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Millions of Workers in India Protest Labor Reforms

Indian policewomen detain an activist of Socialist Unity Center of India during a daylong nationwide strike in Kolkata, India, Sept. 2, 2015.
Indian policewomen detain an activist of Socialist Unity Center of India during a daylong nationwide strike in Kolkata, India, Sept. 2, 2015.

Millions of workers in India held a one-day nationwide strike Wednesday to protest government plans for sweeping labor reforms that protesters say will put jobs at risk and hurt ordinary people. The shutdown highlights the hurdles the government is encountering in implementing economic reforms.

About 150 million workers shut down several industries, coal and mining operations, and state-run banks. They demanded the government roll back plans to implement stricter labor laws and scrap its program to sell stakes in some state-owned industries.

As taxi and autorickshaw drivers joined the strike, transport also went off the roads in major cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. Schools and colleges shut down in several cities.

Sporadic clashes between police and activists were reported in the eastern city of Kolkata.

Job security

The strike was spearheaded by 10 major trade unions, who say the government’s planned overhaul of labor laws will risk the welfare of millions of workers in the country and lessen job security.

Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, told VOA they are protesting what he called the government’s pro-business policies.

“Without any consultation and any discussion they want to bring new legislation against the laborers and against the trade unions, which is one-sided just to support employers and the capitalists,” said Reddy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mounted a huge campaign to implement business-friendly reforms to attract foreign investment and turn India into a manufacturing hub.

Two bills relating to labor have been drafted, but they have not yet been introduced in parliament.

Discussions with trade unions have stalled on issues such as retrenchment, closure of factories, formation of unions and a hike in minimum wage to $250 a month.

Seeking consensus

The most contentious clause relates to permitting companies employing less than 300 workers to lay them off without government approval. The current cap is 100.

The strike demonstrated that bringing trade unions and opposition parties on board to change labor laws will be extremely tough. The opposition already has stalled key tax and land reforms in the upper house of parliament, where the government lacks a majority.

Satish Misra at the Observer Research Foundation said the government faces a tough task ahead. “Problem is labor reforms need a lot more consensus and the government has not been able to bring different stakeholders on board.”

The World Bank says India has one of the world’s most rigid labor markets. That has discouraged manufacturing, which accounts for 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.