The Past, Present and Future of Workers' Struggles: Concluding Remarks on Special Edition


This May, Bodhi presented a special edition on workers’ struggles, aimed at understanding the dynamics of labour issues and what insights a history of labour struggles can offer us in the current scenario. Over thirteen articles examined a range of workers’ struggles and various aspects of the labour movement. Rich in content, the special edition leaves one think about the important points that the authors were trying to emphasize and its potential in influencing us to carry forward the struggles for dignity and justice. There are some cross cutting themes across the articles. We look at some important points from the special edition here.

Workers’ Demands and Labour Rights

The International Labour Organisation’s current slogan is for Decent Work. If we look into the history of May Day and various workers’ struggles, we can find that nothing much have been changed since, from the demands of workers in this regard even now. As Sarin puts it, the demands for reduced working hours came because of the inhuman working conditions where vulnerable populations like women and children had to work for longer hours, even leading to their early death. In India also most strikes were called against the inhuman working conditions. The warpers of Ahmedabad textile industry first began their strike demanding the ‘plague bonus’ which was not allotted to them at the time of epidemic outbreak (Sahil). Manual scavenging is one of the most hazardous occupations (Samuel) which led to the formulation of legislations. In fact the premature death among the sewage workers is reported to be high. In the informal sector, migrant labourers work in hazardous conditions without any occupational safety which affects the overall health and wellbeing of the workers. In most cases children follow their parents to the work places, putting their future in jeopardy. The prospects of unionization in these informal settings is sparse and needs to be addressed. The unique case of Air India Pilots’ strike also resonates with the larger demands of workers like better career prospects, timely payment and equal treatment (Divya). Therefore a history of workers’ struggles is also the history of fight for decent work. The question is how to channelize the struggles forward.

State and the Workers’ Struggles in India

State intervention in India towards labour was mostly through enacting legislations and has a history that dates back to the colonial era. The Indian Factory Law 1891, which reduced the working hours for women and children was one of the initial legislations in the colonial period. In independent India, Factories Act of 1948 enacted 9 hours working day with maximum of 48 hours a week to all sections of workers (Sarin). The articles show that state intervention in labour issues over the years tweaking it to comply with the changing economic trends. In the current scenario, the role of state is mainly ‘undoing of the labour protection for creation of favourable investment environment for capital’. Suramya argues that “Labour welfare measures and other policy interventions by the neo-liberal state follow the same colonial method of reducing the contradictions between labour and capital”.

State intervention in prohibiting manual scavenging through The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, however displays a different aspect of the legislation i.e. policy implementation. The legislation envisaged the abolition of manual scavenging progressively over the years. However, Samuel argues that the legislation was not comprehensive enough to address the occupational safety of workers as a whole because of the sheer neglect of the ‘sewer workers’ from protection. Also the effective implementation of the legislation is dependent on the local governments. Effective implementation become a problem here because it is mostly dependent upon the financial capacity of the local governments and the effective intervention in introducing new technologies, training for the workers and rehabilitation of the manual scavengers. However, RTIs reveal that no effective intervention had been initiated even in the urban local governments with huge financial turn over like Mumbai, Chennai etc. The author therefore is skeptical about the progressive legislation to be effective enough to dismantle the unruly practices.


Vijoo Krishnan shows us how state interventions that are not necessarily labour related can affect the backbone of the rural economy and the agricultural labourers. Examining amendments to The Land Acquisition Act Amendment Bill, 2015 brought by the BJP-led NDA government, he argues that the amendments facilitate smooth takeover of land for corporate profiteering and real-estate speculation. He also exclaims that in the process, the government has in effect reinstated the most draconian provisions of the Colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894 removing the necessity to seek the consent of the farmers and other dependents on land as well as done away with the Social Impact Assessment altogether.

Thus the authors point out that state interventions in the labour issues could be understood from various aspects like changing labour legislations, its implementation and the intersectional impact of other legislations, like LARR 2015, on labour.

Organizing Workers: Challenges, Lessons and Future Directions

Workers’ unrest and their organizing is mainly ignited by the long term exploitation and the inhuman working conditions. Though organized sector is known for its trade unions, over time the workplace unions and national federations are weakened. In the unorganized sector while some groups are able to organize better, others are still searching for a common ground to unionize and fight for. For example, the fisher folk struggles in Kerala have took off well under the leadership of KIFWF. Siddik and Hameeda observes that even though religion played a major role in early unionizing of the fisher folks, it’s only after the recognition of the fact that, not identity but only class based organizing of fisher folks could sustain the workers’ resistance. Unlike fisher folk struggles, the condition of migrant labourers in the city is very different. Large scale interstate migrants work in awful working conditions. While some interstate migrant workers are self-employed, others are employed through middlemen for shorter periods of time. During the period of work, most of the workers are indebted to the middlemen or the employer which prevents the workers from raising their voice demanding their rights. Only in cases where their life and livelihood are threatened do people unionize to protest. Unionizing migrant workers to fight for better living and working conditions are also difficult due to the language barrier and lack of local acceptance that the migrant labours receive (Sampath).

The story of organizing workers is also the story of controlling or suppressing workers’ unrest. All through the history, the ruling elites have tried to control the labour unrest through state repression or psychological intervention. While the fisher folk struggle and struggles of the farmers in Kuttanad are some examples where state repression through force is manifested, the Ahmedabad Mill Strike clearly explore the concerted effort in controlling the labour forces using Gandhi and his psychological control over the workers using ‘righteousness’ in the workers’ demands (Sahil). Psychological interventions to contain workers’ unrest can be seen in the current era through the propaganda machinery. For example Vijoo Krishnan argue that the BJP government led by Narendra Modi is vigorously pushing forward the land grab for corporate looting and that the government is trying to control the criticisms or unrest using the national media and the BJP membership to spearhead a mass campaign in favour of the amendments.


Challenges to unionize the workers for their rights are myriad and history has lessons to give. It is in this context that Vijay Prashad probe into the some of the ways in which new struggles could be carried forward. He observes that there are three areas of potential in which revitalizing of working class power could be harnessed. First one is to counter the ‘neoliberal win over arguments’ by occupying the cultural spaces, by distinguishing the critique of neo-liberalism with society’s overall development aspects. Second, to address the issues of gender and caste that run deep in the agricultural crisis. He argues that “the Left has to deepen its role in the “social” fights, because it is in these arenas that broad questions of rural power are being contested. AIDWA’s interventions in Khap Panchayat and the historical struggle of the Kudumbashree workers (Daly) can be considered as an inspiration in this regard. And thirdly he argues that since the factories or production points are no more points of robust politics, the workers’ energy have been shifted to the points of consumption. Therefore, the fights over housing, water and power, sanitation and safety becomes important and the left should take up the struggles.

However, while struggles based on identities like gender and caste could be considered as new arenas of workers’ struggles, one should also mull over the repressive potential of the state when the struggles are fragmented. Failing to create a broader class based alliance would be fatal in such situations. Vishak Shankar observes this while reading the middle class acceptance of different struggles. He argues that while the state apparatuses like Judiciary decide the worthiness of different forms of struggles, the middle class acceptance of the struggles are mostly based on the identities (which helps fragment the fights for justice), a process through which some struggles are accepted while others are sidelined. The example of fisher folk struggles has lot to contribute to the thought of the need for larger class based alliance.

Leaving the readers to their thoughts, we are concluding our special edition on workers’ struggles along with our deepest gratitude to all the authors and readers of the special edition.