India: What happens to a dream deferred? Does it explode?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over--

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-- Langston Hughes, 1951

By Kavita Krishnan

September 26, 2008 -- The policies of globalisation were peddled by India's ruling classes as a dream of wealth, wellbeing, employment and ``development'' for India's working people. That dream has been ``deferred'' since 1990 –- festering with farmers' suicides, sagging under the load of corporate land grabs; exploitative work conditions in special economic zones (SEZs) and factories; police brutality against workers, and so on. And then, one day in an multinational corporation (MNC) enclave in Noida (an industrial development area near the National Capital Delhi), we heard it explode.            

``A CEO of a prestigious MNC is killed -– at the hands of a 'maddened mob' of workers... It's a lynching, a murder" –- cry the voices of corporate industry and media in pious horror after the CEO of Italian MNC Graziano was killed on September 22 in the course of a scuffle with agitating workers. The police machinery rushed to round up, arrest and jail hundreds of workers.

Indian labour minister Oscar Fernandes, in a surprising moment of truth, let the cat out of the bag. He mentioned the ``unmentionable'' fact -– that companies like Graziano habitually violate labour laws –- including minimum wage laws; restrictions on contract work; working hours; right to unionise; and basic human rights liberties of workers at the workplace. And he said that the lynching of the Graziano CEO ought to serve as a ``warning'' to industry to mend its ways. Of course, corporate industry and the government which is its faithful servant could not bear such a home truth to be told -– and Fernandes has been forced to issue an ``apology''.

Law-abiding multinationals?

Some questions need to be asked to dispel the myth of a ``law-abiding'' and ``upstanding'' MNC helpless at the hands of violent workers.   

A fact-finding team of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) that visited the spot after the September 22 incident found that out of the 1200 workers employed in the factory, only 500 were regular workers, and the rest were on contract. Graziano paid its regular workers Rs.3200 a month for working 12 hours a day; contract workers were paid Rs.2200 per month, and denied various rights.

The workers are not local residents -– but vulnerable migrants from other states. And nine months ago, the company began laying off most of its permanent workers, and employing contract workers in their stead. This was in blatant violation of the law, which clearly states that contract workers can be used only for non-core functions and not on the shopfloor.

Not only that, workers where forbidden from leaving the factory premises during work hours. They were expected to pay and eat at the factory canteen, where meal proces had been hiked. And they were regularly subjected to threats, abuse and even violence. Goons and musclemen were employed in the guise of an unregistered ``security agency'' and used to keep workers in line.

Workers had formed a union -– but the registrar of unions (who is usually in the pocket of the corporates) turned down the application by Graziano workers, not once but thrice. The workers had conducted a peaceful agitation lasting nine months but all authorities, from the labour commissioner and concerned ministers to the Italian embassy, had turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the evidence of illegalities by the company. Leading agitators were targeted and any worker who dared to lead struggles promptly lost their job.

On the day of the incident, workers say that in fact, police remained absent at the behest of the Graziano authorities, who planned to get the leading elements of the agitation beaten up after getting them inside the factory premises on the pretext of talks. They say that while the workers' delegation was inside and being assaulted, one worker ran out to the gates (which had been shut) and told those assembled outside that their comrades within were being beaten. Then, workers stormed in and the confrontation took place, which resulted in the CEO being killed. Certainly, the ``official'' version of the lynching calls for a serious investigation by an impartial agency.       

And Graziano's story is unfortunately not a unique one. Corporates in the ``new'' industrial areas like Noida, Gurgaon or Pantnagar (SIDCUL) are notorious for their rampant violations of labour laws and repression of workers' basic rights. Labour commissioners routinely ignore such violations.

Whose violence?

When the company underpays workers, robs them of their jobs and exploits their labour, does it not condemn the workers and their families to hunger? Is that not an act of violence? Yet the company is painted as a victim, not the aggressor!        

``The workman is fearfully handicapped by hunger. In the race with Capital, Labour is not only handicapped, it has to drag a cannonball riveted to its foot", wrote Friedrich Engels in 1881, in an essay which exposed the structural unfairness built into ``fair wages'' fixed through the ``competition'' of labour with capital. Today, even those ``fair wages'' (and other labour laws won not by the benevolence of governments but through the sweat and blood of workers) fixed by law are openly, brutally violated by profiteers. And workers watch as the state, the government, the police –- all help their employers to cheat them and break the law. They watch governments boast of double-digit growth rates, and corporates' soaring profit figures –- and know that these profits and this growth is at their cost. The festering sore of such a situation simmers below the surface –- and is waiting to explode.              

Workers' organisations and human rights groups must be allowed to visit the Graziano premises and investigate the circumstances of the incident of September 22. A judicial enquiry should be ordered to probe the incident. The arrested workers must be released and charges against them dropped pending the inquiry. All laid-off workers must be reinstated in the factory. And a National Enquiry Commission including representatives of leading trade unions should be set up to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the work conditions at all industrial units and enclaves (industrial areas) all over the country. The commission should hold public hearings of workers in all major industrial areas. And all employers found to be violating labour laws should be sternly prosecuted.  

[Kavita Krishnan is an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation. This article is based on a report by the fact-finding team headed by Santosh Rai, national secretary, AICCTU.]