Workers Beware - FDI is at Work !

Modi has been wooing MNCs to come ‘Make in India’. What are the conditions that MNCs demand in order to ‘make’ in any country?

It is an open secret that MNCs (or their subcontractors) manufacture in countries where they can run sweatshops, no questions asked.

The global competition for FDI, allows MNCs to call the shots. This forces competing countries to lower wages and working conditions, and relax environmental and safety protections in order to attract and retain FDI. If countries make any move to protect the rights of their workers or peasants or their citizens, the MNCs can threaten to exit.

In India’s experience, we have already seen the behaviour of such MNCs and Indian corporations, closely. India has completely failed to make Union Carbide – now Dow Chemicals – accountable for the Bhopal Gas tragedy. When peasants protest against land being grabbed for the Indonesian MNC Salem or the Indian corporation Tata, the corporations simply move to another state or country. If workers protest against violation of labour laws in Manesar, Haryana, Maruti Suzuki can twist the arms of the Government by threatening to move to Gujarat.

When countries are desperate to woo MNCs, it is the MNCs that enjoy the superior bargaining power. The competition to woo FDI becomes a ‘race to the bottom’, and wages go down, as do social protections and government regulation.

Zero Regulation

We are already seeing this happen. Even as Modi makes emotional speeches about ‘Shrameva Jayate’ (Workers alone will be victorious), he does away with the regime of labour inspections, which he vilifies as ‘inspector raj’. Now, labour inspections will become random rather than regular – and complaints by workers will no longer be investigated by labour inspectors! As it is, labour inspections are fairly toothless. But still, workers at least have the option to complain of labour law violations to the labour inspectors, and hope for some investigation and recommendations, however delayed. Now, even this weak provision is being done away with – all to roll out the red carpet for MNCs to ‘Make in India’.

Modi says the corporations can ‘self-certify’ their compliance with labour, safety and other laws. What a joke! The corporations routinely violate all laws meant to protect workers – from minimum wages to contract labour to safety regulations to the right to form unions. Now, with a system of ‘self-certification’, the corporations are essentially being given a licence to violate the laws.

Slave Labour

What kind of work conditions do MNCs and corporations seek, ideally? Well, we can get an idea from the recent development, where an Indian-Japanese joint venture, Furukawa Electric (MFE), that supplies harnesses for the Maruti Suzuki’s Alto car, has opened a factory inside Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

Let us recall that workers of Maruti Suzuki and other companies in the Manesar area of the national capital region, have faced severe repression for struggling against the deliberate violation of labour laws – in particular, the laws restricting employment of contract labour and mandating the right of workers to form independent unions. Minda Furukawa seems to have found the perfect solution: employ labour that is, literally, captive.

A report by Aman Sethi (‘Now, an auto harness plant in Tihar Jail’, Business Standard, October 18, 2014), quoted a jail superintendent as saying "The companies get a captive, uninterrupted labour supply. Prison wages are much lower than wages paid outside, and once trained, a worker can't leave and join a competitor."

Moreover, the report observed that “there are no unions, no factory inspectors, few strikes, electricity at cost, and commercial space at Rs 10 per sq ft. Prison authorities are responsible for the discipline, meals and accommodation of its worker inmates.”

What about wages? Minda Furukawa pays 15 per cent more than prison wages, or Rs 113.85 a day, for skilled workers. It contributes 10 per cent, or Rs 11.30 per worker, per day, to the prison welfare fund - a total cost of Rs 125.15 per worker, per day for skilled work. But it’s still win-win for the corporation. Minimum wages in Delhi are three times higher - Rs 399 a day for skilled work and Rs 329 a day for unskilled work.

Minda's chief marketing officer claims, though, that the "The objective is not to save on wages; the objective is to do something for society." However, the corporations are very much aware of the real meaning of prison labour. Garment exporter Sudhir Dhingra, chairman of Orient Craft said, “For the garment sector, prison labour is a no-no...In the fashion world, they would consider it forced labour and no one would buy the products.” So, it is all about perception. Prison labour is indeed forced, bonded labour. Forced labour would make fashion garments unpopular, but the same forced labour is okay as long as it is for an ‘invisible’ produce like automobile harnesses, that will get masked by the gleaming finished product of the Alto car.

The Minda Furukawa example ought to serve as a warning. MNCs are already seeking nothing short of slave labour. Imprisoned labour is their benchmark. And to get them to ‘Make in India’, the Modi Government has already shown its willingness to dismantle even the pretence of a regulatory framework, and allow the MNCs to trample upon the rights of workers.

What About The Rights of Workers Who Clean India?

Sanitation workers – almost overwhelmingly from the dalit castes – work in appalling conditions. They clean sewers and drains with no safety equipment, risking life and health. They clean mounds of garbage by hand, again without any equipment, in dehumanising conditions. Manual scavenging continues to be rampant in India – practice that Modi has described as a ‘spiritual activity’. Sanitation work is contractualised, and the workers are denied equal wages for equal work, even in Government services.

On October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti this year, the day that Modi launched the Clean India campaign, sanitation workers in different parts of Delhi held protests to highlight their working conditions. (See box)

‘Make in India’ and ‘Clean India’ Can’t Go Together

Modi’s ‘Swacch Bharat’ (Clean India) hype has seen the PM, other politicians and members of India’s corporate first family (Ambani) wielding a broom for the camera.

What is ignored is that filth isn’t the result of some lack of civic sense and hygiene in Indians, as Modi implies. Even as the Clean India hype is at its height, the Modi Government has relaxed a whole set of laws to protect the environment. These measures are bound to promote pollution at the cost of the country’s green cover, taking away forest and cultivable land and making people vulnerable to pollution.

The Modi Government is preparing to take away the rights of the forest gram sabhas to oppose industrial projects by getting rid of the provision of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, that requires the "prior informed consent" of gram sabhas before their forests are cleared for industrial activity.

The Government has reconstituted the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife and in doing so has flouted the Wildlife Protection Act’s requirement for independent experts. The Government has allowed coalmines with a capacity of less than 16 million tons per annum to expand without conducting a public hearing and environmental clearances.

In September 2013, the United Progressive Alliance’s environment ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to reassess the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index, an important criterion for project clearance, while keeping intact the moratorium on new industries in critically-polluted areas.

But even before the review is completed, the ministry under Prakash Javadekar has lifted the moratorium in eight critically polluted areas – Ghaziabad, Indore, Jharsuguda, Ludhiana, Panipat, Patancheru-Bollaram, Singrauli and Vapi.

The Modi Government is also moving to allow industries to come up within 5 km of forest areas and national parks; and to curtail the powers of the National Green Tribunal, India’s only environmental court. The Government is also seeking to review and weaken 5 main environmental laws– the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. The Government is reportedly seeking to replace criminal offences with civil penalties in these laws, ushering in a ‘pay and pollute’ system.

Box matter

Sanitation Workers Protest on 2 October

Even as the Modi government launched a much publicised 'Swacchata Abhiyaan' (cleanliness drive) on 2 October, with the entire media broadcasting stories and visuals of the Prime Minister Modi, Ministers, bureaucrats and celebrities sweeping roads, AICCTU ran campaigns in Delhi stating clearly that no real 'Swacchata Abhiyaan' was possible without ensuring sanitation workers' rights. At the Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra hospital in Narela, AICCTU has been organising a protracted struggle to ensure basic minimum workers' rights for the safai karamcharis employed in the hospital. On 2 October, a hunger strike and protest was organised at the hospital against the forced retrenchment of 22 safai karamcharis who had been working on contract in the hospital and against the systemic violation of sanitation workers' rights. The workers pointed out that even in institutions run by the government, such as government hospitals, exploitation of sanitation workers is rampant. In the Harishchandra hospital, minimum wages are not paid, workers are forced to work for 12 hours every day without being paid any overtime that too without any safety equipment such as gloves. They cannot avail of weekly holidays, and are denied the legally mandated PF and ESI benefits. Moreover, after opening bank accounts for the sanitation workers, the contractor in charge of the sanitation work in the hospital has illegally confiscated the passbooks and cheque books of the workers and is forcibly getting the workers to sign on blank cheques. The hunger strike on 2 October by the sanitation workers on in Narela raised all these issues, even as the workers organised a cleanliness drive on the roads near the Harishchandra hospital.

In JNU, a 'Pledge for Rights' (Adhikaar Shapat) programme was organized on 2 October, highlighting the Modi government's criminal silence on sanitation workers' rights. Even as the JNU administration organized a cleanliness drive as per the diktats of the Modi government, with brand new brooms being provided to the JNU administration officials, around hundred sanitation workers along with several students and teachers participated in the parallel protest with black bands tied around their arms. They read a pledge which demanded an end to contractual labour and an immediate abolition of the horrific practice of manual scavenging not just in the law but also in actual practice. The pledge also demanded implementation of workers' rights such as wages, bonus and PF which have been systematically denied to sanitation workers across the country.

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