Latest issue of Gurgaon Workers News out
*** “The system is increasingly fragile” – Conversation with Faridabad Majdoor Samachar (Faridabad Workers News)
In early 2013 some comrades belonging to the anti-capitalist left in Germany visited comrades in India. Their conversation was published in German language (Fleig, Kumar, Weber (Hg.): “Speak Up! Sozialer Aufbruch und Widerstand in Indien”; Assoziation A). Below you can find notes of a conversation with friends of Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.
Since 1982 you regularly publish “Faridabad Majdoor Samachar” What is special about the paper and who are the people it is meant for?
Once a month we print “Faridabad Majdoor Samachar” (Faridabad Workers News) in Hindi. The paper is free and it takes us 15 to 20 days to distribute it during shift-changing hours when workers go to work. We have chosen some places in Faridabad, one in Okhla and one in Gurgaon, one in Manesar. Three, four, five of us stand and distribute it, only to those who ask for it. Most of the copies are taken by industrial workers, working in thousands of factories in Faridabad and adjoining industrial areas of Delhi.
In Faridabad three-fourths of the factory workers are invisible workers, or workers who are not in the company’s records. 85 per cent are temporary workers and workers hired through contractors. The statutory minimum wages are not paid to 80 per cent of the work force. Even permanent workers are not paid wages for two-three-four-six months. Each issue of the newspaper carries articulations of workers of 50 to 60 factories on such issues. First-hand experiences and ideas of wage-workers at large of different factories, offices, research-centres, etc. make-up most of it. Over a period of time, the emphasis on self-activity of wage-workers to confront and transform the present has become a new focus. And it has a column dealing with ‘Questions for Alternatives’. We see the paper as a means of exchange for the purpose of seeking out and forging new trajectories.
How did Faridabad change since you publish the paper and live here?
I first visited Faridabad during emergency in 1976. If you look at Section 24 [part of Faridabad], at that time there used to be farming here. Faridabad is an industrial area that came up after 1947. Originally it was a new town for 40.000 refugees from Pakistan. During the initial phase from the 50s to the 60s you had a small number of factories here. Many people from Pakistan got some employment there. Then, given to the social upheaval in West Bengal in 1960s many industries shifted from Bengal to Faridabad and suddenly it became the main industrial area in North India. By the 80s you had various sectors coming up in this area, like textiles, pharmaceuticals, printing, paper mills. It was a planned city. It was situated at the National Highway No 2 and on the main railway lines to Mumbai and Chennai and it bordered Delhi.
But not an inch, not a square centimetre was planned for workers’ accomodation and living space. And this is not because the managers of the factories were naïve or fools. They were very cautious about what they are doing. They were thinking “How do you cut down the cost of manufactured goods? Do away with the housing costs, let the workers fetch for themselves.” Before 1947 you had this law, saying that before you open an industrial enterprise you have to have housing for the workers, who will be working in the factories. In the old industrial areas, near jute mills or textile mills you will still find these workers (housing) lines.
In the 70s the illegal colonies came up here. These were built on land that is registered farmland or other land. People from Bihar or UP, Jharkhand or Punjab started living here. They started building houses and in recent years large numbers of new people have arrived here. Now the workers have to settle anywhere and everywhere. The choice they get is less and less. Along railway lines you find their shanty towns, you will find them along the open gates in any vacant space built. When the state wants to reclaim that land it is all-illegal and they can demolish it.
Earlier before the State of Emergency, if we look at these old workers the idea was to go to Bombay, or Calcutta, to work, earn and come back. It was similar in Faridabad. Most who came to the area had this idea. After 75/76 what we find is, that there is nowhere to go back for them. Earlier it was mostly men who came. Now its both men and women and whole families. And we have more and more of these very young people coming up – both boys and girls, who supposedly are not having roots.Today between Faridabad, Okhla, and Gurgaon, there are two to two and half million factory workers.
Around 30 years ago was the period when you had 8 hours working time and permanent jobs. These workers could afford to buy 50, 100 square yards, on that land they built houses. The new workforce after 1990 or say 1995 are mostly temporarily. Land prices have risen expansionary. In Faridabad or Delhi, Okhla and Gurgaon workers can not even think of buying land, except for those small section of workers who are in IT industries.
What radical changes occured in the production process and what was the impact on workers in the 80s?
It was a major change in the production process happening here from1982 onwards. In the old days the workers were permanent and most workers were dirctly involved in production process. Even if you were illiterate you were made a permanent worker on the spot. In factories, ninety percent plus workers had been permanent.
Engineered strikes and lock-outs were the means used by managment in the major attacks on factory workers at the time. There is the example of the textile mills in Faridabad in 1978/79. There was a cotton mill that had 7,000 workers. The printing department had a surplus of 4,000 workers. But at that time the workers were permanent and the management could not get rid of them easily. There was a strike, there was lots of violence and the strike was lost. When we were looking at it, many years afterwards, we found out, that the 4,000 jobs have been lost after the lost strike. In weaving for example, in departments where previously one worker used to run one machine, s/he now used to run four machines, six, eight machines. It would have taken decades to reduce 4,000 jobs if it were done through slow attrition. After the lost strike it was done in one blow.
But if the workers are aware what is happening, they can subvert it. As you can see in Bata factory in Faridabad in 1983. You can multiply this example in hundreds. The factory used to have semi automatic lines for making shoes on each and every line, different stations per line, per shift. Then the management forged an agreement with the union, to have automatic lines. One thing is the line, another thing is piece rate work. On the machines the workers would make 24 hundred pair of shoes on each line. But as the workers could see the impact of automatisation, the whole issue turned into a matter of debate and refusal.
At that time, our paper was only a single sheet, 1000 copies. We had friends working in different factories and also at Bata factory. When we wrote that the agreement would mean retrenchment of workers, the factory union was denouncing some of us as anti-union people. At that time we had lots of struggles, fights. We were assaulted when we distributed our paper. In 1984 the automatic machines were installed. The union was with the management, but the workers did know what was going on. They were aware of the fact that their jobs were at stake, so instead of 2400 pieces, they did 1200, 1300 shoes. Meaning output dropped by half when they introduced automatic lines. There was no one opposing the company openly, because if you speak out openly, you are out. This battle went on for one and a half years. The company did not find any target. There was no one in the open. After one and a half years, in 1985 the company had to dismantle the automatic lines and restore the semi automatic lines.
But eventually also at Bata the workforce was cut down and now instead of the 1,000 to 2,000 workers which they used to employ, they have less than 200 permanent workers. They had gone through retrenchment. They did not hire new workers, if workers retired etc. In the Bata-Nagar factory in Calcutta the Bata Company went for lock-outs.
The 90s …
In Faridabad in the 1990s we saw electronic intervention in the production processes on a massive scale. Large scale restructuring took place in the factories. First you have the restructuring, than reengineering – so you have new halls built. New machinery being installed, new lines being set up. Old mechanical machines been taken out and CNC-computer, new machinery being installed. You had the whole production line changed. It happened in many factories. Today a car factory has become an auto hub. Instead of having one factory on one compound with heavy machinery, where you need 100,000 workers, now you just have assembly taking place with 4,000 workers in the main plant, but further 200,000 workers are spread out in industrial areas like in Faridabad, Gurgaon, Ohkla, producing parts in different factories. You have lots of different production units in varying scale. Now you find a small contingent of permanent workers and large numbers of temporary workers.
Most of the workforce consists of multi skilled temporary workers. Today the factories in Delhi, Gurgaon and Faridabad are largely run by temporary workers and whether it is car or any other factory, only 10, 15, 20 percent are permanent workers directly involved in production process and 80, 85 or 90 per cent are temporary workers. There are factories where not even one worker in 300 is permanent – only the staff has permanent status. And amongst the temporary workers, three-fourths are “invisible” workers. Almost 75 per cent workers in factories in the National Captial Region (NCR) do not exist in company and government records, be it garments or auto or pharmaceuticals or chemicals.
What was the role of the trade unions?
In the decade 1990 to 2000 a process between trade unions and management became more blatant: when restructuring and reengineering is on the agenda, then the management comes to sign new agreement with the union, aiming at reducing the workforce. These types of agreements existed before, but they became more blatant after 1990. Large scale retrenchment of permanent workers took place in many factories and in most of the cases unions were openly standing with management. We found factory unions functioning almost like another department of the factory. Managing workers was the job of the unions and good functioning of the factory was seen as good for the workers of that factory.
How were these radical changes reflected in your paper?
When we look at issues of our newspaper published in 1980, 1990 or even 1995 we find them ancient, not old, ancient. Much has changed since then. After 2000 a whole new workforce emerged. In India these changes have been very sudden. We covered debates in the newspapers in the 1990s of management circles in Japan which argued that having temporary workers is cheaper, but that the temporary workers have no loyalty to the company, while having permanent workers is costly. The crisis of the status quo, of market economy forces them to retrench permanent workers and to hire temporary workers – despite the obvious problems in terms of loyalty.
In the newspaper we cover the day to day activities of different workers, their daily life. We write up the experience of the worker. From when she or he gets up, what the worker does in the morning, at work, after work etc. Old workers in their 50s and young workers do different things. In these reports you get ideas about specific conditions and general conditions. We publish these longer reports once in a while, so far we have published 19 of them. What comes up is that the present is worse than the past. In certain aspects this is true because it has gone from bad to worse, but the present has this potential for a radical debate, increasing potential for that.
How did you change your ideological stand?
Our perspective has changed completely in the last 25 years and this is reflected in our paper. We used to be in favour of Maoist groups, going to rural areas and all those things. If you look at the Maoists today, there are maybe 40, 50, 60 different groupings. Some even have come to the industrial areas, speaking with factory workers, but many are still peasant based. Of them the CP Maoist fights in Chhattisgarh and adjoining areas. They stick to the 1960s period after two, three generations!
In 1988/89 when the so called Soviet Union collapsed we called it good news. We said that we could not demolish the statist tendencies, reality itself has demolished them. There might have been a glimpse of communism, you can argue about that, but it was simply not communism there. We say – start now, from current reality of the working class. Then you need this new language and new imaginary. This opens new space. From 1999 onward we stopped using words like capitalism, socialism or Marxism in our paper. For 95 percent of the population the usage of these terms becomes very difficult, as there are so many groupings using them. What we mean, we explain in the paragraph, on the front page. The reality is dealt with by everybody, with different facets. It’s a very fragile equilibrium to maintain.
The left speaks about crisis: working class movement in crisis, US crisis, India crisis, left is shrinking other forces taking over, religious groups and sects become powerful. But all these religious, national and all those forces, they have no solutions. They can cause more havoc, but they have no solutions to the social crisis we are facing. You have million strong armed forces and all these electronic and other surveillance gadgets. The system is extremely fragile and increasingly fragile. Because money and market relations are simply not able to function. An alternative has to emerge. It should have significantly an different ego than the old ideas like identity politics, religious or regional basis. Some may go back to a national basis, trying to gain from social desperation. But even that becomes increasingly brittle.
What is the outlook for the future, out of your understanding?
We have to understand, that all experiments, with all their small duration of life, are limited, that they are partial. Sometimes what is happening is, one person thinks that it the way and others should follow. That becomes problematic. The representative system that gives the reigns of 100 in the hands of 5 is ineffective today. To struggle under leaders’ directions is fatal. Activeness of 95 per cent instead of 5 per cent are necessary and so are small steps starting from where you are. Let us exchange our experiences, let us debate them and let us see the differences. Instead of clenching up debates, lets open up debates!
Today only intellectuals, groups, activists, politicians interact on a global scale. Our incentive is to make it wider, to have a global communication of workers. If we can transform the forced togetherness in the workplaces or housing areas etc. into a voluntary togetherness it would bring us one step further.
No reason to be pessimistic?
Radical groups in Western Europe and North America are often quite pessimistic, because they find most struggles in the EU etc. are just defensive struggles – saving jobs, preventing factory closures. If you are just confined to your local reality and how to deal with it, you cannot get out of your pessimism. But if you look at the wide world than you think, ‘okay, the arena has spread out’. It encompasses the entire world now. It has taken such fast dimensions.
Sometimes you hear in discussions, that the working class is not here any more. But if you go to a place like Faridabad before shift starts and see thousands and thousands of people, you think, what are these people talking about? Industrial work-force in Western Europe and North America has shrunk, yes. But if you look at the world, if you are not just confined to Western Europe and North America, in countries like India or China you will find many workers, anywhere you go in industrial areas, anywhere you go mines, anywhere you go major power plants you find many workers.
In countries like India or China the workers were very strong minorities. If you talk of ‘workers of the world unite’ this used to be more confined to workers of Western Europe and North America, at least when the slogan came up. In India at the time there were no workers in significant numbers. But if you look at it today, the whole scenario is changing very rapidly. If we look at 1830/40 then England was the work-shop of the world, then it became Western Europe, then North America. Today China and India emerged like this. Today in India you have the whole world together.
What kind of new workers’ struggles are there in India nowadays and what are the differcences to the ones in the old days?
If you are looking for the imaginary of big parties, big demonstrations, big clashes you wont find them. In Faridabd we used to have massive demonstrations, clashes with the police and police firing. If you look for workers’ struggle on that scale it is out. But today discontent is much more widespread. Companies have made security provisions, security services, managers staff and they have cameras in the workplace and still workers are doing subversive acts.
The new generation of workers is pitied as ‘poor workers’ by most people, but we look at them as radical workers. Permanent work also gave the workers some interest in status quo in the permanent job, the pension, the retirement benefit, their son my get employed in their place etc. The new workers they have no permanent jobs, instead of one workplace, they have 30 job experiences. The young workers with 10 job experiences know there is no future for them. They don’t read Marx, they don’t read Bakunin, they don’t read, they are not. (Laughing)
These new workers can be extremely destructive, they can burn down factories, they have nothing to loose. Like they did in Bangladesh, where they burnt down 50 factories. That could happen here any time. They can appear as very fragile, very precarious, poor people. But they have the clear understanding: we do not want to have a future in this. These workers have much potential for radical transformation – even with the state apparatus which has been fortified, they are uncontrollable.
For these workers to work a 12-hour shift is the norm and 16 hours is common, every day, seven days a week. The old forms of organisation, they have no space. That is why we say we need new forms of language, new types of activities and new kinds of organisational practices and not traditional unions. Also given that factory unions, where they still exist, have only permanent workers as their members, therefore 90 per cent factory workers in the National Capital Region do not fit in the union structure.
How do you see the factory occupation by workers of Maruti-Suzuki, in Industrial Model Town Manesar?
Fantastic. The Maruti-Suzuki workers deoccupied the factory in June 2011 for 13 days. First we called it occupied, but than one of our worker friends told us, that it is not an occupation, as this word is associated with hierarchies etc.. We agreed and said, yes you are right and in the next issue of the paper we covered this debate on ‘occupation vs. de-occupation’.
They were 20, 22 year old workers. 3000 workers, two shifts of workers coordinated. How they did do it we do not know. Permanent workers, trainees, apprentices and workers hired through contractors – all of them were together – fantastically. Something we had not seen in 30 years. Suddenly we found new potentialities. Today, at least with industrial workers, you find that the social arena shifts. In that social turmoil, or what we call social churning, each of us takes part. We are hopeful that the social churning brings out a new language, and a new imaginary. The new society is there, questioning technology and relationships. Whether it is where people live, whether it is at the workplace, the debates are there – the social churning is taking place. We don’t have solutions, but there are lots of possibilities!