WHO’s Director General tweeted just one word today – solidarity. It didn’t look like a social media team making that up. Probably it was the state of mind of an organization’s head which was communicated as such. This organization is at the forefront of the emergency and healthcare response to the pandemic, internationally. The lonesome word ‘solidarity’ floated in the world gathering a few thousand ‘likes’. The US announced a suspension of funding to the WHO for its Covid-19 response. To withdraw support in the time of need and fragility is a weapon for those weak of character, integrity and mind. In the time when WHO needs more resources to help out nations in distress, we have some who are busy snatching away what the organization has. Adversity sieves human character like no other situation.
The global future of solidarity is under test. The lockdown in India has given the nation its own moments, where as a citizen one hopes that it will find its lost soul. When the history of Covid-19 in India will be written, it will not be disease and death alone that will make the center-spread. It will also be images of the exodus of thousands of workers from Delhi. The state has spared no thought for workers across the country who worked far from their homes, in urban centers and industrial clusters. However, it is not over yet. The scars of abandonment and hardship that followed will have a long, active memory.
Sitting through three webinars on issues related to Covid-19 and workers, and its impact on labour markets, I began thinking of the Indian labour movement. Several platform companies which have made money through the toil of thousands of ‘contractors’ in areas like taxi and food delivery, went into radio silence as the lockdown began. Emerging a little later, many of them organized fundraisers to provide food and essential supplies to the workers. Large, organized sector manufacturing stayed shut and abandoned the workers. In the following days they coped with the national situation, succumbed or found their way out. This abandonment must be remembered to shape the future of the labour movement here onward.
During the plague of 1917 in Ahmedabad, thousands of workers employed in the textile mills left the city. This affected the mills severely. In response, the mill owners offered a ‘plague allowance’ of 70 per cent of the wages to incentivise the workers to stay on and work. In writing the history of Indian Labour Movement, G Ramanujam cites this incident and what followed, as the beginning of the struggle of Indian labour. It is striking that after more than a century, it doesn’t seem to have changed in its demands and character. After the plague subsided the mill owners proposed to abolish the plague allowance. Instead, they proposed to replace it with a 20 per cent increase in wages. Those were the war years and textile prices held strong in the global market. The workers demanded a 50 per cent increase. The standoff between mill owners and workers on wage increase was quickly leading to a strike. Soon enough, Gandhiji was sought by all parties for a way through this. On his advice, a Board of Arbitration was set up consisting of three representatives from mill owners and three of workers. On the workers side they were Gandhiji, Sardar Patel and Sankerlal Banker.
It is here, during Ahmedabad’s mill workers strike, more than hundred years ago, that an important principle of workers’ organization was articulated. This has been overlooked. In forgetting this fundamental idea the labour movement in 2020 and beyond will fail. This idea’s origin finds a parallel in the current times as well. With the failure of arbitration, On 22 February 1918 a workers’ strike began. This strike lasted 25 days. During these days some of the workers experienced serious difficulties in getting by, as low wages left them with little savings. Some of Gandhiji’s supporters offered funds for providing relief to workers who were in distress. However, Gandhiji felt that ‘the workers were self respecting citizens and should not depend on public charity but strive to carry on their struggle on their own strength’ (Indian Labour Movement, G Ramanujam). He made arrangements to find alternative wage work and hoped that the workers would take it up as the strike went on. This moment’s importance in the history of India’s struggle for independence lies in the fact that this was the occasion when Gandhiji fasted for a public cause for the first time. Mahadev Desai writes about it in A Righteous Struggle.
The charity efforts that several new-age companies have organized during the lockdown is ignorant of this idea of workers’ dignity and the appropriateness of wage work over handouts. Labour negotiations in the future must be strongly based on the importance of workers’ labour rather than water it down to the emotional appeal of poor workers toiling hard.
When the country exits the lockdown, it may not be off the mark for workers across every industry to demand a hardship payment. Their employers and by extension the government made them go through this hardship during the abrupt lockdown declaration even as there were sufficient resources to have planned it better. The debate is not about resources but of priority. Workers must be prioritized in this economic growth obsessed nation.