13 September 2011

Unorganised Sector Workers Make Presence Felt

In the party politicised atmosphere of West Bengal, they first check which party you belong to and then ask your father’s name. It was in such an environment that 22 unorganised sector unions came together to organise a protest programme at Kolkata. Just four months after the historic elections which threw out the 34-year-old Left Front, and with the popularity of the Mamata Banerjee Government at its peak , this huge gathering without any party patronage confirmed that independent workers’ organisations are a force to be reckoned with in West Bengal.

The programme, which took place from September 6 to 8, 2011, received an astoundingly good response from workers.  While workers in large numbers attended the dharna on 6th and 7th, the mass meeting on the 8th was attended by 15-18,000 workers. English newspapers the next day complained about traffic jams in the city. Women predominated, with workers from distant districts of North Bengal and Jungal Mahal, as well as South Bengal, Sunderbans and Kolkata, attending the event. 

The two platforms, Asanghathit Kshetra Shramik Sangrami Manch and Shramajivi Swikriti Manch that organised the programme include unions of agricultural workers, biri rollers, brick workers, construction workers, fish and forest workers, domestic workers, sex workers, hosiery workers, liquor shop employees, Government contract workers and many other trades. Delegations met Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Mr Partha Chatterjee, Labour Minister, Mr Purnendu Basu, Backward Classes Welfare Minister, Mr Upendra Nath Biswas and Minister for Fisheries, Mr Abu Hena . They also met Mr Kathiresan, Principal Secretary, Food and Civil Supplies Department, Mr Barun Ray, Principal Secretary Panchayat and Rural Development, and a representative of Public Health Engineering Minister, Mr Subroto Mukherjee.

Minimum wages:
  • Fixing minimum wage for all unorganised sector workers as per 15th Indian Labour Conference norms which amounts to Rs.289.75 per day in rural areas and Rs.315.87 in urban areas at present;
  • In the meantime, immediate notification of the revised wages that were in the process of revision by the previous Government
  • Strict implementation of the Minimum Wages Act;
Affordable food :
  • Cheap food for all unorganised sector worker families, starting with 7 kgs of rice per adult at Rs. 2 per kg;
  • Pressurising the Central Government to immediately release their huge food stocks at affordable prices to the State Government
  • Increased procurement of paddy at minimum support price immediately after the harvest to prevent distress sale by farmers and profiteering by middlemen
  • Reforms in the rationing system including removal of bogus cards, corrupt ration dealers and wholesalers 
100 Days Work programme:
  • Providing work immediately after application and paying wages on time.
  • Setting up procedures and budget heads for payment of unemployment allowance and compensation for late payment of wages.

Inclusion of all unorganised sector workers, including workers of closed factories, as priority group or BPL in the 2011 Socio-economic Survey

Forest rights and demands of fish workers:
Stringent implementation of the Forest Rights Act (Scheduled Tribes and Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act); giving all relevant facilities to fish workers, and ensuring they are not displaced by mega projects.

Contract workers:
Permanent status for all contract workers employed in perennial jobs in the organised sector; regularisation of PHE pump operators and all such Government employed contract workers

Caste recognition:
Recognition and extension of facilities available to all socially backward  castes and tribes, especially the Majhi community of Midnapore.

Recognition and issuing of identity cards to all unorganised sector workers, especially sex workers.

The gathering was addressed by representatives of major trade union centres/ trade unions such as AITUC, TUCC, AIUTUC, NTUI, HMS, AICCTU, IFTU, Paschim Banga Shramik Sanghati Kendra, West Bengal Government Employees Union Naba Parjaya, Hawkers Sangram Committee and AWBSRU. Human rights and social activists like Amitdyuti Kumar, Sandip Das, Gautam Sen, Kunal Chattopadyay and Sanamatha Ghosh also extended their support, along with cultural activists Prabir Guha, Sutapa Bandopadhyay and Ashim Giri and theatre groups, Jana Sanskriti and Komal Gandhar.

The demands of the workers were positively received by the Ministers and the officials and follow-up action has been promised. A notable promise was that all pending payments to NREGS workers would be done before the festive season in October and that revised minimum wages will be declared in one-and-a-half months. The Labour Minister has also promised major steps for unorganised sector workers by May 2012.

The gathering ended with a declaration that the next two months would be spent in monitoring Government action. After this, a delegation would meet the Chief Minister in November to inform her of progress made. In addition, a report card to show what her Government had done for unorganised sector workers in 200 days will be presented on 5th December 2011. If no positive result is achieved, the unions shall also be forced to start an intensive agitation from November onwards. 

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