An Early Assessment of Brick Kiln Workers’ Struggle in Ranga Reddy District – By Sudhir Katiyar The settlement of wages of brick kiln workers of N Sri Hari Ram Naidu Bhatti at Rs. 277 (£3.20), the officially declared minimum wage for the season, marked …

Walton Pantland

An Early Assessment of Brick Kiln Workers’ Struggle in Ranga Reddy District

– By Sudhir Katiyar

The settlement of wages of brick kiln workers of N Sri Hari Ram Naidu Bhatti at Rs. 277 (£3.20), the officially declared minimum wage for the season, marked a high point in the struggle of brick kiln workers in Ranga Reddy district. To put things in perspective, the going rate hovered between Rs. 170-200 (£2 – £2.40). The payment of Rs. 277, a historic first, marks an almost 35% jump in wages settled.

However the high point does not hide the fact that workers of the remaining 100 odd bhattis, went home without being paid minimum wages. Their wages were settled at the going rate of Rs. 170-200. The 41 persons (including 12 children) of Naidu bhatti had to stay back in Hyderabad for three days before their wages could be settled. It proved logistically impossible to persuade other workers to stay back and file cases. What the team managed was to prepare three more cases where workers have applied for payment of minimum wages, signed the applications, and left for home. These cases will be filed with the Labour Department now.

Whether the payment of minimum wage at one bhatti out of the 100 odd operating in the mandal remains an isolated incident or becomes a trendsetter for remaining bhattis next year, it is too early to say. The answer will depend on what is done between now and the beginning of next season six months later. For its part, Prayas CLRA team is planning to scale up the intervention at least in the immediate environs of Hyderabad – Ranga Reddy, Medak, Nalgonda districts. It is planned to undertake cadre camps in source areas of workers. It is also planned to actively scout for local support systems in the destination areas.

An Early Assessment

At the risk of sounding one’s own trumpet, it could be said that overall the campaign was successful. The issue of low wages was highlighted for the first time. In at least one case, minimum wages got paid. Two elements of the success stand out

• The workers’ strike for two days on 19-20 March

• The formation of Solidarity Committee and the consistent support given by it to workers’ struggle

The workers’ strike was successful beyond imagination. There were questions whether enough preparations were made. In fact the strike call was given amongst much opposition from within the support group. The very success of the strike should answer some of these concerns. What was not expected was the immediate and powerful backlash from the employers! On the second day, workers were left on their own. There was nobody to address and guide the vast gathering.

It is at this juncture, that the support of Solidarity Committee proved crucial. Without its support, the movement would have been finished. Telengana (NOT Bengal or Kerala) is of course the cradle of the left moment in the country. So it was anticipated that once the movement takes off, it will get support. This anticipation was more than fully met. It is this support that helped ride out the political backlash the movement gave rise to. We salute this support and can proclaim that the legacy of K Balagopal   (human rights activist and lawyer) is very much alive in Telengana!

The experience demonstrates one of the main hypotheses underlying the intervention – workers are ready for action, what they need is a committed leadership. This provides the optimism behind the resolve to expand rapidly next year in the immediate environs.

Absence of local field activists: While the workers’ struggle got the support of the civil society in the city, the inability to engage local field activists is a major concern. It is also a road block in planned scaling up. There was only one local activist who was targeted by the employers limiting his effectiveness.

This particular strike has led to wage negotiations and wage hike in a single isolated case. However even if a general wage hike could not be achieved, our belief is that the overall impact has been positive. This was the experience of the Gujarat strike of 2010 that was much bigger but did not lead to wage hike. The union still got strengthened. In that sense, the strikes of unorganized sector workers are fundamentally different from strikes of organized sector workers. In the latter, wage hike is the primary objective. So if that does not happen, there is gloom and backlash against the union.

However for unorganised sector, the biggest gain is the empowerment that results from coming together. It is the first time that workers are coming together and realizing their power. The scenes of euphoria that were witnessed on 19th when a crowd of workers went around in a rally to different brick kilns illustrate this. Some of the workers left everything they were doing and rushed to join the rally. It was as if prisoners have been liberated from a jail. That moment of unity is the biggest achievement of Dundigal strike. It is like a seed that has been sown that will flower and blow over wherever Dundigal workers will go. It will be etched out in the subconscious memory of Odisha brick kiln workers.

We realize fully well that it just a beginning. Long battles loom ahead. But nevertheless, a beginning has got made!

– Sudhir Katiyar is project director at Prayas Centre for Labour Research and Action

 


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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