Has the Singur nightmare come back to haunt the country's largest automobile company, Tata Motors? Land losers or farmers had protested against the company's factory in West Bengal in 2008, and the agitation had gained enough steam to force Tata to relocate its factory to the country's 'industry-friendly' state of Gujarat. With the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, a farmers organisation, supporting the striking workers now saying that they are sons of farmers who are increasingly getting displaced by the rapid land acquisition for industry in Gujarat, the story seems to be taking new twists.
Gujarat's so-called 'industry-friendly' model has come under attack in the past few years, and the recent history of labour strikes in the state shows that almost all major industrial strikes have been prohibited by the labour department, bearing testimony to the government's eagerness to extend its support to the industry. "Gujarat does not even have an Agriculture Policy, whereas it has an Industrial Policy," alleged Sagar Rabari, secretary, GKS, trying to establish the state government's overtly industry-friendly stance. Rabari now plans to move the Gujarat High Court questioning the government's decision to prohibit the workers' strike at Tata Motors, saying when it is not an essential commodity or service, what was the hurry in declaring the strike illegal.
A quick check of the state's recent labour strifes show that almost all major strikes have been declared illegal; be it the General Motors strike in 2011 or the RIL textile unit strike in 2012, strike at Arvind's Ahmedabad unit in June 2012, the Apollo Tyres strike in November 2012, L&T Hazira strike in 2013, and the list is long. Recent Labour Strikes in Gujarat Company Year Duration (days) Jewel Consumer Care August 2009 14 Thermax July 2010 5 General Motors October 2010 3 General Motors # March 2011 42 RIL Textile Unit # February 2012 30 Arvind Ltd # June 2012 8 Apollo Tyres # November 2012 12 L&T, Hazira # December 2013 148 General Motors January 2014 4 Arvind Ltd # October 2015 3 Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd November 2015 2 Tata Motors February 2016 Ongoing Source: Industry; # Strikes declared illegal in Gujarat
The state government's critics like senior Congress leader Arjun Modwadia claim that the must hyped 'Gujarat Model' has failed both the farmers as well as the labourers. "There is no problem with being industry friendly, but one cannot be anti-human or anti-worker. It is definitely the government's duty to mediate between industry and labour, but the state government off late has been taking the side of industry," he said.
The issue seems to be far more deep-rooted that just alleged government apathy. When industrialisation began in Gujarat with the textile mills in the early 1900's, the mill-owners would hardly find workers who were interested to relocate from the rural areas to cities. Owners had to provide additional incentives like residential accommodation among others to woo the workers, and most of the 'chawls' in Ahmedabad were built by mill-owners, explained sociologist Vidyut Joshi who is former director, Centre for Social Studies, South Gujarat University. Working for an organised industry was once a matter of pride, which now with the advent of the contractual labourer, has ceased to be so, feel Modhwadia and Joshi.
One of the first instances of strikes in Gujarat was in the early 1980's when textile workers had gone on strike demanding higher wages; and around that time Gujarat had seen the rise of several labour leaders who were also influential in state politics; prominent names like Sanat Mehta, Navinchandra Barot, Natwarlal Shah (who had become the speaker at the Gujarat Assembly) or Ashok Bhatt. In the 2000's this legacy began to wane, and now there is no prominent labour leader of stature in state Assembly.
"In a way, the workers lost their umbrella, and increasing pressure from industry to make labour laws friendly, made way for convenient changes in the labour laws and practices of the state,"Joshi said. Of this, the transition that holds the key to rising labour resent in the state is the rise of the contractual labour. In the past decade or so, there has been an increasing preference among industry to employ workers through contractors (and in many cases they are migrant labourers from Bihar and Orissa).
While workers continued to lose their collective bargaining power vis-a-vis industry, the level of unionisation amongst Gujarat's labourers has also remained low. Even senior officials in the state labour department admit that this is indeed a problem. "With no official channel to negotiate their demands, flash strikes happen often," says a labour official who did not wish to be quoted.
There are around 7 million contractual industrial workers in Gujarat at the moment of the total 12 million industrial workers in the state, claimed Nihil Mehta, president of the Gujarat wing of Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) adding that contract workers get anything between Rs 4,000-6,500 per month in pay. Labour department officials claimed that the minimum wages fixed under the Minimum Wages Act is around Rs 7,000 per month for skilled workers, and every three years the workers expect a good revision in pay. "When that does not happen, they are resorting to strikes," said the official, who seemed to disagree with Mehta on the share of contractual workers (pegging it at around 25-30 per cent of the total labour force).
As such the Socio Economic Review of 2015-16 suggests that while the value of output at current prices of all registered factories in the state have increased by 10.23 per cent to Rs 12,30,642 crore in FY14 from Rs 11,16,395 crore in FY13, the employment growth in factories have been negligible; from 1.36 million in FY13 to 1.37 million in FY14. Experts feel that this is because permanent labour has not increased at tandem in factories.
"Gujarat is sitting on a ticking time bomb," feels Mehta who alleges that these disgruntled workers could potentially disrupt the state's economy anytime now. Modhwadia warns, if we do not want a revolt here in Gujarat, we need quality employment (not daily wage earners and semi-skilled work) and worker protection policies.
The fact that the striking workers at Tata Motors are permanent ones, only adds another dimension to this story of discontent and dis-illusionment. This just might raise a cause of worry for corporates like Maruti Suzuki India, already plagued by labour strifes (Manesar incident of 2012), who have zeroed in on Gujarat, looking for a safe haven.
Come March 10, all the major trade unions that have representations in the state including INTUC, AITUC, CITU, BMS are going to sit in a demonstration at the city's Wall Street area, Lal Darwaza to protest against labour reforms initiated by the state government. Welcome to a new Gujarat.