Successful Nationwide Strike by Construction Workers
OVER 15 lakh construction workers participated in a two-day nationwide strike on December 2-3, 2021, at the call of the Construction Workers’ Federation of India, one of the largest federations of CITU, and made it a phenomenal success. Braving arrests, threats and intimidations, over a million construction workers rose in rage against the anti-worker and anti-people policies of the Modi regime. The two-day strike action was the largest ever in the history of the unorganised sector. Due to its huge militant mobilisation and visibility, even the mainstream press could not ignore its coverage. The magnificent action of construction workers will give impetus to the entire working class of India, which is preparing for a two-day General Strike on February 23-24, 2022, during the budget session of parliament at the call of central trade unions and independent sectoral federations.
The Covid-19 induced unplanned lockdown imposed by the BJP government in India, which was the harshest in the world, with very tiny relief packages, has left in its trail catastrophic hardships for unorganised sector workers in general and construction workers in particular. The onslaught on construction workers is two-fold and they are interlinked. Firstly, construction workers bore the brunt of the cruel lockdown. Secondly, their hard-won rights have been snatched away by the Modi government. The major strike demands of CWFI are:
- the Building and Other Construction Workers Act should not be tampered with and merged with the Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions Code, 2020 and
- protection of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 and the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act, 1996 and the Welfare Cess Act
The construction sector in India employs the highest number of migrant workers, of which around 55 million are daily wagers. These daily wagers have been adversely impacted due to unemployment, lack of savings and no access to social security measures to sustain the lockdown. Construction workers, suddenly out of jobs and thrown out of their shelters and homes, found themselves abandoned and were stuck miles away from their hometowns within days of the lockdown coming into effect. They were mowed down on railway tracks, they were killed in road accidents, they were killed in even ‘shramik special’ trains due to lack of food, water.
The BOCW Act could have provided security to the millions of workers during the calamity of lockdown. Under this Act, registered construction workers are entitled to a range of social security benefits and housing services, to be provided by the employers. It is no surprise that a CAG report showed that out of Rs 4,246 crore available in Uttar Pradesh’s BOCW welfare board, only Rs 282 crore was spent. The situation is hardly different in other states, except Kerala which treats the migrant construction workers as guest workers. The respective state welfare boards have been collecting the welfare cess from employers/builders in accordance with the law. The cumulative cess collected till May 31, 2020, is Rs 61,049 crore and cumulative expenditure till March 31, 2020, is only Rs 22,167 crore. During the Covid-19 period, only Rs 4,905 crore was spent by the state welfare boards! Cess fund balance available with all state welfare boards is Rs 38,000 crore.
Apart from the BOCW Act, the stated objective of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act is to regulate and lay down the conditions of service of migrant workers. It mandates registration of contractors who employ migrant workers and also requires all employers to maintain a record of their workers. However, by design itself, this excludes a vast majority of self-employed wage labourers and intra-state agrarian and other migrants in the informal economy. In addition, there is very little appetite and motivation in labour departments to implement any pro-labour legislation. It is not surprising then that an official report admitted in 2011-12 that in 11 states, not a single employer or contractor was registered under this Act. Instead of strengthening the BOCW Act and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, the Modi government merged these two laws along with several labour laws into the Code on Occupational Health and Safety and Working Conditions. Some laws on the workers in the construction sector were merged with the Code on Social Security too. If labour codes are implemented, the BOCW Act, the Welfare Cess Act will cease to operate. Huge funds available with state welfare boards will be uncertain. For that reason, in the two-day strike action, construction workers correctly demanded the repeal of the anti-worker and anti-people labour codes.
CWFI’s national working committee meeting held on August 28-29, 2021 in Kolkata gave the clarion call for the nationwide strike. CWFI put forth the main demands: Firstly, save the construction industry and save the BOCW Act and the Welfare Cess Act; no merger of the BOCW Act and the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act with other social security acts. Secondly, the union government must give assistance to construction workers welfare boards to support pension expenditure. Thirdly, protect the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, the BOCW Act and the Welfare Cess Act. Fourthly, reduce the price and GST of construction materials. CWFI also demanded repeal of anti-worker and anti-people labour codes, and said NO to FDI in the construction sector.
During the four-month preparatory period, CWFI reached out to a maximum number of construction workers to popularise the strike demands amongst them. CWFI organisers also tried to develop class consciousness among the workers so that they could understand that their plight and miseries are linked with the policies of the corporate-communal RSS-BJP regime. During the strike campaign, CWFI reached construction sites, workers’ mohallas in large numbers. Before the two-day strike, construction workers observed a National Level Demands Day on October 10 as part of the preparations to make the strike a huge success. Tens of thousands of construction workers participated in general body meetings and demonstrations, wearing demand badges, in almost every state. In November, CWFI state units and district level, block level units sent memorandum to state labour ministers and the central labour minister. During the campaign period, state level, district level, block level conventions were held. CWFI organisers reached construction sites with leaflets, pamphlets, displayed demands on hoardings, banners etc. In several states, there were wall writings, rallies, and street-corners meetings.
The relentless and tireless campaign efforts resulted in a successful strike. Over a million of construction workers participated in the strike action. Construction workers took to the streets on strike days. At over 1,050 places across the country, more than 15 lakh construction workers participated in demonstrations, colourful rallies. In the five southern states, 11,50,000 workers participated in the strike. In the central and northern region comprising seven states, one lakh workers participated and in eastern region comprising five states, 1,06,750 workers participated in the strike action. In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and several other states, construction workers took part in the strike action enthusiastically.
This strike action is a prelude to the two-day General Strike. There will be a series of sectoral strikes too. Steel workers are preparing for a strike at the call of CITU on December 16, bank employees are preparing for a two-day strike against privatisation drive of the government on December 16-17 at the call of UFBU, and port workers are preparing for a strike. After the magnificent two-day strike, construction workers are now gearing up for the General Strike on February 23-24, 2022, to make it a grand success against the anti-people, anti-worker policies of the Modi government with the slogan – ‘save the people, save the nation’.