Gathering civil society into a broad social movement in India

Tuesday 29 September 2009 by Fedina

by Sebastian Devaraj

INDIA as a member of the United Nations has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

The ILO core labor standards and other conventions, which India ratified, give workers the right to social security as a labor right. Social security is a labor right because it originates from work and is claimed out of the income towards which the labor has contributed. It is estimated that the informal sector in India generates about 62% of the Gross Domestic Product, 50% of gross National savings and 40% of National exports.

The Constitution of India requires that the State should strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing social, economic and political justice. The State is bound to provide adequate means of livelihood, and see that the health and strength of workers is not abused. The article 41provides for the state to intervene effectively to secure the right to work, to education and to public assistance in case of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement and in other cases of undeserved want.

The State should make provision for securing just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief (art.42), and endeavor to secure work, a living wage, and working conditions ensuring a decent standard of living and full enjoyment of leisure (art.43)

Perhaps recognizing the fact that the State itself may not be able to effectively implement all that is provided for in the Constitution of India, the right to form associations has been made a fundamental right ( art.19.1.c) to ensure peoples’ effective participation to realize such rights.

FEDINA works with marginalized people and unorganized sector workers in the slums of Bengaluru, Bijapur, Tumkur cities and supports organizations working with unorganized sector workers in general, or particularly focusing on dalits, tribals and women, in the 5 southern states of India.

Forming savings and credit groups (self help groups) among women and community-based organizations to demand basic needs services – water, housing, sanitation, food security; networking with organizations and peoples’ movements for health services, land rights, and the protection of livelihood, against the privatization of basic needs services; and the unionization of workers in the unorganized sector, are the areas of FEDINA’s work.

The unionization of unorganized workers has emerged as the main focus of FEDINA and its network organizations.

Senior Citizens Organization

Old people living in slums are subject to utter neglect of economic, social, psychological and cultural needs by their families, the society at large and the State. They are subjected to violence and most often near starvation. In an effort to bring back dignity to their lives, to gain respect from their families and to force the society and State to recognize them as one-time valuable contributors to social and economic development, the Senior Citizens in the slums were mobilized into groups of 20 to 30 in each slum around the demand for a decent pension, travel concession in public transport, special geriatrics departments in hospitals, and priority attention in police stations in cases of violence against them. The demand for pension is now put forth as a demand of workers who have contributed to the national wealth through their labor and have retired and have a right to a need based living pension. The senior citizens are formed into a State-level federation composed of 70 groups with over 4000 subscribing members.

Garment workers

The garment industry has become extremely exploitative of labor in a highly competitive global market. Though an organized industry, the workers remain highly unorganized and all labor laws are flouted, the wages are extremely low and the demand to meet high levels of production target in the shortest time possible is oppressive. There is a race to the bottom to push the wages to the lowest levels possible. The owners lobby, in collusion with State authorities and lumpen elements, has created an atmosphere of fear among workers towards any attempts at collective collective bargaining, leaving the workers completely vulnerable.

Working with garment workers involves forming core groups of active workers in each factory and putting them through trainings, forming a general garment workers union, networking with other organizations and unions of garment workers to take up campaigns, and carrying out advocacy and lobbying for legislation, policy changes, and minimum living wages, as well as an Asia Floor Wage campaign.

In collaboration with Jobs With Justice, Delhi, and the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), a national level independent trade union which actively encourages trade unions and non-trade unions civil society organizations to get together (neighborhood groups, residents welfare organizations, dalit organizations, tribal organizations and women’s organizations) to strengthen peoples’ movements, the Asia Floor Wage campaign has been developed to resist the lowering of wages of garment workers and to demand a common floor level wage across Asia.

Agricultural workers

India’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture with nearly 70 % of the Indian population belonging to the rural sector. Liberalization policies since the 1980s have gradually pushed this sector into the vagaries of market fluctuations. Commercialization of crop cultivation has forced the rural community to be market dependent, depriving them of food to eat if they do not earn a day’s wage. Employment guarantee and a decent wage is of urgent necessity. The Agricultural sector is not providing either, forcing large scale migration into cities.

Agricultural workers unions are formed in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act introduced by the Government provides for ensuring at least 100 days of employment in a year to any one member of a family. The minimum wage is fixed at Rs.82/- per day of work, across the country and irrespective of the gender.

However, the number of days being limited to 100 per family in a year is found to be highly inadequate and the minimum wage given the total integration into the market economy is grossly low, and added to this, the law is not being effectively implemented and adequate budget provisions for effective implementation is not provided by the government. In spite of these insufficiencies, this law facilitates the demand for equal wages and demand for higher wages where wages are lower.

The agricultural workers union is demanding the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act and a law amendment to provide unlimited number of days of employment and remove the restriction of “one member of the family only”.

Unorganized sector workers

Unions are formed in the informal sector – domestic workers, beedi workers, synthetic gem cutters, construction workers, brick kiln workers, boat workers, leather workers, hamalis, headload workers. Of an estimated workforce of 425 million in India, hardly 8% have been organized and have access to employment security, a decent wage and working conditions, and social security measures.

FEDINA is part of a nationwide campaign for Social security for the unorganized sector workers. In the broad sense of the term, social security would mean overall security for a person within the family, work place and society.

Social security in the context of the unorganized sector workers would mean measures designed to protect their employment, ensure a decent wage & working conditions and protection from contingencies such as child birth, child care, illness, disability, death, unemployment, widowhood and old age, in order to enable them to maintain an adequate standard of living consistent with social norms.

Effectively, one can say Over 370 million workers, more than 80 % of the population (approximately over a 950 million people, if one takes into account the workers’ dependents) do not have any kind or have very little employment security or protection from contingencies. These workers include – agricultural workers, marginal farmers, forest workers, fisheries, rickshaw pullers, vendors, domestic workers, construction workers, sanitation workers, rag pickers, hamalis, headload workers, coolies, home-based, contract, casual, piece-rated workers in different industries, painters, cobblers, among many more others.

The Central trade unions and many unorganized sector workers’ trade unions have been raising demands for a comprehensive legislation for unorganized workers including employment protection and social security for all categories of unorganized workers. There has been a demand for a social-assistance-based social security system for unorganized workers, considering the low income levels of these workers and their inability to contribute in the long run, unlike the organized sector workers. Trade Unions also opposed insurance based or a contributory social security. The Trade Unions also demanded employment security, employment regulation, livelihood protection and a price support system so that the unorganized workers get real protection.

The government’s response to bring about an effective legislation which would cover the unorganized workers under some kind of social security system have been extremely weak and half hearted The governments intention appeared to be – avoid expenditure towards social security by delaying the enactment of law under one pretext or the other. The cost of providing social security and the constant pressure from the employers lobby, the world bank, and other national and international pressure groups to withdraw from public social security provisions, are obvious reasons for the government dragging its feet on the enactment of the legislation. The Central government would have to set aside at least Rs.250,000 m and each state Rs.5000 m every year to provide a minimum measure of social security. The budgetary allocations made by successive governments each year, shows the utter lack of seriousness on the part of the government in this regard.

Nationwide Campaign ‘Social Security Now’

In collaboration with Center for Education and Communication (CEC) Delhi, and other organizations a nationwide campaign ‘Social Security Now’ has been launched . Started with 14 organizations from different parts of India which got together to form a consortium in 2006, and is currently a consortium of 500 organizations consisting of peoples’ movements, trade unions, civil society organizations, farmers associations and other groups. A National Convention on Social security of unorganized workers was organized by the consortium in October of 2006. 700 activists, leaders of peoples’ movements, trade unions, academics and NGO reps from all over India deliberated on the various dimensions of social security. The fundamental premise of the convention was that social security is a fundamental right of every citizen of India.

This Convention, has been followed up by wide ranging consultations, massive signature campaigns, district-level meetings, demonstrations, press conferences, advocacy and lobbying – memorandum to the Prime Minister of India, the labor minister and members of the parliament to raise the issue in the Parliament. Groups and organizations in their respective areas approached candidates who were contesting elections, to seek commitment from them that they will support the cause if elected.

On December 17, 2008, the Government passed The Unorganized Sector Workers Social Security Act in the Parliament. However, the law was very weak and was more an eyewash keeping in mind the elections rather than real intent to provide social security. It excludes large sections of unorganized sector workers from its purview and social security has not been given as a right and benefits remain non-justiciable.

The Act is not clear on how the funds for the Social security is proposed to be generated nor has it made any budgetary allocations towards its implementation.

The Campaign demands among other things:

  • That Social security be defined and made justiciable
  • That the Act exclude private insurance based social security schemes
  • That the definition of ‘self employed’ worker include unpaid women workers and unpaid family members engaged in work done by the family for livelihood.
  • That the prescribed amount in the pension schemes being very low and should be need based not the bare minimum.
  • Additional protective measures be incorporated for adivasis to protect their rights to water, land, and forest and for dalit workers to ensure their rights against discrimination. Provide adequate representations in all decision making bodies.
  • Tripartite boards should be formed at all levels from the districts to the Center with adequate representations of unorganized sector workers.

Campaign for Disarmament to Combat Poverty

In India, FEDINA along with Control Arms Foundation of India and CEC, has launched the Campaign for Disarmament to Combat Poverty. This Campaign demands the reduction of military expenditure in the budget and the allocation of the amount saved for poverty alleviation. It argues, that a 10% unilateral reduction in the military budget of the Country, will in no way adversely affect the defense preparedness of any country. It establishes with research findings and available figures of expenditures on sophisticated weaponry, that such expenditure is grossly excessive. Expenditures on sophisticated weapons systems appears to be more often incurred under pressure from arms manufacturing multinational corporations than real needs of defense. It also puts forth the argument that security of the nation equally, if not more importantly, involves the well being of the people within its territory and not just the borders.

When there are nearly 80% of the population of India suffering from lack of social security measure and the government is putting forth lack of funds as a reason for not bringing in effective legislation, it is high time that the government dispassionately explores this possibility and establish the right balance between border security alone and holistic human security.

FEDINA has raised this issue among the unorganized sector workers to establish a strong demand from the ground. In the light of the kind of developmental policies being adopted by the state which has only marginalized and impoverished them over the years, the workers have been facilitated to discuss and understand the real nature of the state. Attempts are made to help the workers to understand the complexities of the national budget, its allocations and priorities vis-à-vis the social sector, agriculture, education, health, defense etc. and to relate it to their basic needs and the need for decent standards of living conditions. The cost of sophisticated weapons system, which are never used, and the cost of providing water to a village, building a school, hospital or toilet was placed before them so as to establish linkages between poverty and development policies.


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