Workers in India have suffered a lot in recent Covid times, particularly all the workers, migrants or others, who do not have security of employment and a regular salary. Nutrition levels for most of them were inadequate earlier too, but now these have suffered a further steep decline. Access to all other basic needs has also been adversely affected for most workers, including self-employed workers.

Hence there is a strong need to make available free food and to continue the scheme for this which was earlier announced by the union government for a few months up to November 2020. This has also been demanded on the basis of surveys and reviews of the existing situation by several organizations working with the poor  and by food rights groups. Then there is also the additional and equally well-justified demand for substantial cash transfers in the accounts of  vulnerable workers to help them tide over these difficult times. While the primary responsibility for this is clearly with the government , this should be supported by various philanthropic organizations, voluntary organizations and individual efforts. There are some very inspiring examples already, but we need many more. Trade unions can play a helpful role in facilitating this timely help.

Of course all this is only in the context of immediate relief needed for exceptionally difficult times. The more basic need is to promote essential rights of workers for all times. Unfortunately these exceptionally difficult times have also seen a roll-back of some hard-fought rights of workers in the name of labor reforms. While the so-called reforms cover a wide ground and there may be some new good or potentially good features as well, but the entire exercise as a whole has rightly been criticized by most trade unions, other labor organizations  and most opposition parties as being harmful for the interests of workers.

Hence these are exceptionally important times in terms of meeting immediate essential needs of a very large number of workers facing very great difficulties, as well as for defending longer-term rights of workers in the face of growing legal setbacks and the hardening of actual field/factory-level situations in which rights have to be defended. Growing poverty makes people more susceptible to accepting exploitative conditions, and this is a clear problem in the existing and emerging situation.

In order to meet these growing challenges, a wider role and vision of trade unions should be envisaged. Although recent legal changes and existing realities seek to restrict the role and empowerment of most trade unions, the unions should respond to the  challenge with growing unity in a very creative way so that the trade unions are strengthened even in difficult times and at the same time various aspects of welfare of workers can be enhanced. In the emerging difficult challenges a strong effort should be to establish the unity of all unions and labor organizations, leaving out only those who are seen to be collaborating  with exploiter sections. This unity should ignore smaller differences and competing interests as the need just now is not for scoring points over each other or getting ahead of others but for  broad-based unity. What is more, the role of  trade unions should be much  wider in terms of  involvement with many-sided welfare of workers.

At a time when many skilled workers are losing jobs, is it not possible for trade union leaders with their wider contacts to help these workers to start some enterprises of their own in which their skills are well utilized? Scaling this up, possibilities of workers coops being formed to revive sick and closed units can also be explored. Apart from utilizing such more obvious skills, the hidden skills of many talented persons in worker colonies, particularly women can be harnessed for creative enterprises, all the more so in places where a captive neighborhood market for good quality, low priced self-made products is available. For example, if good baking skills are available, or can be easily imparted, an enterprise of mainly women for bakery products and processed food  can be started. But this is just one example, there are so many possibilities, from notebooks to snacks to hygiene/protective products to garments.

Secondly, as private school fees can be a heavy burden for workers, cannot trade unions intervene in government schools in or near worker colonies to improve these schools to such an extent that private schools are not needed? Or as an alternative, can trade unions motivate educated youth of worker households to start schools on their own which charge lower fees than private schools while at the same time providing decent jobs to worker households, perhaps even making a modest saving for other important work? These schools can provide more value-based education of commitment to justice, equality, peace and environment protection.

Thirdly, as health costs can be quite crippling for many worker households despite existence of government supported health facilities, trade unions can motivate socially committed doctors to start clinics and hospitals in worker colonies to provide very rational, good and low-cost health care including preventive care, while at the same time striving for improvement of government health facilities.

Liquor, tobacco and other intoxicants take a heavy toll on the health and meager resources of many worker households. Trade unions should support a women led anti-liquor and anti-intoxicant movement in all their units and worker colonies. Cultural activities should be organized in evenings and workers motivated to join and contribute so that evenings become creative and joyful for all instead of being ruined in alcoholism.

Such a women-led social reform effort should also work with continuity  against other social evils like domestic violence, gender and other discrimination, unnecessary ceremonial expenses, dowry system etc.

Such a broad-based involvement with many-sided welfare of workers can provide much-needed relief to workers in difficult times while also strengthening the support-base of trade unions.

Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist, has reported extensively on labor issues and also  received the Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi award  for reporting on these issues.


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