Workers’ Strike in Reliance Textile Industries, Naroda plant, Ahmedabad – A Report

Highly exploitative wage structure and abysmal working conditions have led the over 5000 workers to strike work in the primary manufacturing plant of Reliance Textile Industries in Naroda, Gujarat, which is at a halt since 2nd February 2012. While the company posted its highest ever turnover of over USD 44 billion and its net profit increased to USD 3.6 billion, workers in the factory (‘dressing up India’ with ‘fabrics which make you feel like a millionaire’ its website says) which started this empire’s journey find their lives getting cheaper by the day. Spread over 120 acres and with assets of over 300 crore, this plant in Naroda Industrial Estate, located in a GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation) near Ahmedabad is India’s ‘most modern textile complex’ (according to the World Bank) and Reliance’s first manufacturing facility set up by Dhirubhai Ambani in 1966. Producing the ‘Only Vimal’ brand and housing sophisticated machinery, it says it is ushering in ‘a new era in fabrics, include suitings, shirtings, home textiles’.

Workers’ Demand List

But the skeletons in its closet are coming tumbling out, as the most of the around 1100 permanent and 4000 contract workers assert their rights and continue their strike which started from the second shift on 2nd February. The company meanwhile responds with police deployment, intimidation, arrest of workers’ leaders and a media campaign which says that the workers have only been miffed for not being allowed to carry mobile phones inside the factory. On the first day of the strike itself, Modi’s willing police forced the striking workers away from the factory gate, and when they assembled in the shamshanghat complex, around 20 minutes away, were forced out of there too. Declaring the strike to be illegal, and arresting the leaders, police has posted itself in the factory gate.

Workers’ Demand List Contd.

According to the workers, for last 20 years (when the company’s profits increased ten-fold), the wages for the workers and karigars has more or less been the same, whereas the salary of the staff increased many times. While the permanent workers earn a paltry Rs. 5000-6000 per month, the contract workers are paid Rs.85-100 per day. No legality of payment in terms of pay slips etc. is maintained, only a voucher is signed. Overtime is paid in single rate, while strict surveillance is maintained and late entry is severely punished. For the last 20-25 years, two anti-worker unions have been there in the plant. One is ‘Majdoor Mahajan’, the union that was originally established by M. K. Gandhi after the Bombay textile strike in the 1920s and has many unions across Gujarat, and the other is ‘Mill Mazdoor Sabha’, affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha. The workers, fed up of both these Unions’ corrupt practices, say how they act as “extended office of the management”. Every three years, a settlement is brokered between these two Unions’ officials and the management, but workers are kept out of it and do not even get to know of the deal brokered. No notice is put up. Four years back, both these Unions even agreed to accept that there will be no recess hour for the workers to have tea. So the workers were henceforth forced to have tea on the way to the bathroom, and in the location of work in an unhygienic and dirty atmosphere, so that work is not disturbed and time ‘better managed’.

Workers strongly emphasise that the reason for the strike is not as the popular media reporting and management statements on it goes, that of the prohibition of mobile phone inside the factory. It is only to delegitimize their struggle, that they are sought to being portrayed as flippant, lazy, like the recent struggle in Yanam was decried as being done by anarchist ‘killer workers’, or how the Maruti Suzuki struggle was sought to be portrayed as ‘innocent young workers under the sway of outside elements’.

The demands and the inhuman working conditions from which they have arisen are clear to the workers. Even as the company site says that it ‘endeavours to create a workplace where every person can realise his or her full potential’, the workers specifically stress on the abusive language of the management staff. Though they have raised their demands again and again earlier, the workers now organized as Reliance Employees Union submitted a 16-point demand list to the management again during the strike, which include a 60% hike in wages and regularization of contract workers, besides double rate overtime, a 20% increase in bonus, increase of daily wage of contract workers to Rs. 200 per day, renewal of fixed salary system, uniform rights for wage board, tea-snacks in the canteen, no fine for 10 minute late entry, to fill accident forms according to procedure, an end to harassment of workers, and an assurance that striking workers will not be fired and no deduction of wage for the strike period is made.

Disregarding all these demands, the management apart from the disinformation campaign, has resorted to police force, arrest and intimidation on the striking workers and their leaders, and are now bringing in temporary workers from outside, paying them Rs. 400-500 per day, to show that the plant is running, though at much below its capacity. Continuing with their anti-worker stance, both the pro-management Unions were against the strike, but the majority of the workers emphasized the strong unity among striking workforce. “We have formed a new union named ‘Reliance Employees Union. The strike will go on till our demands are met”, said Hasmukh Patel, President of the new Union. The workers’ complete disillusionment and anger against Narendra Modi and his ‘vibrant Gujarat development model’, and against the Reliance management is becoming more and more evident, from their own experiences. Sagar Patil, a striking worker, said, “With 9.5 crore, the money we produced, Nita Ambani bought an IPL team. They are making jalsa with our money, but it pains them to even part a few thousands to us who produce.” No trade union, or political group or even the huge number of ‘humanist’ organizations in Gujarat have even made a single statement in favour of the workers till now, but the striking workers continue with their struggle.

Communalism, Business Houses, Citizenship and GUJURATE

Raju J Das

The reason for the power of saffron politics is only partly political. India’s business class is not unconnected to this. The power of saffron politics also raises troubling questions about the sense of citizenship.

Some commentators focus on the political factors behind the success of the saffron electoral-machine. One argument has been that Congress has played a ‘soft’ hindutva (for example, by giving tickets to some disgruntled members of hindutva forces as in Gujarat). Others say that Congress’ secularism has not cut much ice with the voters who fall for the communal propaganda. There is some truth in the political interpretations of electoral success of communal politics. What is neglected in these discussions – both on TV and in newspapers – is often what tends to be neglected in many discussions of India’s polity as such: the role of business. What is the possible connection between the business houses and communal politics? Are the business houses – the so-called corporate citizens – a secular force? This issue needs to be more thoroughly investigated. I can only indicate a few things.

At the national level and in the States, the business class, by ushering in the neoliberal regime, has cleared the ground for a specific kind of electoral politics. This is one which is not oriented towards development: here development is seen in the sense of development for/of the poor, a process which is not primarily based on the idea that development of the poor can happen only when the business class prospers, by the so-called trickle-down mechanism. By forcing all political parties to take the free-market approach, by forcing them to pursue neo-liberalism, India’s business class (in solidarity with its brothers/sisters in the advanced world) have contributed to the erasure of any substantive difference between them. In terms of economic policies there is practically little difference between Congress and BJP. Even, the Left parties are not further behind in terms of following neo-liberal policies. When economic policies stop being the differentiators of political parties, when all parties pursue more or less similar pro-business policies, they choose cheap identity politics to divide the electorate and win elections: hindutva, regionalism, linguistic identity, caste-ism, etc. By making jobs scarce, by making it difficult for ordinary toiling masses to earn a decent livelihood, neoliberalism creates the usual kind of jealousy and spirit of nasty competition among labouring people, which take religious (and other) form. The rise of the religious right in the last 15 years or so and the rise of corporate power under neoliberalism are not isolated from one another. Let’s now come to Gujarat more specifically, which combines religious politics and neoliberalism.

Modi & co. has used the veneer, the appearance, of a specific style of ‘development’ and has resorted tohindutva to sell his communalism agenda and to benefit his business-class mentors. The veneer of development is about, among other things, bijlisadak and pani. It is also about attracting industries and creating some jobs. It is about creating what can be called Guju-rate (the Gujurat-style rate of economic growth). Behind all this lies the fact that business houses remain attracted to Gujarat and invest there with huge subsidies from the government which increase their profit and competitive position vis a vis businesses located elsewhere. They have poured in millions of rupees in the last five years. They like Gujarat’s resources which are happily made available by its governing regime. They like Gujarat’s labour, made quiet by the decisive and strong regime – it is for nothing that Modi is seen as the CEO of Gujurat – a regime that boasts of the lowest person-days lost in labour conflict among all the States. The good business climate of Gujarat making Guju-rate possible is created by Modi’s ‘determined’ and ‘strong’ character. The business houses enjoy a cosy relation with the regime. And this happens, despite the fact that the regime is widely seen as one that was complicit in the 2002 carnage of a given section of Indian citizens on religious grounds. The idea of so-called corporate social responsibility does not worry the business houses at all. Their business is the business of doing business. If business requires doing business with a regime that is communal and fascistic, so be it. It does not matter. To the extent that the business houses have been heavily investing in the State in their own interest which the regime boasts of – whether this ‘development’ helps the rural and urban poor in any significant and economically and ecologically sustainable manner is another matter (just look at social-human indicators of development in this State) – and to the extent that the ‘development’ veneer as well as communal propaganda in the electoral campaign have helped the regime return to power, the business houses cannot be seen as unconnected to the political success of the regime.

In addition to this material ‘support’ – one must also know where Modi got the money to fight elections, who funded Modi’s communal agenda – there is also an ideological support for the man and his regime which came from business houses. Ratan Tata has said: Modi will not have to attract people to Gujarat, it will be stupid if you are not here. Anil Ambani was all praise for his Modi Bhai, whose various achievements he counts including the Narmada (as if all the fight against the Narmada by India’s civil society by Medha Patkar and others was non-sense). It is this sort of business-inspired ideological support for Modi – that is indeed used during electoral campaign – that has propped up Modi in ‘popular’ imagination. This requires a detailed analysis.

If the business forces are really for a country free from communalism, have they ever seriously considered an investment strike – at least a threat of it? A slight indication of the trouble of class politics in a State (look at what happened in West Bengal earlier) makes the business class look elsewhere. But communal politics? It can survive with it much better than class politics perhaps. In part because communal politics helps the business class divide any possible opposition to itself from the workers’ side, and because communal politics produces the sort of rightwing decisiveness that obliterates any possibility of anti-business opposition, business houses tend to enjoy a comradely relation with the communal regime.

Communalism thrives on a specific irrational politics of rejection: the idea that a person will reject his/her fellow citizens who are different from him/her in terms of religion. India’s business houses  – like global business houses that enjoyed doing business with South Africa’s erstwhile apartheid regime – do not mind doing business with a communal regime. How will the same business houses respond if the consumers start rejecting their products – a Reliance mobile or  a Tata car, for example – because they are associated with a regime which spreads hate and the politics of rejection of the religious other?

This then leads me to my second point. This is about us as ordinary citizens. What does the success of communal politics (including Modi’s electoral win) say about us as citizens? What does it say about our democracy and the institutions of the state that are supposed to protect the secular fabric of the constitution? How can a person kill someone next to her just because she may have different religious views? How can one believe in the lie created by a few people that one is worse off because of his/her religion? What has happened to our education system – indeed our whole ideological apparatus – that is no longer able to encourage citizens of different religious identities to live in peace? What is it that makes citizens believe Modi-type character when he treats every criticism of him as a criticism of an entire region/province (e.g. Gujarat)? What is it that makes one feel proud to be a citizen of a country when her fellow citizens are treated as second class citizens? What has happened to our sense of citizenship? The quality of one’s citizenship depends on how one’s fellow citizens are treated. If they are treated (and killed and tortured) as second class citizens by a state of whose citizen one is, then does one’s citizenship not stand devalued? And what can we say about the entire set of state apparatuses, including the judiciary, that has allowed the gradual process of capture of parts of the state and civil society by communal forces, the forces that live by spreading the idea of violence on religious grounds?

Let’s not be obsessed with explaining the rise of these communal forces by the failure of the Congress, the premier party of Indian business houses. Both are elements of a system, and both of them have to be explained by the dynamics of the political-economy system as such. The rise of the communal power is not merely an electoral rise. Therefore, to fight against them is not to be merely an electoral fight. The fact that the communal forces have carved out a space within our polity as such, within the state itself, and within civil society, has to be explained. In this explanation, the silent role of the business houses and changing ideological nature of the sense of our citizenship must be understood, and the business houses must be made to reconsider how they deal with communal regimes. They must be asked to take side: are they on the side of communal forces or secular forces?

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada.