SCHEME WORKERS ALL INDIA STRIKE: A Strike to Defend the Basic Rights of People
A R Sindhu
IT was a historic day for the trade union movement of the country on many counts, when nearly sixty lakh scheme workers almost 90 per cent of whom are women, went on strike on January 17, 2018. This is for the first time that the joint platform of central trade unions has given a call for strike for a particular sector of workers.
More than one crore workers are working under various government schemes which render basic services like nutrition, health, education and care to the working people of the country. This includes around 27 lakh anganwadi, mini anganwadi workers and helpers under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, nearly 28 lakh mid-day meal workers under the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) and around 10 lakh ASHA workers under the National Health Mission (NHM). Lakhs are working under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), National Child Labour Project (NCLP), Small Savings Schemes etc. These schemes deliver basic services of health, nutrition, education etc to the mass of the population. These workers are not recognised as workers and are not paid minimum wages nor do they have any social security benefits. In the name of ‘honorarium’ or ‘incentive’ they are paid a pittance as low as Rs 1000 per month for ten months a year in the case of mid-day meal workers. It is more than four and half years since the 45th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) passed the recommendations to recognise all workers working under various government schemes, the ‘scheme workers’ as workers, pay them minimum wages and give social security including pension. Various trade union federations of scheme workers have been conducting struggles raising these demands independently and jointly. But neither the UPA was ready nor is the NDA government ready to implement these ILC recommendations.
Moreover, the Modi led NDA government is moving towards winding up these crucial schemes such as ICDS, NHM and MDMS by drastic budget cuts and structural changes, including privatisation of the schemes involving corporates and corporate NGOs. The beneficiaries are actually being excluded in the name of linking of Aadhar and bank accounts. The government is introducing conditional cash transfers in place of universal services of crucial schemes including the ones which ensure food security. The remuneration of the workers and the facilities of the schemes are being affected due to budget cuts. In spite of repeated demand by the central trade unions, the government is going ahead with moves to dismantle the schemes. Under these circumstances, the central trade unions decided to go for one day all India strike of scheme workers and district level joint demonstrations on January 17, 2018 to press for their basic demands.
The overwhelming response to the strike is a product of the yearlong campaign and struggles of scheme workers of various categories, independently and jointly. The major part of the credit in building up the scheme workers’ movement goes to CITU. The term ‘scheme workers’ which was coined by CITU was later recognised by the labour ministry as a category of workers. Building up the movement as part of the category wise struggles, the 15th Conference of CITU held in Puri, Odisha gave a call for a one day all India strike of scheme workers on January 20, 2017. The strike was a grand success. In many states, the strike has created such a mood of struggle among the scheme workers that in many places they got unionised under the banner of CITU and there were numerous local, state level struggles both spontaneous and organised. In all the states, there were struggles, some of which continued for many months in various forms. In Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab etc there was an increase in wages of anganwadi workers and helpers. In Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Gujarat, Odisha etc the remuneration of ASHA workers was also increased. In Odisha and Bihar, the wages of mid-day meal workers was increased.
CITU has taken the initiative to broaden the united struggles of scheme workers and took this up at the joint platform of trade unions. During the campaign for the strike, lakhs of leaflets were distributed among the scheme workers as well as beneficiaries, explaining the government policies for dismantling the schemes which offer basic services. The overwhelming public support to the strike was unique.
The main demands of the strike are:
1. Implement the recommendations of the 45th ILC on scheme workers: recognition as workers, minimum wages not less than Rs 18,000 per month and social security including monthly pension not less than Rs 3000 to all scheme workers. Give coverage of EPF and ESI to scheme workers.
2. Adequate financial allocation in the Union Budget 2018-19 for the centrally sponsored schemes including ICDS, MDMS, NHM, SSA, NCLP etc to ensure increase in wages for the workers to the level of minimum wages and universalisation of the schemes with adequate infrastructure and quality services.
3. No privatisation of the schemes in any form and no subversion by way of cash transfer or exclusion of beneficiaries.
The strike was a total success in spite of the threat by the various state governments. In many states, the workers were threatened with retrenchment and wage cut of one week to a month wages for the one day strike. In Telangana, one DRDO issued notice to the MNREGA field assistants that their strike is against the sovereignty and integrity of the nation! Apart from this, the Modi government and also the BMS, which has totally surrendered to the Modi government, has also tried to misguide the workers by spreading rumors of increase in wages, ESI, PF etc. In West Bengal, the Chief Minister herself has openly threatened the workers that she will terminate all those who participate in the strike.
But the scheme workers belonging to the central trade unions, independent unions and even non-unionised workers took part in the strike and also came out in demonstrations in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Odisha, Punjab, Pondicherry, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. In Andhra Pradesh, the strike will take place on January 23. In more than 500 districts, the scheme workers held demonstrations. In many states like Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, demonstrations and dharnas were held in front of the camp offices of ministers of the Modi government. In Karnataka, the scheme workers held a 24-hours Padav in front of the four central ministers from the state. The ministers were forced to hold discussion with the trade unions.
In most states, the demonstrations were held jointly by the central trade unions. In a few places, the programmes were organised independently.
In Delhi, the scheme workers marched from Mandi house to Parliament Street where they were stopped by the police. The workers broke through the barricade and marched to Parliament Street where they held a meeting. The march was led by leaders of central trade unions including A R Sindhu, Usharani, Ranjana Nirula, Anurag Saxena (CITU), Dhirender Sharma (AITUC), Manjeet, Rajender (HMS) Santosh Roy (AICCTU), M Chourasya (AIUTUC). Later, a joint memorandum was submitted to the finance ministry.
The unprecedented response to the call for an all India strike of ‘scheme workers’ shows that the days of neoliberal Modi government are counted. The central trade unions in a joint statement congratulated the workers for the successful strike and declared that the future course of the joint struggle including indefinite strike and padav will be decided after the Union Budget 2018-19, depending on the response of the government.