A Report on the Young Workers’ Convention held in Kolkata on 12 June 2018

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Ritaj Gupta
On 12th June 2018, Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU)’s Kolkata District Committee organized Young Workers’ Convention with the aim of bringing together blue and grey collar employees on a common platform to share their problems, exchange opinion and formulate an understanding to find a way out. This is a report about the convention:  

“… you”, shouted Vikram into his cellphone, abusing the private cab driver and  cancelling his ride. The driver had been unable to locate him accurately and had called up to seek some cooperation regarding the direction. Already being late to meet his girlfriend after having put in a 12 hours work shift, Vikram was stranded outside his office at the IT park on the outskirts of the city. The next ride would charge him more than the usual amount  as cancellation fee. This further added on to his frustration.

How often do we come across such a situation in our lives everyday? “We” refers to the English educated urban middle class, also fashionably referred to as the Gen Y. Aged mostly between 21 and 35, the new generation of “millennial voters”.  All forms of political and electoral promises – from an advertisement of soap to acchedin jingles are targeted at this particular socio economics group. For “their own betterment/benefit”, as they say. However, delving deeper into the picture one would find a completely different ballgame.

India shunned its declared ‘socialist’ goals and embarked on the path of economic liberalization almost 3 decades back. Post 1991, ours has been a fully neoliberal economy running on 3 principles – liberalization, globalization and privatization. This 3 tier model opened up the domestic economy to the world market under pressures from international and Indian big capital. Deregulation and delicensing  of several major sectors like defense and telecommunication that were under state monopoly happened subsequently, followed by disinvestment of sick public sector units. Private foreign investment was encouraged. With successive governments pursuing aggressive neoliberal policies, the autonomy of the state has been diminishing. The gap between the rich and the poor, haves and the have-nots has only increased as a consequence. Growth has slowed down in the long run, after 1996, accompanied by inflation, diminishing of rupee value as well as stagnancy in people’s purchasing power. But the most noted reform that has come about is the transformation of the national economy from a manufacturing oriented one to a service based platform. 

The neoliberal service based economy has given rise to a wide range of professions, unconventional in nature. Permanent jobs based on fixed salary have started ceasing to exist and are being rapidly replaced by commission or target based ones. This is what the market terms as “incentives to perform well”. In simple words, maximization of profit. Labour intensive technologies are fast making way for capital intensive ones. Artificial intelligence technologies, robotics, automation processes have cemented their place in heavy industries like car manufacturing, electrical goods, etc. 

On one hand the IT industry is employing job aspirants en masse without any fixed working hours while on the other hand 2 and a half decades of neoliberalism has produced professions like app delivery boys, medical sales representatives, event girls, blood collectors at pathology clinics, coaching centre training staff, private cab operators, toto drivers, sales personnel in shopping malls, etc. This process has been phenomenal and bloomed across the country like mushrooms even in tier-II cities. Biking around the cities for 24 hours, they neither have job security nor social security. Leading a normal life for this new crop of people is a far cry. While IT executives are paid well, companies make them work at a stretch for 12-15 hours creating a disbalance in their routine. Those working as salespersons in shopping malls for large brands like Big Bazaar and Spencers aren’t allowed to sit during their 10 hour shift of duty on the pretext that that would humiliate potential customers. In return, the salary provided is so meagre that wanting to buy any of the products one is selling is a distant dream. Another kind of workers, the delivery boys, who can afford to sit on their bikes race through the town in rush hours delivering food from restaurants and parcels from e-commerce sites, within a stipulated time, failing which money gets deducted from their accounts. Filling up their own stomachs burning with hunger midway is not on the itinerary. Then there are many who are “self-employed”, a veiled form of disguised unemployment facilitated by the lack of proper jobs: freelance content writers to copy editors, call center employees to contractual labourers, transport workers, hairdressers, make up artists, film technicians, beauty parlour salon staff, security guards, mobile and computer repairing mechanics etc. These workers have no secure future. Even government jobs have become quasi permanent ones today with the entry of contractual designations.

A large section of the youth don’t realize or fail to foresee the strings attached to their jobs. Changing jobs frequently, spending money, developing a consumeristic attitude, keeping faith in globalization to “live life king size”, are the order of the day. 

On 12th June 2018, Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU)’s Kolkata District Committee organized Young Workers’ Convention with the aim of bringing together such blue and grey collar employees on a common platform to share their problems, exchange opinion and formulate an understanding to find a way out. Two weeks prior to the convention, social media was abuzz with the event receiving critical to positive responses. Transcending traditional forms of resistance, CITU reached out to this section of the youth via social media. This was complemented by mass leafleting around the city as well as respective unions reaching out to their members in their respective sectors. Most workers in both organized and unorganized sectors are young.    
The convention also found coverage in the mainstream media. 

“The delivery boys work for over 10 to 12 hours, they pay the fuel for their transport, and if they can’t reach the destination on time, they are unable to earn even Rs 300-400 per day. Sometimes it is even less. If they object, they instantly lose the job. They are unaware of their rights and social securities,” said Debanjan Chakrabarti, general secretary of the CITU Kolkata district committee and one of the secretaries of the organization in the state.

IT sector employees were also targeted. “For some reason, the employees of IT sector don’t understand our arguments. But we need to find out the reason behind this disconnect. Why don’t they want to be involved in trade union? There must be discussion,” Chakrabarti added.

The Bengal Story wrote: “By bringing together employees – with salaries varying from Rs 6,000 to Rs 1 lakh or more per month, the CITU is trying to reach out to sectors in which it has never had supporters traditionally. 

A food delivery boy, on condition of anonymity, said he had seen a post on Facebook appealing to workers in his sector, and “found it interesting that it was talking about us.” “No one talks about our rights,” he said. And so he has decided to join the meet.”

Speaking to The Telegraph, Chakrabarti added further, “This is an attempt to eliminate the generation gap in the trade union movement and to strengthen it by responding to what is most relevant now.”

How are the youth perceiving phenomena like automation, robotization which have led to the loss of jobs of even highly skilled engineers at their workplace, what alternative they have in mind, would also form part of the discussions.
At the convention, around 200 youth participated, braving the heavy rains to be present on time. Tales and experiences narrated were vast, varied and worth listening to. While 17 year old Suman Majhi (name changed) studying in class 12 has to work as a shoe delivery boy amidst tight schedules in order to afford higher education, a well qualified architect from Jadavpur University, Arjun (named changed) works on a 10 hour shift without job security at a paltry wage of Rs 12000 with no provident fund, ESI or gratuity provisions. Public perception views him as an architect/junior engineer, but only he knows that he is nothing more than a manual labourer staying up all night to receive international calls.  

Shabnam (named changed), on the other hand pursued her studies in Microbiology with distinction but was forced to change streams due to lack of jobs in the said area in the state. Now she is an event girl (working with an event management company) working till late hours at night. Safety issues, family pressure, gender angle, lack of social security benefits were some of the pressing matters, she underscored. 

Rahul (named changed) has to fund his college education by working as a part time delivery guy for Flipkart. His work starts in the wee hours of dawn and continues till late afternoon. There is no fixed salary, only delivery based pay-offs. Even fuel cost for bike has to be paid by him. This was nothing short of slavery for him. 

British firm Kingfisher has been awarded the account, data balance and IT services upkeeping tasks of British company BNU. As labour is fairly costly in  England, Kingfisher has, in turn, outsourced this job to India based TCS. Ever since TCS employee Arunima (name changed) has been shouldered with this responsibility, her life has gone haywire. As her work relates to a different continent, culture and timezone, she is deprived of all sorts of homely benefits. Work hours are, according to English standard time, receiving phone calls and replying to emails throughout the night, being subject to workplace harassment by superiors for even a slight delay in replying. These are her working conditions. Durga Puja, Eid or even Indian Independence Day, provide no relief since Indian holidays are not recognized by her foreign counterparts. Today, she suffers from sleep paralysis.

This is not just Arunima’s story but that of countless other individuals of her age group who work under inhuman conditions and suffer from depression.

Private school teachers in the city and state also happen to be living in a state of plight. Bihanga Dut highlighted the fact that at well below market rates of Rs 5-6000 per month, private school teachers have to work for 8 hours or more and are also expected to discharge clerical staff duties. There is absolutely no job guarantee.

At the convention, young workers from different ends of the spectrum interacted with each other. The physiotherapist met the shopping mall staff. While the former earns around 100-250 bucks per hour and spends most of the time on conveyance travelling from one patient’s household to another, the latter works on a 12 hour shift without a minute to spare for rest. While the physio is dependent on his rapport with influential doctors for recommendation and earning his bread, the salesman has no holidays and job security at work.

Through this convention, CITU had proposed to form a nucleus to organize workers in these sectors in the coming days. The convention was also intended to provide legal awareness and support enabling the youth to end such unfair labour and discriminatory practices imposed upon them by the system. At the end, while offering concluding remarks, Debanjan Chakrabarti thanked all those who had made the event a successful and meaningful exercise, by joining their fellow workers from IT, Banking, Electricity, Insurance and other ancilliary industries. The young workers were informed about the various labour laws enacted and prevalent in the country, which they could take recourse to. Payment of Wages Act 1936, Minimum Wages Act 1948, Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1952, Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act 2008, are among the many that were spoken of.     
CITU Kolkata pledged to support and stand by the youth in their struggle for livelihood and basic rights. Workers registered their names, contact information and when asked about the need for a strong union, more such small decentralized conventions and interactive platforms, all responded by a great show of hands and loud cries. 

The mainstream media, unsurprisingly, commented that the Left was attempting to shun its old traditional methods of strikes, lockdowns, gheraos and other forms of militant trade unionism in order to break into the youth votebank which had rejected it in successive elections of late. Hence, such an initiative. This is far from the truth and a blatant distortion of facts. As mentioned earlier, this convention was conceived to form a way out of the claustrophobic system that today’s youth is entrapped in. No election was ever part of the agenda. One of a similar kind was organized by the CPI(M)’s IT branch back in March in Bangalore, which discussed various problems faced by young workers in India’s IT capital.  Prof. C P Chandrashekhar of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who addressed the gathering had mentioned “the challenges facing the young workers and the country today arise out of the toxic mix of deep communalism with fascist features and deep economic crisis caused by transition to neo-liberal economic model.’’ Chandrashekhar pooh-poohed the claims of “synchronised economic recovery” made by the IMF and the “fastest growing Indian economy’ by the NDA government.” Economic inequality, job insecurity and lack of basic rights were the other issues discussed: “The convention raised concern over the safety and security of young workers working in India’s IT capital, especially women and night shift workers. Owing to the ever-pervasive covetousness of the capitalist, the workers are forced to stay late night to fulfil impossible project deadlines yet their employers fail pitifully to ensure their safety. The Young Workers Convention called for enforcement of strict safety guidelines to ensure safety and security of the workers.”

It is never possible for the ruling classes sitting in their privileged positions to understand the conditions of the toiling masses, leave alone empathizing with them. Only alternative is to provide for an organized united class struggle led by the Left democratic forces.

“El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido- (The people united will never be defeated)!”
Ganashakti, 13 June 2018 
The Bengal Story, 8 June 2018
The Telegraph, 20 June 2018

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Desh Hitaishee, 22 June 2018

Ritaj Gupta is a youth activist and currently studying digital humanities at Jadavpur University

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