14 March 2013

March 8 Rally: A Mixed Bag of Promises And Rejections

Four thousand women from 11 independent trade unions and mass organisations marched from Sealdah to Esplande in Kolkata on the occasion of International Women’s Day, highlighting problems faced by women workers working in the informal sector. The women marched to demand strict measures on sexual harassment at workplace, minimum wages for all workers, including women who are employed under government programmes and working as Anganwadi workers and helpers, ASHA workers, mid-day meal cooks, link workers and those employed in tea gardens; regularization of casual and contractual Government workers; a stop to arbitrary sacking of women; social security benefits for all workers; and provision of worksite facilities, such as toilets, drinking water and crèches. The workers also highlighted the government’s refusal to register trade unions formed by women, specifically sex workers and domestic workers and the arbitrary manner in which hawkers were being treated in the absence of a State Hawkers’ Policy.

At the end of their march, while some of the women joined a public meeting organized by Maitree, a women’s network working on gender issues in West Bengal, others joined a protest by the Soni Sori Mukti Manch to demand release of Soni Sori and other such women prisoners.

A delegation also met with the Labour Minister of the State, Mr Purnendu Basu, in the evening for over an hour. On the issue of Minimum Wage, a demand for a floor level minimum wage of Rs. 400 (as per calculations of the 15th ILC and Supreme Court Orders) was made. The Minister outrightly refused this demand and disagreed with our calculations. The issue of the minimum wage in agriculture being fixed at Rs. 167, as against Rs. 217 in other rural industries was also raised as being too low, which the Minister was not able to justify. He also stated that they had demanded that the Central Government declare Rs.171 as the minimum wage in NREGS works, but was not able to give the logic for this.  The delegation also demanded Minimum wages for all Government employees, including midday meal cooks, ASHA, Anganwadi, link workers in health, trained dai and other workers who work under Government programmes, which the Labour Minister asked us to raise with the Central Government, as these were all schemes under the Centre.

The issue of increasing casualisation and contractualisation of workers and the need for their regularization in the case of Government employees was also bought to his notice, to which the Minister agreed in principle, but showed his helplessness due to the huge debt that had been run up by the previous Government. Again we were advised to meet the Central Government and to organise an all India movement.

One of the most important discussion was on state government’s refusal to register trade unions formed by women, that of sex workers, domestic workers. The response in this regard was not positive, as the State asked us again to take up the demand with the Central Government as the Trade Union Act falls under their purview.

On a more positive note, the Minister told us that they had already taken positive steps on a state policy for hawkers, with a State Government sponsored Bill which they plan to pass soon in the State Legislature.

The demand for social security for all unorganised workers was received positively, with the Minister promising to immediately enlist all names put forward by the unions and mass organizations present under the State Assisted Scheme of Provident Fund for Unorganised Workers in West Bengal (SASPFUW) from his office itself if the requisite papers were given. Important issues of Sexual Harassment at workplaces, including government worksites such as NREGS and Construction sites and provision of worksite facilities, such as toilets, drinking water and crèches were met with seriousness, with promises that they would be looked into.

Participating organisations include New Trade Union Initiative and its affiliates such as Binodini Shramik Union, All Bengal Sales Representative Union and Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, along with other mass organsaitions and unions such as Hawkers Sangram Committee,  Shramajivi Mahila Samity, Bagan Suraksha Committee (Jalpaiguri), Gogo Gaonta (Birbhum),  Paschim Banga Swarojgari O Raduni Union, Paschim Banga Nirmaan Shilpa Shramik Union ( Organising Committee), Shramajivi Samnvay Committee, , West Bengal Government Employees Union (Nabaparjaya) and Durbar Disha Mahila Griha Shramik Samanvay Committee

(Asta Bala Maity)   (Rama Debnath)
Karmajivi Mahila Parishad (Organising Committee)