Wage-worker as the radical subject: Some voices from Delhi-NCR

Wage-worker as the radical subject: Some voices from Delhi-NCR

by Pratik Ali Kasimpilla


(This is meant only as an introduction to FMS with whom I’ve been participating in for a while now. Critique of other forms of politics is not offered from a personal point of view, but only in explaining FMS’s position. Narratives have been collected by me unless specified otherwise.)

I have been privileged in the last few months to participate in the distribution of Faridabad Majdoor Samachar [you can find their blog here – the commons] among industrial workers of Delhi and adjoining areas and to get to explore the assumptions that underlie their work. 13000 copies of this monthly newspaper are distributed at intersections through which workers walk to work in hordes of lakhs. Every last Sunday of the month is an open invitation for anybody who would like to come down to Majdoor Library in the industrial town of Faridabad and perpetuate taal-mel, relation-building through conversation with the assumption that something better will emerge.

Kailash Hospital, Sec 27, Noida employs 300 ward-boys through contract. They work in twelve-hour shifts, eight hours paid regularly, the rest four underpaid as overtime. They are paid 8000 a month, and wages are often not paid till the 20th of the month. No bonus paid this year or the year before. Doctors humiliate if they report late to work. Workers feel helpless. Say that the hospital is full of security cameras, making it difficult to act in unison. They also suggest that the administrator is a well-connected man in politics who has a lot of hired muscle power. This leaves them with little idea about what they can do regarding their situation.

Despite the changing nature of capital ownership and accumulation since the 1800s, the wage-worker’s essential relation to capital still remains the same: he is “free to sell”  the only thing he has, his labour. Apart from this constant, the wage-working class is a diverse group of many differences that renders a “science” of socialism impossible. The changes that beset production as well as its multifarious effects on conditions of life are too rapid and too complicated to predict in a teleological sense. What we have, then, is merely the present with these conditions that are generally present in the factory system: overdrive to surplus extraction, precarious conditions with respect to health, safety, job security, extreme disciplining mechanisms to compensate for the lack of ‘loyalty’ that a contract worker shows towards his company. In such a situation, two questions emerge: how can the workers respond to this? And how can issues of one factory be made issues of entire industrial belts?

“Whenever there is a power-out or we are working with new machines, we step back. It is a high level of risk for life. It is stupid to be a cog in a machine which can cut through flesh and bone,” said a worker as he collected a copy of FMS. He works in a metal cutting unit, and was reacting to a news item in FMS, February 2015 edition we’d read together: workers of Maxop Engineering work in two twelve hour shifts over the entire week, and the shift changes on Sundays, which means on Sundays, the first shift workers work for 24 hours straight. Temperatures inside the factory are really high. Workers frequently quit here, but there are always others to replace them. On 16th January, 2015, there was a sudden stop in production due to obstruction by a machine part. Kaleem Ansari tried removing it by getting inside the machine. Usually there are auto-plans to stop machines when workers are inside, part of its safety mechanism. But production pressures are so high that factory management shuts these off. Due to this, as soon as the machine started Ansari lost his head inside the machine and died on the spot. Workers unanimously halted production for two days, returned on the third.

One way to understand this drudgery would be to say that the workers are helpless victims; those publishing FMS insist that this is both strategically unhelpful as well as factually an inaccurate understanding of the situations we find factory workers in. It is an accepted fact that wage-labour is drudgery, so much so that it should stop shocking us anymore. Damaged limbs are statistically high, so much so that they are visible to the naked eye. More universal, even if less visible, is the damage due to hidden fumes, radiation, etc., or even the dehumanization of mechanical fruitless work. When this dehumanization is no longer shocking, wage-workers are faced with one simple question: what can be done? The idea of the helpless victim is a road-block to the emergence of this question, and thus runs contrary to the spontaneous self-activity that the question leads to among workers. http://libcom.org/library/self-activity-wage-workers-kamunist-kranti

A security guard employed by G4S at a factory Udyog Vihar watches as we distribute copies of FMS. It has been a tense past week here. Shamichand, a quality checker at Gaurav International – Richa Global and Gaurav International are sister concerns involved in garment production – was brutally attacked by their security officer and personnel manager for turning up late after lunchtime. So much that his hip bone broke; he was left outside the gate, and his wife had to rush him to hospital by herself. As this news gathered momentum, a rumour spread that Shamichand had died, and soon angry workers stopped work. About two to three hundred (according to initial reports) pelted stones selectively at each of the factories of Richa-Gaurav at Udyog Vihar. They burnt a few cars and vandalized others, while almost everywhere vandalizing walls and logos of their company. Managers fled out of fear, and even though FIRs have been filed against workers, the management is not prepared to take matters further for fear of more backlash. Meanwhile, it is indicative of the anger among people that they are almost all bothered that despite the government of Haryana having increased the pay-scale four months ago, the companies have refused to increase wages. Apart from this there is the regular swindling of money through cheap mathematical tricks (deciding PF on basic, etc.). In this context the G4S security guard comes up to us and says, “You misguide and incite the workers. Who gave you the right?” Bhupinder ji prods him a little, and it turns out that he is going through the same swindling himself! As soon as Bhupinder ji points that out, he is forced to agree. His colleague comes by, and they show Bhupinder ji their pay slips, and discuss the swindling. The only doubt that still remains in their head is, “What if these workers go out of control when they read this?” Bhupinder ji calmly smiles and asks back, “What then?”

The nature of factory work puts collectives of people into situations that often turn out to be opportunities for them to creatively counter the daily extraction of their worth. With labour being rendered contractual predominantly, the organized sector has shrunk to a small mass compared to the vast pools of unorganized labour. Thus central unions have faded out in many industrial areas; their role often got reduced to being a “managerial department of the company” as permanent workers in many places (specifically in those where there is a huge difference between the conditions of permanent and contract workers) became de facto supervisors. This meant that unionization itself came under severe constraints. It is found in places where there is greater proximity between contract and permanent  workers’ conditions that there is greater solidarity between the two, and attempts to form independent unions more successful (eg. Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union struggle), even if not without constraints (see अस्ती इलेक्ट्रॉनिक्स के बहाने in FMS, Dec 2014; मुंजाल किरियू के बहाने in FMS Feb 2015). In short, spontaneous action that is not within the legal-frame of agitations becomes the baseline from which workers find themselves beginning in struggles. From thereon, it becomes a matter of finding ways to supplement spontaneity with methods that sustain agitation. There is little question of leadership in this frame of action, as any ‘leadership’ from within unorganized workers will summarily be crushed by the management. Publishers of FMS call it a strategy of “faceless struggle”. It is immune to both managerial assaults as well as statist tendencies within the left. In that, it rightly diagnoses the problem with the centralization of capital, whether in the hands of private limited companies or in the hands of the state, apart from being alert to the necessity of a brutally disciplinary state in the protection of the factory system.

Michael Aram Exports Pvt. Ltd. has an office in Khan Market, and a factory in Noida (at the time workers’ agitations began, the factory was in Okhla). Conditions in the Michael Aram factory had always been bad, but in 2005 a dispute between Aram and another of his partners led to stoppage of work in the Okhla factory. Despite promises, management put off giving work to those employed there, but also began delaying their payments. Diwali bonus was not given. Workers from the factory got together and set up placards, which they carried and held up at the factory and later at Connaught Place, a busy junction in New Delhi (well-documented here https://www.mail-archive.com/lnsa@yahoogroups.com/msg00120.html). At the same time, a few friends in the US put up banners before the clientele of Michael Aram. This led to what Sher Singh refered to as “an issue of one factory becoming one of many factories.” There was widespread shaming of the company, and they were forced to cede to the demands. Michael Aram workers had, since 2004, begun meeting as a group on Sundays. Each week they’d discuss what they would go through the working days, and thrash out possibilities of how they could face the management as a collective. Even those workers who were not initially with them turned towards them; some got suspended for doing so. Because they were permanent workers, they were still on the rolls. That group of Michael Aram workers which met regularly then still holds its weekly meetings in park even now in 2015. Management has been trying all ways possible to throw them out of work. The latest method has been to pressurize them by claiming their standard produce to be thicker and in need of more polishing; when they make it thinner, it ends up getting damaged. They came to Majdoor Library with these worries at the weekly taal-mel organized by FMS. Sher Singh and Bhupinder ji suggested they should start producing substandard designs if they were disapproving of the standard ones, so that when they return with the parts they’d have at least a legitimate correction to make upon them. “Hava mey cut maaro” – pretend to polish (cut) parts when in fact you are doing nothing. These are management attempts to discredit workers to remove them eventually from work (Michael Aram has been pissed for long now). Workers use their weekly taal-mel to find ways to counter this. Also on the agenda is: how to use the discovery that Michael Aram holds a Swiss Bank account with unaccounted wealth? (do check ‘Many Straws Make a Nest’; a documentary made on some of the themes discussed here http://visions-of-labor.org/edition.php?clipId=89)

The G4S security guard was against workers’ unrest by what his job demands from him; but he is part of the wage-work system by what his job-conditions are. When left to himself, he acts like a security-guard would, trying to work for the management, being in the good books, etc. But when he realizes his real conditions, he loses all his loyalty towards his bosses. Even if he stays in a dilemma, which he expresses by asking ‘what if the workers go out of control?’, at least he knows that he is also entering relations within the factory system that are precarious and against his interests. These are relations that publishers of FMS refer to as “new kinds of bonds”. Not based on any prior identity like family, region, caste or so on, these relationships are based on empathy arising from daily circumstances. Workers of Michael Aram have shown how sustained and revolutionary these relations can be. In Sher Singh’s words, these are steps towards a “new community” that we can at best facilitate, ourselves being outside the wage-system; we can only add to the taal-mel by “making issues of one factory those of many factories” and figuring out methods of resistance keeping in mind the daily compulsions upon wage-workers.

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