11 May 2011

Informal Sector Organising In West Bengal: Points For Discussion

We have seen in these elections a marked increase in the focus on the issues of unorganised workers. It is not as if all political parties are clamouring that they are going to stand up for the rights of unorganised sector once they are elected, but issues that concern us have not been as marginal as they used to be in earlier elections. For example, the word khet majoor or agricultural worker was largely subsumed under the categories of sharecroppers, marginal and small farmers earlier. Now, there seems to be a greater acknowledgement that there is such a group and that their interests are not identical to the needs of other marginal sections in the farming sector. On the whole, political party manifestos also – both Left and Right- have much more focus on the needs and demands of the informal sector.

There has also before the elections been an attempt by various forces to form fronts and to focus on the rights of this huge sector of workers.  Three separate initiatives have emerged – the oldest has been Asanghathit Kshetra Sangrami Shramik Manch (which was formed by unorganised sector worker unions on 31January 2010 and which has mainly focused on the issue of wages in the unorganised sector). Shramik Adhikar Yatra was formed more recently at the beginning of this year to focus public attention on the movements and demands of working people who are outside the party fold. A third attempt has been made by Durbar Mahila Samanvay Samity, an association of sex workers, to focus particularly on the rights of women workers in the unorganised sector. The last has not named its front as yet and has decided instead to initiate a unity attempt between the three, which in itself is a welcome move.  So, for the time being, while the participants in all three overlap to some extent, they continue with their separate identities, though there is an attempt to unite them.

The unorganised sector is characterised by a mountain of problems for workers, with little effective legislation, tremendous oppression and exploitation. These are combined with the lack of organising in the unorganised sector and the fragmented nature of whatever organising is taking place. Attempts at coming together and consolidation of the organising are therefore to be welcomed, especially if we want to change the electoral rhetoric of political parties into real gains. However it is also clear through discussions with the participants in the three fronts, and through an observation of what is happening there as well as looking at their documents, there are certain issues that need urgent discussion and resolution if we want to go any further in this attempt at organising a platform of informal sector workers. These issues are:

Issues:  The effort so far has been to bring a wide range of people together. Thus, there are workers such as sex workers whose first struggle is the very acknowledgement that they are workers.  Similarly, there are women who are involved in unpaid work within the family and whose labour is not recognised as work at all. One of the documents mentions cultural workers, but the nature of their labour remains undefined. At the other extreme are construction workers and biri workers for whom some laws exist and who have to struggle to make these real and effective. Some of the documents mention workers of closed industries, where the issues involved become very different. There is also a range of workers who are self employed and for whom the demands are for stopping police harassment, for capital and other support for their businesses. The relationship of all these workers with natural resources is also different where, for forest workers or fisherfolk or agricultural workers, the manner in which forest, water and land are used is paramount, which may not be true for, say, the hawker in the city, for whom a more important issue is perhaps shelter.   In addition, issues of caste and ethnic discrimination have also been brought up. With the huge presence of women, issues of gender discrimination would definitely be important.

So what ultimately is it that all of us have in common and what are the issues on which we can struggle together? One of the documents mentions three issues, which could form the basis for united action i.e. recognition as a worker, a decent living minimum wage for all, and social security measures. The Ashanghatit Kshetra Sangrami Shramik Mancha had chosen minimum wage as an issue for united action.

From our own experience, we can say that even with a more limited coming together at the state level on the issue of minimum wage, it has been very difficult to translate even a theoretical unity into unity of action at the grassroots level. The question of the issues on which we come together therefore remains very important.

NGOs and People’s Organisations: Platforms that deal with workers rights must be led by workers’ themselves, if they are to truly represent the interests of workers.  Some workers in the informal sector have formed themselves into trade unions which are registered and are democratic bodies. On the other hand a number of more informal formations that go under the broad category of people’s organisations also exist in the informal sector. One must ensure a structure that allows for their representation and one must also ensure that these are genuinely people’s organisations and represent their interests democratically. In the absence of self-organising in the informal sector, a number of NGOs have also played the important role of initiating, promoting and supporting organising in the informal sector. However, NGOs are not people’s organisations or trade unions and this differentiation is very important if we want the platform to be led by workers and to represent workers. A structure which is trying to bring together workers in the informal sector must therefore ensure roles for all such formations as direct participants in the forum or as supporters, in the case of NGOs, but without losing sight of the fact that control must lie in the hands of the   workers themselves.

Donors:  Organising in the informal sector has always suffered from a problem of resources. Many people have resorted to the short cut of taking funds from a donor, rather than relying on funds that have been raised from the workers themselves. As a union that was promoted by an NGO and that has received various kinds of support from NGOs, and that has had to struggle very hard to ensure that we do not become donor controlled, the Khet Majoor Samity has direct experience of the ways in which such relationships and funds can damage a movement, especially when such donors participate directly or indirectly in the platform itself. Donors can often be insensitive enough to even dictate programme formats, timings etc to the workers’ organisations. Even with donors who are not so insensitive, the presence of large funds can distort the platform’s programme, where the availability of funds rather than the initiative of workers determines the activity. The problem becomes most acute when a platform that is used to receiving funds has its funds stopped. This leads to collapse of the platform, and this a ploy that has often been used by donors to control activity i.e. get a platform to depend on money and then withdraw, leading to collapse. There is also the problem of credibility, where the presence, overt or hidden, of donors in a platform or in support of it makes people sceptical and suspicious about the politics of such work, making it difficult to build larger alliances.
Strategy: The last issue is one of strategy. What is the platform for: discussions, seminars, meetings, workshops? Or also for action on the streets?  Militancy must be one of the essential elements of any platform that wants to espouse the rights of unorganised sector workers. In the face of a resistant and vested state, advocacy alone will not work, nor will legal action alone. Militant action (albeit peaceful action) has to be an intrinsic part of the activity of such a platform both to pressure the state as well as to break the culture of silence and passivity that envelopes workers in the informal sector,. Hence issues of strategy also need to be discussed and resolved.

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