. Engaging workers under such conditions enables the employers to evade labour laws and the obligations to workers under those laws.

Such workers are found in all industries whether large or small, private or government-owned. In fact the government itself is one of the largest employers of casual and contract workers. To quote the report, 'In Indian Railways for instance, presently there are 8 lakh contract labourers who are engaged in expansion of railway networks... More than half of them have been working for two decades and yet they are not treated on par with permanent workers on the ground that their job is temporary in nature. Thus India's largest employer ignores the fact that while laying down a railway line is temporary in nature, laying railway lines itself a permanent job of the railways.' (p.3).

Wherever such casual and contract workers are employed, wages, working conditions, housing and health facilities, etc. are not on par with regular workers... they are deprived of permanency benefits like provident fund, insurance etc.

The casual workers are literally the reserve army of labour to be used either against absentee workers or drafted to handle temporary increases in market demand. Contract workers are not direct employees of the actual employer who engages a labour contractor to undertake a job. The workers are then deemed to be employees of the contractor and the real employer is exempt from responsibilities vis--vis them.

In the mines for example non-mechanized, unskilled but strenuous work like loading is largely done by casual and contract workers who work in the same unit along with 'permanent' workers who usually operate machines.

If this is the situation in the large organized industrial sector the conditions of workers in the large majority of small factories is much worse. Here the labour laws are usually not enforced at all. Even though they are subject to the inspection of labour inspectors the latter make peace with the employers after extorting bribes from them. A large number of capitalists dispense with even this minimal discomfort by not registering as a factory at all and not maintaining any records of the employees.

The conditions get more oppressive and repressive as we move on to sectors like quarrying, construction, brick kilns, bidi rolling etc. Being seasonal, small in size and highly dispersed in rural hinterlands, these units get away with the worst crimes against workers. In these sectors forms of extra-economic coercion play a very important role in the exploitation of the workers. A large proportion of workers in these sectors are bonded workers who have to work for a specific employer for lower wages in return for some advance cash payment. Tribal, caste and regional disadvantages are used effectively by the employers to force the workers to work for paltry sums. A virtual reign of terror reigns in these units or construction sites.

Most of the labour laws are so drafted as to leave out such workers as discussed above from their purview. This provided the excuse for enacting special laws for them which either lack teeth or have no effective enforcement systems. Thus these laws merely serve as window dressing. After a long review of various labour laws the report concludes:

'...certain categories of unorganized labour are almost outside the purview of the labour laws of the land. No central legislation recognizes the category of casual labour. The very word casual does not appear in any of the laws reviewed above. Yet they constitute a significant portion of labour in all industries. Similarly workers in unregistered factories are not covered by any legislation. For most of the labour in household industry no legislation except wage laws to an extent apply'. (p. 19). Further regarding enforcement the report states:

'Understaffed and underpaid labour officials have also to deal with unorganized labour. Usually they are vulnerable to pressures by employers and are always under pressure from the more organized sections of the labour force. The rules made under the Contract Labour Act for instance appointed already overburdened officials of the Labour Commission office as inspectors for the enforcement of the Act. The government has never recognized that laws relating to unorganized labour require not only a separate machinery but also a different kind of machinery given the distinctive features of unorganized labour'. (ibid.)

In the final section the report bemoans the lack of effort on the part of the larger unions to organize these workers. It also briefly lists the small efforts at organizing them and the struggles undertaken. These are usually by unions with political affiliations to the left of the CPM covering a wide range of Maoist groups. The work of CMMS gets a special mention in this regard.

After surveying the union situation the Report concludes:

'These unions, usually confined to one place or one factory or one region, are beset with many problems. Absence of organizational links with other workers deprives them of the advantages of solidarity action. Usually they do not have any vocal representative of their own in the legislatures. Paucity of funds... legal aid is almost nil.... Where the labour are migrant they have additional problems arising out of alien language, culture and terrain. In small units... a strike will immediately result in a permanent closure of the unit. In addition the owners engage professional goondas to intimidate the workers.... Violence by the police against them is the most common feature of these struggles.'

Tall Chimneys Dark Shadows - Lives and Struggles of Workers of Bhilai 1991

The Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, the union founded by the martyred comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi, has had a special place in the work of the PUDR. We will take up here a particularly comprehensive report centred around the activities of the union published in 1991.

The opening section of the report introduces us to what is perceived as the cleavage in Bhilai between the world of the permanent workers of the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) and the world of the contract labourers of Bhilai. 'The population of Bhilainagar consists primarily of the permanent workforce of BSP,... Around 80% of these permanent workers are the educated and relatively skilled migrants from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and other parts of the country.... They have evidently been in far better position to take advantage of the employment opportunities offered by the BSP than the local inhabitants.'

Bhilai has '... neatly laid out in sectors provided with shopping complexes schools... and the 500 bed BSP hospital - one of the best equipped hospitals in Chattisgarh.

'The surrounding areas of Jamul, Charoda and Bhilai Kalan present a stark contrast to this picture. ...these lack civic amenities and are in no way comparable to Bhilainagar... Most of these areas are categorized as 'predominantly slum'. The growth of population here, where the composition is basically of local Chattisgarhis... can be explained by the nature and process of industrialization....'

There is an implicit undertone in these passages which seems to argue that the workers from outside were snatching the rightful due of the workers of Chattisgarh. Fortunately, however, this trend of argument does not recur in the report. Later on indeed it is stated that the standards set for remuneration of the workers of BSP formed a benchmark for the struggles of the unorganized workers.

A substantial portion of the report is taken up with the question of the use of contract labour in most of the ancillary industries of Bhilai and their implication for the conditions of the workers and their movements. In most of the enterprises with the exception of the BSP and the ACC the proportion of permanent workers in the total workforce is never more than 10%. Thus the 'predominant form of hiring is contract labour'. Besides, the trend has been to further replace permanent workers with contract workers. Senior workers are encouraged to work as labour contractors. There exists a hierarchical system of contractors which can do feudalism proud. At the head of the system are the large labour contractors who manage the entire system. Next come the labour contractors who hire the workers. Then come the worker contractors who are actually skilled workers who hire out their assistants. A worker may be working at the same machine for decades on a permanent basis but his employers keep rotating to escape the labour laws. At any point of time a worker would seldom be able to know who is technically employing him or her.

This system enables the factory owners to evade labour laws and get away with gross underpayment far below the minimum wages stipulated by the law - and force the workers to work without any job security, any health or provident fund facility, or even minimum safety standards. It is this super-exploitation of the workers which enable these units to remain competitive in the market without making a shift to professional management which is not only expensive but also undermines the present semi-feudal - patriarchal management system.

Such an elaborate system of subcontracting has another advantage for the employers besides bringing in additional profits; it helps to fragment and deflect the struggle of the workers. The daily struggles at the shop floor are now directed at contractors, and all the workers seemingly have no common enemy.

It is in this background that a number of unions were organized under the leadership of Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha of the late comrade Niyogi. (This had been preceded by attempts at unionization by the AITUC and the CITU in 1976 and 1981. These attempts could not gain much success as they were suppressed with great severity.) These unions, built upon the experience of successfully organizing and leading the struggles of the contract workers of Dalli Rajhara mines, offered greater hope to the workers and also directly articulated some of the fundamental demands of the workers, abolition of contract labour, wages on par with the BSP workers and adequate work safety.

This has been one of the most long drawn out labour struggles of the country which has cost the lives of scores of workers killed in a brutal police firing on unarmed workers and the life of Comrade Niyogi who was murdered in his sleep. Despite the severe repression the workers who have been facing the struggle have not weakened and the movement is proceeding with great resoluteness to this day.

PUDR's focus in Relation to the Working Class Movements

Most of the cases taken up pertain to unorganized workers working as casual and contract or bonded workers. 'Unplanned Industrial Growth and Worker's Rights', conditions in Okhla industrial estate, construction workers in various sites in Delhi, refugee women workers, Mehrauli quarry workers, firing in Bharveli mines, the miners cooperative in Saharjori,.... Indeed there are exceptions as in the case of the Bombay Textile Strike, Faridabad Firing or Modinagar unionist's murder but these were occasioned by specific incidents. This overall concern for the unorganized workers is indeed commendable particularly since the large trade unions tend to ignore them. However there is also an urgent need to investigate the suppression of democratic rights of the more organized workers and the struggles they have been waging to defend and extend these rights. This is of particular importance in the current phase when the large scale entry of multinational capital is rapidly restructuring industrial relations and the meaning of democracy itself. There is a need to be also concerned with the segments of the working class which seem to be less militant and perhaps less oppressed but who are strategically stronger and also function as the bulwark of democratic rights and the past gains of the working class movement and set the course for the future.

In Conclusion

The PUDR has a limited agenda of investigating and publicizing issues related to democratic rights. This indeed also acts as an important facilitator for democratic movements. However the movement for democratic rights needs to do this and much more. There is an urgent need to bring the broad masses of the working class directly into the fold of the movement so that it can emerge as a mass movement. Further it is of vital importance to the working class movement in general to integrate the new sections of the class with the older and more organized sections and this has to take the form of enforcing the rights already recognized. Failure on this front will only help to devoid the class and pit one segment against the other.

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