We need to be conscious of our legacy relating to labour rights to address the problems confronted by labour today so that the “bloody and violent revolution” apprehended by M.K. Gandhi in 1941 could be avoided, by ushering in an age without conflict between capital and labour.
INTERNATIONAL Labour Day has been observed on May 1 every year from 1889 onwards to flag the cause of labour and the labour movement which, in the neoliberal era, has suffered serious consequences.
While commemorating the International Labour Day in 2023, it would be educative to look into the history of India to locate one of the most significant figures who took up the cause of labour several years before May 1, 1889 and pay tribute to him.
Father of the trade union movement in India
Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was born in present-day Maharashtra in 1848, the year in which German philosopher, author, social theorist and economist Karl Marx, and German philosopher, critic of political economy, historian, political theorist and revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels released the historic Communist Manifesto.
Hailed as the pioneer of the trade union movement in India, he fought for the rights of labour and the working class four years before the International Labour Day was institutionalised on May 1, 1889. His momentous initiative to found the Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1884 with the challenging vision of finding remedies to the harsh and punishing working conditions in which the labour toiled for earning low wages, earned him a special place in our history.
When then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh released a postal stamp in honour of Lokhande on May 3, 2005 he referred to his year of birth, 1848, and pertinently observed, “Lokhandeji may have well regarded it a happy coincidence that the year of his birth, 1848, was also the year in which Karl Marx and Frederich Engels published the Communist Manifesto”. He further thoughtfully added that Lokhande “would have been equally proud of the fact that in the same year Mahatma Jyotiba Phule had established in Pune the first ever school in India for the education of our women… These happy coincidences have more than a symbolic value because Lokhandeji combined in himself Marx’s and Engels’ concern for the working class and Mahatma Phule’s commitment to the cause of women.”
Lokhande’s momentous initiative to found the Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1884 with the challenging vision of finding remedies to the harsh and punishing working conditions in which the labour toiled for earning low wages, earned him a special place in our history.
As we celebrate the International Labour Day, the aforesaid historical legacy of Lokhande needs to be recalled to appreciate that historical context to locate and appreciate the deepening significance of Labour Day for our time.
While Lokhande took the historic initiative of espousing the cause of labour and taking practical measures to rescue them from inhuman working environment, several other Indians were attuned to the labour movements launched in Europe in the nineteenth century, and wrote about them and deeply reflected on the vital issues boldly taken up by those movements in challenging circumstances.
One such celebrated Indian was none other than our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote letters to his daughter Indira Nehru, and educated her about the attempts being made by leaders to bring about radical changes in the capitalist economies of nineteen century Europe so that labour could be freed from numerous forms of exploitation for guaranteeing them adequate wages, a flexible work environment and the dignity due to them.
It is illuminating to note that in his letter on February 14, 1933 under the caption “Karl Marx and the Growth of Workers’ Organisations”, he referred to 1889, when International Labour Day was first celebrated. He did not write about the commencement of International Labour Day on May 1, but did mention that in 1889, the socialists established the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties, to defend the rights of the labour across the world. But he pointed out that several prominent leaders hailing from Europe and associated with the International preferred to enter the legislature and become prime ministers or presidents of their respective countries. As a result, Nehru stated that they withdrew from the associations founded for labour.
He also wrote that many of them who were internationalists and did go beyond the national boundaries to fight for labour in every part of the world did betray that cause by becoming fierce nationalists when the First World War began in 1914.
It is instructive to keep in mind those developments which the Indian leadership was aware of during our freedom struggle which also took up the cause of labour with utmost dedication and sincerity.
Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to labour was evidenced in his three-day fast undertaken in 1918 in support of the Ahmedabad Mill Workers, who were demanding higher wages to deal with their pitiable economic conditions and hardships caused by the plague. Some of the workers who were part of the movement demanding higher wages were hesitant to continue with it in the face of threats from mill owners. Gandhi sat on fast to keep the workers united; due to his non-violent approach for bringing solutions to the woes of the workers, the mill owners finally relented and accepted their demands.
Gandhi sat on fast to keep the workers united; due to his non-violent approach for bringing solutions to the woes of the workers, the Ahmedabad mill owners finally relented and accepted their demands.
It is fascinating to note that later, in 1931, when Gandhi drafted the Resolution on Fundamental Rights as part of the Karachi Resolution of the Indian National Congress, he incorporated the following provisions:
a)A living wage for industrial workers, limited hours of labour, healthy conditions of work, and protection against the economic consequences of old age, sickness and unemployment
b)Labour to be freed from serfdom or conditions bordering serfdom
c)Protection of women workers, and especially adequate provisions for leave during maternity period
d)Prohibition against the employment of children of school-going age in factories
e)Rights of labourers to form unions to protect their interests with suitable mechanisms for settlement of disputes by arbitration
Gandhi advocated the idea of trusteeship, under which those owning wealth, riches, the means of production and the talent and know-how to generate wealth would consider themselves as trustees of the assets they possessed, and use a portion of it for themselves with the rest being used for society as a whole. It was a lofty idea which he said would put an end to the eternal conflict between capital and labour.
In 1941, he drafted a text called Constructive Programme in which there are 18 points, one of which deals with labour. In another point dealing with economic equality, he observed that economic equality is “the master key to non-violent independence” and insightfully reiterated that “working for economic equality means abolishing the eternal conflict between capital and labour”.
Cautioning that “[a] violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good,” he asserted that “I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule that has been poured upon it.”
The enactment of the Companies Act, 2013 was hailed as partially fulfilling Gandhi’s vision of trusteenship because it mandated corporate social responsibility, which embodied that vision to some extent.
In the neoliberal era, the conflict between labour and capital has been deepened, and inequality has gone up manifold across the world. French economist Thomas Pickety, in his monumental book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), has outlined the grave issue of mounting inequality which was flagged by Gandhi in 1941.
On International Labour Day, we need to be conscious of our legacy to address the problems confronted by labour so that the “bloody and violent revolution” apprehended by Gandhi in 1941 could be avoided by ushering in an age without conflict between capital and labour.