On May Day, The Leaflet’s attempt to understand the present churn in India’s labour movement

TODAY is International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day. It was formally recognized as an annual event at the International Socialist Labor Conference held in Brussels in August 1891, to commemorate a general strike that had begun in the United States on May 1, 1886 to campaign for an eight-hour workday and culminated with the unfortunate bombing of demonstrators in the city of Chicago three days later.

The International Socialist Congress, held in Amsterdam in 1904 called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”

Today, May Day is recognized as a workers’ day in most countries of the world, including as Labour Day in India. The first May Day celebration in India was seen in 1923 in the city then called Madras, organized by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan. It has been observed as a public holiday here since 1990, when then Prime Minister V.P. Singh acceded to a request for the same from founder and General Secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Vaiko.

Workers’ rights are enshrined in our Constitution in Articles 42 – which mandates that the State secure just and humane conditions of work, and maternity relief, and 43 – which prescribes for the State to provide to all workers work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities. Admittedly, the extension of these promises, and of our labour welfare legislation, to an overwhelming majority of India’s workforce has been a chimera, due to it falling within the insecure unorganized sector.

However, even keeping account of that, India’s workers find themselves at an unusually precarious position today. Large-scale unemployment has been a major problem predating the COVID pandemic, inflation is at an all-time high and has led to the stagnation of wages, and the Parliament had, in 2019 and 2020, pushed through a series of ‘reformatory’ labour codes that are vehemently opposed by most central trade unions.

Several of these unions called for, and organized a two-day ‘Bharat Bandh’, or nation-wide strike, only a few weeks ago on March 28 and 29, to protest against the Union Government’s anti-workers policies.

Through our special issue to mark Mazdoor Diwas, we at The Leaflet have curated, and present to you, a collection of writing by academics, trade unionists, lawyers and on-field practitioners to better understand the critical juncture that the labour movement in India presently finds itself at.

Academic Dr. Shyam Sundar writes for us about the major outstanding demands of the labour movement in India, and points out the shortcomings in the central trade unions’ strategy to achieve them. He sets out the need for new and pragmatic thinking, and provides a fresh agenda for pursuing labour market dreams.

Trade-unionist, activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj traces the history of the labour movement in modern India, from the period of colonial struggle, through independence and the initial days of our Republic, and into the present day. Writing about the condition of the industrial working class today, 75 years after independence, she indicates all that is yet to be achieved in their struggle for labour rights.

Academic and former labour administrator Dr. Kingshuk Sarkar analyses the deleterious effect of the Code on Wages, 2019 on the eight-hour work day and of the Industrial Relations Code, 2020 on trade union rights.

Labour and human rights advocate V.G. Sreeram writes about workers’ rights under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, and their slow obliteration by recent insolvency jurisprudence advanced by the Supreme Court.

Dr. Janvi Gandhi Kanakia, Kavya Bharadkar, Bhakti Vardam, and Shilajit Sengupta, from the Ajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organization working with migrant communities in India, provide an evidence-based narrative to explore the stories of systemic exclusion, dread and misinformation of millions of migrant workers in India through the pandemic, and in their current state of macroeconomic distress.

Social designer Shalaka Chauhan, associated with the National Hawker Federation, writing for us, documents how the recent unlawful demolition in Jahangirpuri, Delhi affected the livelihoods of street vendors, especially Muslim vendors.

Researcher Dr. Tanya Chaudhary provides a detailed case study of industrial workers in the Narela Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Delhi, providing a glimpse into their displacement and exploitation.

Labour researcher and organizer Ditthi Bhattacharya, and trade unionist Gautam Mody write about the length of the working day, and explain why the eight-hour workday, the demand for which provides the origin of May Day, remains a mirage for most working people in our country.

Former Officer on Special Duty and press secretary to former President of India K.R. Narayanan, former Director in the Prime Minister’s Office, and former Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha, S.N. Sahu, writing for us, sheds light on how some of the path-breaking labour legislation concerning provident fund, pension and abolition of forced labour were initiated by private members in the Constituent Assembly in 1949. This is important to remember, considering that in today’s neoliberal era, the State is scrapping or diluting these very protections.

A lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, examines the recent events in Jahangirpuri from the lens of the marginalisation of workers whose livelihoods and dignity have been destroyed. She writes that there is a concerted effort to weaken and diminish workers’ unity, empowerment and rights, as well as the grammar of our constitutional and labour law jurisprudence.

Finally, Shweta Tambe, Chandan Kumar and Dr. Sundara Babu, from the National Secretariat of the Working Peoples’ Coalition, an initiative to organize the informal sector, provide a glimpse at the key demands and concerns of India’s migrant workforce.

We hope that our special issue, running till Wednesday, brings you as much insight and knowledge as putting it together brought us, and that it is able to initiate and shape the discourse on the myriad themes its entries deal with.

We are grateful to our contributors for helping us bring this special issue to our readers.

Workers of the world, unite!

The Leaflet