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World

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’Inde sous la pression de la mondialisation

by Dominique Bari, special correspondent

Alang, India: Globalization and the Wages of Fear

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Tuesday 28 February 2006, by Patrick Bolland

A trade union-leader exposes the workers’ lack of basic rights

special correspondent in Bhavnagar, Gujerat, India

Arun Mehta is Gujerat State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).(1) He also heads the regional branch of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). We met him in the Gujerat port city of Bhavnagar, in western India, not far from the border with Pakistan.

HUMA: Why precisely are people protesting the working conditions at Alang? Why is the threat of pollution in the shipyards such a danger?

ARUN MEHTA: You have to understand the economic and social context that underlies the question of the Alang shipyards is. The region around the port city of Bhavnagar, the Saurashtra, has, in the last few years, been severely hit by India opening up its economy. Globalization and denationalization are the consequences. They have destroyed our industrial base, which depended in small-scale industries - textiles, mechanics, brick-manufacturers, factories producing dairy products, and so on. A good 70% of these small businesses have closed down in the last 4 years - quite a few of which were in the State sector. This has left 700,000 workers jobless. There are more than 100,000 people living below the poverty level, with less than 500 rupees (10 €) a month. Villages don’t have water for irrigation. In the summer, between 4000 and 5000 villages don’t have any drinking water. On the other hand the shipyards provide jobs for 20,000 to 25,000 people. There’s a huge market in recuperating what’s left of ships after they beach here.

HUMA: Yet most of the workers in the Alang shipyards are not from this region ...

MEHTA: True, but many local people find work here too, without being directly employed in the shipyards, which is the most dangerous work, even if the wages are higher. Despite the terrible economic crisis in the Saurashtra peninsula, people don’t want to go and work directly in the shipyards, because they know the risks. At Alang, labour laws are not respected. If there are accidents, deaths, they go unreported. Sometimes, the families of victims are even not told about them. To find a cheaper and more docile labour-force, recruiters go out to other States even more backwards than ours, to Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, more than 1000 km away, up to 1500 km - where conditions of survival are even worse than here in Gujerat. The minimum wage for industrial workers here has been officially fixed at 78 rupees (1.5 €) an hour. This does not mean workers actually earn this much! In Orissa, the official minimum is 42 rupees and peasants only earn 10 to 20 rupees a day.

HUMA: As a trade-unionist, what contact do you have with the Alang workers?

MEHTA: I’ve been to the shipyards many, many times. Union activities are not, strictly speaking, banned. But how can you convince people who are struggling to feed themselves that they should be fighting for their workers’ rights, which they don’t know anything about? If they protest, they lose their jobs. These workers are controlled by their recruiters, which violates a 1987 Supreme Court decision that obliges employers to negotiate directly with their employees. These workers don’t even know the name of the ship-breaking companies they’re working for. It is the recruiters who hand out their wages ... or who don’t pay them. I’ve managed sometimes to help workers get pay that was due to them, only after 6 months of “discussion” ...

HUMA: Many people are expecting that Alang, which is already in decline, will have to close ...

MEHTA: We are defending the Alang workers’ rights. We are fighting against the inhumane conditions in the shipyards. This is something we will not compromise. At the same time, we are against the destruction of our industries. India is under very strong pressure from globalization. Labour laws are being suppressed to attract investment by the multinationals - layoffs are now possible without any warning to the employees, let alone any compensation. This makes marginality the official policy - for workers throughout the country. The Communist MPs are fighting against the Bill which will be presented to Parliament on March 1st. A general strike is being planned for that day ...

[Translator’s note]

(1) The CPI(M) emerged from a split within the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1964, primarily over relations with the Chinese Communist Party, the new “Marxist” party accusing the CPI of revisionism and sectarianism. In fact, the two Parties cooperate at many levels (both are “national parties” of which there are only 6 in the whole of India), working together in several state legislatures. The CPI(M) claimed in 2002 to have 814,408 members. See: www.cpim.org/


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