Location India India

Workers of the world, united

The Mumbai Conference on War, Exploitation and Precarious Labour brought together unionists from across the globe

Mumbai: Two hundred trade unionists from 22 countries, with another 200 from India, gathered over the weekend to attend the Mumbai Conference on War, Exploitation and Precarious Labour.

The conference, held at Chandivali, was organised by four Indian trade unions: Trade Union Solidarity Committee, New Trade Union Initiative, Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, and Indian Airports Employees’ Union.

Mirror spoke to trade unionists from four countries and discovered that the working class faces threats across the globe. The enemy this time is not just industrialists, but global capital aided by the enemy within – their own governments.

FRANCE

A socialist president hasn’t been good for the working class, said Pichon Marie, Christine Aubery, and Hebert Marc, three representatives of the General Confederation of Labour-Workers Force, an independent socialist trade union that was formed in 1947.

Workers now have their overtime hours adjusted against days when they work fewer hours. Now, it’s easier than ever to lay people off. Striking workers have had to contend not only with police wielding tear gas guns and batons, but also with masked agent provocateurs. In June, France passed a new directive allowing workers to strike but prevented them from marching, they said.

Workers are also not immune from the anti-immigrant rhetoric of leaders such as Marine Le Pen. Few would actually assault immigrants, but most feel immigrants will lower wages. Interestingly, the unionists blamed French TV for whipping up antiimmigrant hysteria.

After the terror attacks in France, a new law has been enacted that allows the police to break open your door and arrest you on mere suspicion, especially if you are Muslim or black. “The law won’t work against Daesh, but is very effective against militant workers,” they said.

The trade unionists lamented that their membership was just 8 % of the population. Social security benefits have been slashed under a Socialist government, and many workers who are under debt are not willing to strike. “They have forgotten workers’ history,” they lamented.

USA

The white working class voted for Donald Trump, but if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, they would have voted for his socialist ideas, felt Chris Silvera of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, founded in 1903. Sadly, the unions didn’t “get upfront and provide the leadership and energy” to enable Sanders to win, said the Jamaican-born Silvera, because they “are in the hip pocket of the Democratic Party. The labour movement is led by older white men who are compensated very well. At times, their class interests conflict with their economic interests. They’ve become junior partners of the ruling class, more comfortable with the bosses than with the workers.”

The Democratic Party failed the working class, said Silvera. Earlier, it would give away sufficient trinkets to keep them satisfied, but in the last 20 years, not even that was given, as more and more wealth got concentrated in fewer hands. The worker saw his wages being eroded, his health and pension plans scuttled. Even Trump looked better than the statusquo, he added.

Silvera didn’t agree that Trump’s win showed that the white working class was racist. “America is racist. These are the forgotten workers who today feel vulnerable thanks to globalisation. Historically, the reaction of the working class when they feel vulnerable has been to either go towards socialism or fascism. This time, they chose fascism,” Silvera said. Silvera felt that Trump would not be able to fulfil his promise of creating more jobs. Also, he was against increasing the minimum wage. “So what kind of jobs will he create? You’ll have a job but will remain marginalised and super-exploited.”

In recent elections in Silvera’s union, workers from the central, industrial states, rose up against the leadership and managed to get six seats. Once the honeymoon with Trump ends, the industrial worker would wake up, and join hands with blacks and students, who are already up in arms after Trump’s victory, said an optimistic Silvera. “Trump is the end of white supremacy because he will not be able to deliver,” he said.

CHINA

As a skilled worker in a small factory in Guangdong, 51-year-old Hoi often spoken up on behalf of his unskilled comrades, who received neither the minimum wage, nor accommodation and food that their counterparts did in big firms. When the official Communist Party trade union remained unresponsive, Hoi took the help of a ‘Labour Service Centre’ which trained workers on how to collectively bargain. He began taking leave to train workers, and soon, his management put him under surveillance. After 11 years, he finally left his factory to work at the Centre full time, at a lower salary.

“Official unions simply tell discontented workers to go back to work,” said Hoi. Nor is the labour department of any help. Till 2012, if workers went on strike, the policy was to negotiate with them, as long as the protests were confined to the factory and did not spill on to the streets. But since President Xi Jinping took over, even that is not allowed, he added. In the name of ‘stability’, management has the final say. Workers’ demands are labelled ‘political’, and management even has their men sitting inside police vehicles to point out which worker to arrest. Hence workers are afraid to elect their own representatives. But female workers are braver in challenging managements, said Hoi.

While China is a hub for international investors, not all foreign companies follow labour laws, said Hoi. The most exploitative are the Korean, Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies, while even American and European companies do not always give their workers’ pensions and injury insurance. But Chinese companies are the worst, he added.

Like most of China’s workers, Hoi is also a migrant from a village who works in the city with his wife, while their children are looked after by his parents. Chairman Mao’s era was better for workers, he said, even though there was no freedom. However, even today, there is no freedom to organise, Hoi said. “Although the state media censors news about workers’ discontent, we co-ordinate through social media.” Hoi warned that with China investing abroad, foreign workers must be forewarned about its antilabour policies.

SOUTH AFRICA

Fatimata Moutloatse, Busisiwe Cathrine Seabe, Thobile Ndimando, three students from the land of Nelson Mandela stole the show when they asked the packed hall of veteran trade unionists: “Where are the youth?”

The girls, part of the year-old student movement ‘Fees must Fall’, which partners with the ‘Against Outsourcing’ movement of university workers, spoke of their aim: free access to a ‘decolonised’ education, so that South Africa could truly shed apartheid.

“Our parents were subjected to such exploitative conditions at work that they could not access education,” they said. “Today, even after apartheid has ‘officially’ ended, workers cannot access education because of high fees and accommodation costs.”

The students want an end to the current curriculum which they say is based on “Western imperialism, giving rise to ivory towers created for the exclusion of the black subject.” The students said they are fighting for an indigenous curriculum that would include blacks, Indians and all those who have been deprived.

The 2012 Marikana miners’ strike, which ended with 44 miners being massacred, was a “pivotal moment”, they said.

“When the miners were killed, it was not just a symbol of the State’s contempt for workers. It meant that if we didn’t join them, we could also be shot. After all, the workers were our parents; together with students, they formed the community.”

All three students have been injured at the hands of the police and arrested many times; Busisiwe Cathrine Seabe has six cases lodged against her.

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