Update on Ajmer brick kiln workers struggle

While on 11th, the struggle seemed poised to continue for long, the very next day, the owners reached a settlement. While the wage hike granted was minimal – it ranged from 5% to 20% across different category of workers – the very fact that the owners were forced to sign a collective wage agreement during the agitation is victory for the Union.

So what brought about this turn in fortune! The union had decided to continue the strike with renewed vigor yesterday night after the failure of the first round of negotiations. A large contingent of the Union members then went to the local police station where the case had been filed for the violence perpetrated on a worker by the kiln owner. This forced the police to immediately file a First Information Report against the sons of the employer. The employers were also present there as they had come to get the accused released and file a cross FIR. The filing of FIR by a worker for being beaten up by the employer, a routine incident, is a historical first.

Brick Kiln Workers discuss the wage offer

Brick Kiln Workers discuss the wage offer

The workers collected in much larger numbers at the meeting ground in the morning.

Strike continued at all the kilns. The employers had all contacted their labor contractors to come for a round of negotiation. The Union decided to keep itself away from negotiations. This was a deliberate tactics as the very presence of Union activists enraged the owners who blamed it for the reversal in the power dynamics. This is again a tactics that Union has adopted in previous struggles in Gujarat also where it does not sign a direct agreement but lets the contractors take the lead in getting a written agreement, sometimes even on individual kiln basis. The team of the labor contractors went for negotiations while the Union prepared for the workers’ rally to the Collector office. Then the contractors requested that the rally be put off for couple of hours. The workers waited for two hours and then started the rally. The rally route passed through the place where negotiations were being carried out. The contractors and the owners came out and said that they have reached a settlement and it was being written. The rally then turned back to the meeting ground where the terms of the settlement were read out to the workers. There was naturally enough disappointment amongst the pathera workers who were given a very modest increase. However the Union persuaded everybody to accept the settlement as its own analysis of achieving a higher settlement was not hopeful.

The owners gave two reasons for not being able to grant a higher wage settlement. First they said that they had granted a high wage increase – 20 to 30% – last year. Secondly they said that the agitation was confined to some 15 kilns in one side of Ajmer. It did not cover the whole market. It left out some kilns that continued to supply the market where lower wages are prevalent. They also cited cheap supply from another state for depressing brick rates in the market. There was some truth in both these assertions. The Union assessed that the ability of the single kiln owners to accommodate a large wage hike was limited.

The positive from the agitation, besides the collective wage agreement, is the conscientization of the large mass of workers who participated in the agitation and led it. The workers mostly belong to the ‘baori’ caste, a Scheduled Caste that has a history of militancy. It is a denotified  criminal tribe that now survives primarily on wage labor. The agitation led to identification of the Union by the workers as their own. This is potentially a very positive development. If the Union is able to build on it, it can create a very powerful workers movement that would have ramifications beyond just brick kiln work. Another positive aspect was Union’s handling of the labor contractors. There exist natural contradictions between the interest of the workers and the labor contractors. The collective agreement reached by the contractors would have not been accepted by the workers unless Union backed it. Role of labor contractors in movement of informal workers is critical. From its vast past experience, the Union has been able to fine tune a strategy of keeping both these sections together while advancing workers’ movement.

The title of this piece is from a couplet by the famous Urdu poet Faiz. I am sure I have quoted it before, but it is worth quoting again as we savour the sweet smell of victory.

So have the people fought the oppression down the ages
Neither their custom is new, nor our struggle
So have we bloomed flowers in the fire
Neither their defeat is new, nor our victory

Sudhir Katiyar

On behalf of the team of Rajasthan Int Bhatta Majdoor Union who must be named at this juncture

Madan, Shaitan, Ratan, Shantilal, Khemraj, Prakash, Ramchandra, Ramesh, Meena, Atul, Goodwin, Balwant, Sudhir, Baldev, Surajmal, Lal Bahadur, Mukesh, Babulal, Sukhdeo, Mishri Lal, Ghisa ram, Ajayapal

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.

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