In the midst of the Lockdown

Workers across the country resist attacks on their livelihood and rights

UP state government employees agitate against abolition of allowances

On May 12 the UP government announced its decision to abolish various allowances to the state government employees, as part of its “austerity measures” during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the government order, which is likely to affect nearly 1.6 million state government employees, at least 6 allowances including city compensation allowance, various special allowances to secretariat staff and police personnel, allowances for junior engineers and public works personnel, allowances to employees of the irrigation department, will be abolished from this month. As part of the austerity drive, the UP government had decided just last month to suspend any increase in dearness allowance to state employees for a period of one and a half years.

At least two unions of government employees – State Employees Joint Council (SEJC) and UP Secretariat Association (UPSA) – have threatened to launch an agitation over the UP government’s decision. They have highlighted the fact that despite the coronavirus pandemic, state government employees, especially police personnel, doctors, nurses, teachers, technicians, etc., have been working at their duties, often taking on greater workloads. Calling the government’s decision “inhuman, impractical and autocratic”, they have said that the proposed cut-back in allowances of the employees would adversely affect the workers and their families in the conditions of the lockdown.

Sanitation workers in Pune win struggle for payment of pending wages

Nearly 500 contract sanitation workers of the Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) in Pune recently won a long battle for payment of their pending wages.

According to the sanitation workers, PCMC had promised Rs 13,000 salary to sanitary workers per month; however they only paid them Rs 8,000. The workers had been fighting a legal battle at the Bombay High Court for payment of the pending salaries and for making the contract workers permanent. In March this year, the High Court has finally ordered the PCMC to pay the workers their dues over the last 14 years.

Zomato announces lay-off and salary cut plans

Online food delivery app Zomato has announced its plans to lay off 13% of its existing workforce and cut salaries by as much as 50% for the remaining employees. The Zomato CEO has cited the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for this step.

Many companies providing a variety of services have been badly affected by the prolonged lockdown in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these employ workers on contract. In several cases, the workers have not received their wages for the lockdown period and are already facing enormous hardship. The Central and state governments have ‘advised’ employers to pay their workers their wages during the lockdown period. But there are no mechanisms to actually ensure that workers get paid.

Contract workers of BSNL in Tamilnadu retrenched

The Tamil Nadu Telecom Casual and Contract Workers Union (TTCCW) and the BSNL Employees Union (BSNLEU) have staged several protest actions from May 14, against the retrenchment of contract workers by the BSNL management during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Tamilnadu alone, more than 22 workers are reported to have been retrenched in this period and the work outsourced to various private agencies. This is also being seen as part of the efforts to hand over BSNL to the highest private bidder. Further, more than 6,000 contract workers are yet to receive their wages for between eight and fifteen months, the Unions have reported to the press.

BSNL is a public sector enterprise. Its open violation of the advisory of the Union Minister of Labour, on termination of workers and wage cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s ‘request’ to employers to not resort to lay-offs and wage cuts. It sends a clear signal to the corporate houses and private capitalists that they are free to fire workers and cut down their wages, in order to keep their profits intact.

Truck transporters demand insurance cover and relief package

The All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), representing about 95 lakh truck transporters, has demanded immediate COVID-19 insurance cover for the drivers and co-workers engaged in essential services and cargo transport.

In a statement issued at the end of April, the AIMTC said, “The announcement of COVID-19 insurance for the drivers and co-workers engaged in essentials services in cargo and passenger space is still pending. Our members are still finding it difficult to bring back the drivers and workers, who are reluctant to come back fearing corona infection”. It pointed out the problems of obtaining E-passes for movement of drivers and staff as well as local restrictions on movement of goods. It also complained of harassment of drivers and co-drivers by the local administration.

Stating that majority of the small transport operators are facing severe financial difficulties, the AIMTC has demanded a relief package from the government for the road transporters as well as suspension of toll and reduction in diesel prices.

Among other problems, the AIMTC has raised the problems of providing transport services at the ports, where containers are piling up because there is no unloading, since industries have not yet started operating. The screening process at the inter-state borders often result in 6-7 km long queues during which the drivers and crew remain stranded without food and water.

Plight of construction workers in IIT Hyderabad campus

Hundreds of construction workers at the IIT Hyderabad campus are desperate to return home to their villages in the covid-19 lockdown. These workers are employed by the L&T management at the Phase 2 of the Rs 644 crore construction project of IIT Hyderabad campus located at Kandi village in Telangana’s Sangareddy district.

Prior to the March 24 lockdown, over 3,000 workers from various districts of Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were working on the construction site at the IIT Hyderabad campus. These workers receive wages of Rs. 15,000 – Rs. 25,000 per month, depending on the kind of work. The L&T management pays the contractor who in turn pays the workers. The contractor ensures that several weeks of wages of the workers remain with him at any given time, so that the workers are like bonded labourers.

Following the March 24 lockdown the workers were paid their wages only up to March 21, despite the Central and state government asking employers and contractors to pay workers for the lockdown period.  At the camp, the workers were left to bake in the summer heat under the tin roof shelters, 15 to 20 to a room, without a fan. They had barely enough money to survive and no money to send back home.

On April 29, hundreds of agitated workers clashed with the L&T management at the labour camp at the construction site, demanding payment of past wages due to them. The following day, the L&T management cleared the dues partially with the contractor, who then arranged to pay the workers.

The struggle of these workers forced the government to organise a special train on May 1 from Hyderabad to Jharkhand. Some workers managed to board this train. Thereafter, although work was resumed on the construction site on May 4, the majority of the remaining 600 workers were in no mood to return to work. They felt they simply could not withstand another indefinite lockdown, with no work and no wages in an alien environment. They have been demanding that the government organise for their transport home.

These are among the hundreds of thousands of workers, who have come from Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, to work on various projects. They are in a terrible condition, with no work and no wages and often no place to live. They are being forced to run from pillar to post, to wait for hours on end, at local police stations and the railway station, in order to register themselves and get a ticket to go back home. As their anger and desperation is mounting, they have clashed with the police and authorities at various places.

Karnataka private college and school teachers demand payment of salaries

School teachers, college lecturers and non-teaching staff of several private educational institutions across Karnataka have not been paid their salaries for the last two months— March and April— causing great financial distress to them and their families, as highlighted by the All India Save Education Committee. The Committee has demanded that the government announce a relief package for all teachers and lecturers working in private schools and colleges, including staff of colleges teaching professional courses and guest faculty working in government / aided colleges and schools.

Karnataka is a major education hub with thousands of government and private educational institutions. There are more than 3 lakh such staff in the state. These include working teachers in unaided institutions, guest faculty in government schools and colleges and private college lecturers. They get salaries of an average of Rs 3,000 to Rs 15,000 per month.

The condition of these teachers and lecturers is really pathetic. Their salaries are already very low and the non-payment of salaries for the lockdown period has hit their family incomes hard. The teachers are also worried that when the schools and colleges re-open after many months, the private managements will resort to large-scale retrenchment of teachers, impose onerous workloads on them and force them to work for many more months without pay, using the excuse of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many teachers are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

Most degree colleges have about 50% guest lecturers on their rolls. The college managements terminate the guest lecturers every semester to avoid having to regularise them. These guest lecturers are the first to be laid-off in such circumstances. The permanent lecturers who have been taking on-line classes through the lockdown period are also being forced to take a 40% salary cut, while non-teaching staff have had a 60% salary cut imposed on them.

Private school teachers are also facing pay cuts and denial of payment of salaries. Many have been told that they will get their salaries only after the schools re-open, adding to their uncertainty and insecurity.

Nurses in Tamilnadu demand parity in wages and wage hike

Nurses in private and government hospitals of Tamilnadu, who are among the frontline warriors in the battle against COVID-19, are struggling against the attempts of the hospital managements to deny them their salaries and allowances. Nurses in private hospitals in the state are demanding to be paid their salaries and allowances without any cuts. The contract nurses in government hospitals are complaining about their miserably low salaries and demanding salaries equal to those of their counterparts in other parts of the country.

According to news reports, many private hospitals in Tamil Nadu have begun cutting salaries of permanent and contract nurses. Even those treating COVID-19 patients have been forced to undergo salary cuts. Permanent and contract nurses, who receive monthly salaries between Rs 12,000 to Rs 25,000, have been forced to undergo a 15-50% salary cut during the lockdown, with hospital managements citing low patients’ occupancy as the reason. They are being denied overtime allowance and night shift allowance. Many have been asked to resign.

The nurses of several private hospitals staged a protest on May 12, demanding that the hospital authorities disburse their full salary amount without cuts. The nurses also demanded that overtime, night shift allowances and other grants be reinstated.

The contract nurses in government hospitals were promised permanent jobs in two years when they were hired in 2015. However, even after five years, they have not been given permanent appointment or a wage hike. The contract nurses are currently paid only Rs 14,000 per month and have not received any hike for the past two years despite the fact that they too have been given duty at COVID-19 wards just like the permanent nurses.  The Tamil Nadu Government MRB Nurses Empowerment Association has demanded equal pay for equal work for all permanent and contract nurses as well immediate absorption of all contract nurses into the permanent workforce.

Defence workers’ unions oppose corporatization

Three defence workers’ unions – the All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF), the Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF) and the Bhartiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS) – have jointly opposed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcements of corporatisation of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defence manufacturing as part of the 4th chapter of the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.

The Finance Minister has announced that FDI limit in defence manufacturing is to be raised from 49 per cent to 74 per cent. The corporatization of the Ordnance Factories has been high on the agenda of the government – one of the key transformations announced for implementation in the first 100 days of the present government — and is being justified in the name of “improving efficiency of the ordnance factories, enhancing quality and making their products cost competitive”.

The defence workers’ unions have criticized this unilateral decision of the government, taken without consulting the workers’ representative organisations, particularly at this time when there is a complete ban on all kinds of mass protest actions. They have clearly stated that corporatization of OFB is nothing but a prelude to privatization of the ordnance factories, which they have been opposing tooth and nail.  Many workers will lose their jobs as a result, they have cautioned. They have demanded that the government immediately roll back the decision failing which they have threatened to launch a nationwide agitation.

The unions have also criticised the announcement of ‘convergence between Defence Sector and Civil Aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO)’, as a prelude to privatization of the Base Repair Depots of the Indian Air Force. The Base Repair Depots play a crucial role in maintaining the hardware and safeguarding many trade secrets of the Air Force. The workers’ unions have cautioned that opening up this important sector to private parties poses a threat to the security of the country.