The last shall be the
The social identity of the worker
BY XAVIER DIAS
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,
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
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
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
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,
www.firstpeoplesfirst.in and editor of
Khan Kaneej Aur ADHIKAR, a
monthly bulletin for communities affected by mining,
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
1 As the case of agricultural workers is not the same,
for the purposes of this article worker means the worker in the industrial
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.