November 2006 
Year 13    No.120

Cover Story

The last shall be the first

The social identity of the worker


The only condition the SAIL management put to us was please stop those drums and dancing outside."

Ten days in a struggle, Saranda Thekka Mazdoor Sangh, Megahattuburu 1983.

The scale on which working class1  activities are measured and interpreted varies from one extreme to the other. For some, especially left intellectuals and the workers themselves, the working class and their organisations are sacrosanct. For the rest of society the working class is either of little or no interest, considered a hindrance to the growth of industry or at times disrupters of ‘normal’ life. Propaganda of the establishment has consistently fanned the fumes of this latter perception.

A worker first and last?

An objective assessment is therefore urgently called for. This becomes imperative, as the working class is not only a perennial factor in the cycle of development but, more importantly, a critical factor for social stability. Historical negligence of this latter characteristic has brought into focus serious issues that need to be addressed, the eminent danger being the exploitation of the social and cultural weaknesses of the working class by fascist forces which inevitably work against the interests of social stability and prosperity.

One of the prime factors for the present state of affairs is the trade union leadership’s preoccupation with ‘economic benefits’ while neglecting the social identity of the worker. Evidence of this can be seen in industrial areas where at the factory gate the red flag flies while on the rooftop of the worker’s home the saffron2  one flutters. Unity is thus limited to the shop floor while at all other places where the workers interact i.e. on public transport to and from work, within their neighbourhood, etc. there are fist fights, scuffles, abuses and anything but activity that would enhance cooperation, a sense of community and lasting unity.

Thus the social and cultural strengths of the worker get overwhelmed by negative tendencies i.e. the workers’ role in social conflict or the agendas of the right. These negative tendencies are not the dominating aspects of their culture or identity. Most workers in India are first or second generation workers, all coming from agricultural, semi-peasantry, artisan, housewifery or other rural occupations. For generations brought up in a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Migrating from caste victimisation or landlessness, they are brought to the factory or the metro from the richness of their social life only to see it get discarded together with the effluents of industry. With the neglect of the social identity of the worker and the limiting of trade union activity to economics, he/she is tempered and limited to economic advancement and interest, this perception obliterating the important roles they are needed to play in social harmony and advancement. Besides this, he/she becomes another tool within the modes of production, which ultimately weakens his/her power as the force of production. Coming from a society of diverse cultures, he/she is reformatted into a mono-sapience. Thus the neglect of the social, cultural or gender identity of a worker amounts to strait-jacketing him/her, a known fascist strategy. Why then will the fascist forces not exploit it for their own ends and why will they not succeed?

The memorable slogan, ‘workers of the world unite’, has been misused rhetorically reducing it to a cliché. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when it i.e. international solidarity is most needed as a strategy to expose and combat the agenda of neo-liberal globalisation.

Despite these facts, at almost every place where workers sell their labour much of their social and cultural strengths is still retained. This phenomenon is particularly strong in Jharkhand3  where first generation Adivasis4  form the backbone of the unorganised sector/contract or daily wage workers. In this new milieu they are exposed to alienation in all spheres of their existence, putting them in a better position to understand the contradictions between a humane life and that of the civilised world. The history of the social movements here, right from the Santhal Hul (1855) to the present day movement5  of communities refusing to give up their lands for greenfield mining projects6  ( have created within the Adivasis a pride for their distinct identity, culture and homeland.

Oh bring back my Bonnie to me!

While politically and socially this is an encouraging situation, so far it has not been able to translate itself into bringing any benefits to the Adivasi people. In order to understand this ground situation it is important to understand the migration of Adivasis to outside labour sites historically. The Adivasi economy has been a self-sufficient one where labour is not a commodity to be sold. On the other hand, work or the ability to work is honoured. The very idea of selling one’s labour is considered mortifying and has no place in the Adivasi economy. This may be a bit difficult for the non-Adivasi world to understand and therefore we would better understand it in the way some of us or attitudes in general consider a sex worker selling his or her skills for a price. Economists have brushed this aside by considering the Adivasi economy as ‘primitive’, we will leave that for another debate, but it begs the question: Why then do the Adivasis migrate to sell their labour?

Colonisation of the Adivasi homelands dispossessed them of everything they had, their land, forest, knowledge systems, etc. Dispossession led to pauperisation, forcing them to other lands i.e. tea gardens in Assam and Bengal, forest labour in the Andaman islands, farm labour in the green revolution states and in the past decade, domestic labour in the metros7 . Pauperisation forced them to migrate in search of food to survive. One can only imagine the plight of this transition that they were forced into. If the above allegory of the sex workers is taken, the Adivasis had to psychologically undergo the plight of sex workers who are forced into the sex trade. There is a word we use to explain this situation but it would be insufficient to grasp the magnitude of the impact when we are talking of over a million people who undergo it as a community.

Prior to the new economic policies of this reform era, the only jobs these migrant Adivasis could get was as contract labour in the steel cities, their captive mines and construction sites. With industries going in for bottom line economics, they have been cutting ‘flab’, as they would like to call their workers. Thus the much envied permanent jobs are being reduced and the services they did are being outsourced resulting in a big shift of non-Adivasis to the contract or unorganised sector. The meek will inherit the earth but the mighty grab the jobs and cities like Jamshedpur, Dhanbad, Bokaro, etc. are seeing large migration of the unorganised sector Adivasis to wherever they can find work. Most of them return to their villages to situations of semi-starvation. Social tension in a hitherto harmonious society is on the increase. The weakest in these societies bear the brunt of it all – the ageing, women and children. Faced by these mounting problems due to the migration of Adivasis as labourers to the metros and other states and the return of jobless contract labour, social movements in Jharkhand took the next logical step which has the potential for bringing in benefits to the Adivasis.

Where were you my brother?

In April this year in the massive steel city of Bokaro in Jharkhand over 3,00,000 people, all related in some way or the other to industry, participated in a Mazdoor Adhikar Mela, MAM (workers rights festival). For three days they sang, danced, discussed and entertained themselves in a multicultural folk extravaganza. Designed on the template of the World Social Forum, MAM was a joint effort by Jharkhandi social movements and their human rights organisations, women’s organisations, trade unions and labour related set-ups. For the first time in the history of this eastern industrial belt, social movements joined trade unions to form a common platform not only for dialogue but together with their families, especially children, relatives, neighbours, etc., to participate in the fair/festival.

Come dance with me

The aim of MAM was to:

Ø Bring the rights of unorganised and contract workers back on the political agenda.

Ø Strengthen linkages among unorganised and contract workers of this eastern region.

Ø Collectively look for innovative responsiveness – reinventing worker bargaining power.

Ø Strengthen the trade union movement

Ø Develop linkages between the social movements and the workers rights movements.

Inspired by a quote by revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, "If I can’t dance, I do not want to be part of your revolution", they decided to have a mela.

A Central Organisation Committee, COC was formed, which was responsible for organising the event. The COC saw the present neo-liberal free market situation as opportunities:

1. While capital accumulation is @ 300 per cent, labour costs are being cut – a contradiction not attended to.

2. Spread and effectiveness of mass media is unutilised by the labour and the left.

3. Subaltern politics’ (people’s movements) linkages with worker’s issues are not addressed.

4. Potential of unorganised and non-permanent workers’ hold on modes of production are underestimated.

Swami Agnivesh was the chief guest at the inauguration ceremony where five live torches were lit by labourers from different states. He made one of the most memorable and fiery speeches I have ever heard from him. The entire speech is now on CD and is being played in hundreds of shanties where workers live. Over a hundred children organised by the Coordination of Child Labour came from West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. Comrade Gita came from Tamil Nadu with 30 members of the construction workers union. A similar number of Adivasi domestic workers came from Delhi.

Five thousand delegates sat at 24 seminars in six tents during the two days. The theme of the event was "Letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts merge", adapted from the famous quote by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung8  who, incidentally, still inspires the subaltern classes here. Delegates took back this quote printed on red scarves that they display beside their gods in their makeshift huts.

Follow-ups to this historic event are now being organised all over Jharkhand. From November 22 to 25, 2006 an assembly on workers rights, Mazdoor Adhikar Sammelan, is being organised in Chaibasa. While hundreds of thousands of Adivasis find their voice and space, the Indian media renders them voiceless by refusing to portray their life and struggle to the world.

(Xavier Dias has worked as a trade unionist and human rights activist in Jharkhand for the past thirty years. He is currently the spokesperson of the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee, JMACC, and editor of Khan Kaneej Aur ADHIKAR, a monthly bulletin for communities affected by mining, [email protected].)


My gratitude to Peter Waterman, editor of NILS (Network of International Labour Studies) and former head of Labour Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands, for the title of this paper and the inspiration he gave me to understand labour issues from the local to the international.

 1 As the case of agricultural workers is not the same, for the purposes of this article worker means the worker in the industrial sector.

 2 The colour of the parties of the Hindu right.

 3 Jharkhand, for the purposes of this article, includes districts in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal that form the original Jharkhand known today as Greater Jharkhand.

 4 For the purposes of this article Adivasis include the outcastes and other non-schedule ethnic groups in Jharkhand.

 5 This is just one example. Jharkhand is dotted with a plethora of movements on issues that directly affect its people.

 6 For the past three years and being part of a state alliance, JMACC, the Adivasis have stalled 42 mining and allied projects; a people’s imposed curfew on any mining personnel in their area is in operation in 23 places where these projects are planned.

 7 According to one estimate there are 4,00,000 Adivasi domestic workers in Delhi alone, most being young girls.

 8 On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People, February 27, 1957.



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