Presidential address delivered by Com. Usha Bonepalli Chairperson, Confederation Women’s Sub Committee in the Two Days All India Women’s Work shop held at Hyderabad on 9th & 10th October 2015
Com. K. Hemalatha, National Secretary CITU, Prof. Haragopal, distinguished political scientist and ICSSR National Fellow with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Com. M. Girija, Joint Secretary, All India Insurance Employees Association, Com. KKN Kutty President of the Confederation of Central Government Employees and Workers, Com. Krishnan, Secretary General of the Confederation, Com. Nageswara Rao, Com. Satyanarayana, Com. Subba Reddy, President – Incometax Employees Federation, many other distinguished leaders, and all comrades who have come from different parts of India, from different central government departments - on behalf of the Confederation of the Central Government Employees and Workers, a warm welcome to you all.
Comrades, I am very happy to see so many women comrades assemble here for a union meeting. This is because, we don’t often see women travelling from all over India, to attend meetings. In all union meetings that I attend, I generally see around 95 % men and hardly 5 % women. But here, seeing a gathering full of women is giving me great satisfaction.
Comrades, I always feel that more women participation in union programs will strengthen the union very much. On various issues, we keep seeing a lot of protests and agitation programs in our offices, and rallies on streets. But if there is a protest program on the streets by women, the importance will be more. Everyone will look and enquire – what is the problem. Imagine if there is a ‘March to Parliament’ comprising of only women, if Delhi’s roads are covered by a sea of women, from all over India, how much impact it will have. The media will respond more, and no government can take that lightly. That is the power of women.
But in various unions, the role of women is generally limited to only following strike call given by leaders. There are very less number of women in leadership positions. Generally, women are given a post of ‘lady representative’. If there is an executive body of 15 members, all the 15 members will be men and one post will be reserved to ladies, as ‘lady representative’. I also worked as a ‘lady representative’ in my initial years, but I used to think that this model is wrong. I thought that I will fight this mindset. Why shouldn’t women be in the forefront? Why cannot women lead a union, in a responsible position, up in the hierarchy? Why not women as President or General Secretary of a union ? Can women handle such responsibilities or not ? This thought used to occupy my mind a lot, and inspire me a lot. With that inspiration, with that zeal, I became the first General Secretary of Incometax Employees Federation for AP and now Telangana.
Comrades, I have worked as President and am now working as General Secretary. With my experience, I can confidently say that women are not less in any aspect when it comes to working in a union or leading a union. The only thing that women need is a little bit of orientation, and self confidence. How do we get it? By having a clear grasp of issues, by understanding the problems that the working class is facing, and the problems specific to central government employees. If we have that understanding, if the fire is ignited, if the spirit blazes, then no one stop it, and the force of organised women, will be the one biggest force. The classes that you will have during these two days, are a major step in that direction. In these two days, eminent speakers will discuss about the challenges of working class, the new liberal economic model, legal awareness of women’s law, role of women in trade union and society, 7th Pay Commission and the role of Confederation. But before that, let me give an introduction to the issues surrounding us.
Comrades, as members of the Confederation, we are a part of the larger ecosystem of the Indian Working Class. In recent days, the working class is facing big threats to their basic rights. Let me explain a bit.
There are some important laws which protect the workers from exploitation. I will read some of their names, which are self explanatory : Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Minimum Wages Act, Payment of Bonus Act, ESI Act, EPF Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Child Labour Prohibition Act, Equal Remuneration Act. What do these laws do ? They ensure that minimum safety standards and minimum facilities should be there in a factory or an office, reasonable living wage or minimum pay should be assured, workers should get health cover, insurance and PF benefits, women should get maternity benefits, women should not be forced to work in night shifts, women should get equal pay as men, workers can organise into unions and fight against injustice. These laws give us certain rights. They protect workers from exploitation. Why were these laws framed? Did the ruling class dole out these laws as an act of charity? Or an act of benevolence ? No. Not at all. Nobody gave us these. In the 19th and 20th centuries, workers around the world – peasants, industrial workers, workers in organised and unorganised sectors – everywhere – in Manchester, Leeds, Warsaw, Leningrad, Surat, Coimbatore, Kolkata, - everywhere, the workers waged bitter struggles, faced oppression, hardships, victimisations, made immense sacrifices, even lost lives. But we kept the struggle going, gaining from strength to strength. Eventually, the workers movements have succeeded in forcing the ruling classes to frame these laws. Its our struggle, our sacrifices that brought these laws. Our safeguards. And now, in the 21st century, the government wants to remove them, or dilute them. Why ?
You might have seen in newspapers and TV – Our PM went to Australia, New York, San Fransisco. He hugged Mark Zuckenburg. He met top industrialists. Everybody wants to do business in India. Nice, but why ?
In the western countries, they have very strict labour laws. You can see, even the lady ambassador of India was arrested in the USA because she did not pay minimum wage to her domestic servant. They have such strict labour laws there. Corporates have to give huge amount of their earnings as salaries. They cannot violate the labour laws there, so they want cheaper places, where they can drop a pittance, make people work day and night, in the name of productivity, and carry away riches. They want better return on investment. RoI. Better return on capital employed. RoCE. Catchy abbreviations. Thats why they want to come to places like India and set up shop here. But we also have labour laws. So what do they do. They ask our government to remove our labour laws. Or dilute our labour laws. They call it labour reforms. A good sweet sounding name. Labour reforms. As if we are living in dark ages and they are angels who are coming to reform us. The unions are shown as someone who obstruct so called labour reforms, making us feel guilty. But tell me, can we really call them labour reforms ?
See what’s the being done under the name labour reforms – Under the new rules, industries can escape from all 14 labour laws if there are less than 40 employees in a unit. 70 % of the factories in India employ less than 40 employees. Even where more number of employees are there, they show many of them as working under some outsourcing contractor, so that they are below 40 limit. Because of this, as per new law, more than 70 % of the workforce in India will not have safeguards of maximum working hours, minimum wage, PF, ESI, maternity leave. They are left to the wind.
Under the new law, a factory owner can remove upto 300 employees in one stroke, without taking any permission from govt or discussion with union. They call it rightsizing. Right sizing means simply removing workers and employees from the rolls. Hire and Fire. What happens to their job security and livelihood. Under the new rules, factory owners can simply close down their factories, by sending one e-mail. See, till then, the capitalist would have amassed riches because of the workers, but he can suddenly pack his riches and simply leave, without giving any severance benefit to thousands of workers who contributed to his profits. When a worker gets an e-mail, it could be – hey, you have no work from tomorrow, don’t come, get lost. You have worked for me till now, and I earned profits because of you, but sorry, don’t ask me a paisa from that. So cruel. The new laws are giving legal status to this type of injustice. They call this labour reform.
Comrades, these reforms are not for improving conditions of labour or workers or employees. In some sectors, the basic constitutional right to form a union is also being taken away. Our esteemed guest here, Com. Hemalatha, National Secretary CITU had to protest in Vizag recently because the government assured an Israeli Diamond polishing unit that there will be no union in their factory. Police have even detained her, when she protested. Our basic right is being taken away in the name of labour reforms. There is no option left to us, than to protest.
Comrades, this doesn’t mean that we are against development or growth. Or prosperity. The question is WHO should prosper. The development or growth of India does not mean that a map should prosper, or a building should prosper, or some capitalists should prosper. No. Development means prosperity of the people, who are the prime reason for the development. Prosperity of the workers, the employees, their families, their children. But what’s happening in the name of development is greed, but not development. This is exploitation, not growth. Workers are being turned into indentured labour. If we take a happiness quotient of 1 to 10, it will be in minus. Our news papers write articles in such a manner that the profits are glorified. More profits – bigger heroes. Any article about their workers ? – I will bet – you will not find even one article about their workers. Forbes magazines publishes list of top 100 rich people – Billionaires are ranked 1,2,3 and Indian papers publish the list of Indian billionaires. No one publishes the list of companies which take care of workers. Everywhere, there is glorification of profit and total, complete disregard to workers. When the PM goes to Australia or USA, he would take along Adani or Ambani, - representatives of industry, but will he take Com Krishnan or Com Kutty or Com. Hemalatha ? Why not ? Sounding outlandish ? But why not ? There are three factors of production. Land, labour and capital. The ruling class are taking with them, representatives of capital. The capitalists. Then why will they not take representatives of labour. Representatives of employees. My point is : the policy makers - top politicians and bureaucrats are always surrounded by these big mega businessmen at all times. Our policy makers listen to their interests only. Then what about the working class. How can their voice be heard ?
That’s the whole point, comrades. Thats why we should organise, strengthen our unions, and everyone should join the struggle. We should make policy makers sit up and take notice. Our 2nd September strike is a major step in this direction. You have seen how the entire working class of India joined hands and made the strike a grand success. We should be proud of this success and try to take it forward.
Comrades, you might have seen, the government was very determined to pass the land acquisition bill. It did not budge even when the entire monsoon session of Parliament was washed away. But after the 2nd Sept strike, the govt backtracked and allowed the ordinance to lapse. This is not a coincidence. This shows the effect of the united working class. This is a new inspired awakening for us. This is a lesson for everyone of us in expressing solidarity to each other. Had the peasants alone have fought for it, the government wouldn’t have cared. But the workers unions, the Confederation, we all joined hands in denouncing the land acquisition bill. The opposition parties joined in chorus. So, the government was left with no alternative. This is an important lesson for leaders like all of us. Because, everyone of us will keep facing questions, something like – “the strike is about workers rights in general, but what’s there for Central Govt Employees like me”. I have faced these questions myself. And now I have the answers –
Central Govt Employees also will not have any rights, if the workers’ rights in general are taken away. Its just a matter of time. We are not an isolated ecosystem. We are part of the larger family of workers. If we allow the government to be brave enough to take away the rights of working class in general, it will be more emboldened to give us a bad deal in 7th CPC. We should not allow this to happen. If the workers are taken away the right to form a union, then it will be only a matter of time that this right will be taken away from us also. We should never allow it to happen. We can fight this only through unity. If we express our solidarity with each other, we will be part of a larger force. Government will be forced to give weight to each component of the large force.
In the classes today and tomorrow, you will understand about our issues, our rights, and our struggles. You can also learn about the various issues which are specific to Central Government employees, like 7th Pay Commission, Dr. Aykoryd formula, contributory pension, bonus, CGHS, outsourcing, contingent workers, infrastructure and proper working conditions, etc. The Confederation has given everyone a good opportunity. Make use of it fully.
Before I end, let me again tell that women should come more and more into union activities and become leaders. We understand the issues better. We know the problems more. Let me put this in a simple way - For all the union issues, like pay and benefits, leave, bonus, working hours, the buck stops with us. Women. It is in our kitchens, that we women, should decide whether we can afford to put two onions in a curry or compromise for no onions. We have to decide if we can afford to give our clothes for ironing at ten rupees a pair or buy an iron and do it ourselves. We have to decide if we can afford to engage a servant maid or do the cleaning, washing, mopping, cooking - ourselves, 31 days a month.
The buck stops here.
The ultimate affected party of all these Pay Commissions, workers rights, or injustice to workers – the ultimate affected party is woman. So, we should know what is the injustice to our employees, and why and how we should fight. If we know this, understand this, we will automatically fight and we will be a big force. If we do that, Confederation will succeed in taking this workers movement to greater heights. I don’t see you as ordinary women here. I see you all as torch bearers to womens’ movement in your organisations, as great leaders, raring to go. We keep doing a lot of multitasking in our life, in office and at home. I am telling you, we can easily do it.
So comrades, unless we come out, unite, forge a national awakening, fight with unrelenting vigour and vitality, unless our struggles shout loud in the face of the ruling class, we will be taken for granted. Our united voice should pierce the safety vaults of the ruling class and shatter their deafness and blindness. I am sure we can do it.