Humans were no more than horses

Spring is here. So is this year’s International Labour Day. Historically, the event dates back to 1886. Since then, global organisations and trade unions have been fighting tooth and nail for the protection of workers’ rights and their welfare. However, the labour force in India and abroad is still facing issues and anxieties. The end to their agony and quandary is yet to be seen nearby. The problems of indecent wages, delayed settlements, unemployment, scattered agrarian workforce, social insecurity, stress, work-life balance and the like still vex our workforce.

Although the inspiration towards the celebration of this yearly event was drawn from the infamous Haymarket Riots, the day was formally observed since May 01, 1890. Here, Haymarket story deserves a mention. In 1884, The American Federation of Organised Trades & Labour Unions demanded an eight-hour a day working time. Earlier, industrial companies viz factories and manufacturing units used to force labourers to work for as many as fifteen hours a day. The labourers performed a widespread strike. However, the peaceful strike whirled into violence when a bomb was hurled at police. The explosion resulted in several casualties—the police and the civilians being equally affected.

The underlying lava that silently led to such a violent outcome was the rise of the industrialisation in Europe, America, etc. During this era, the workers were the most exploited. They were compelled to work for long hours per day without halt. Their jobs were mechanical, physically demanding and pivotal. The working conditions were brutal, unfavourable and precarious. The work was rigorous. The personal lives of these workers were the most disturbed. There was no time for fun and family. Man was born to work and live to work and die in the department. Humans were no more than horses. The famous watchword coined by Robert Owen in the first half of the 19th century ”Eight hours’ labour; eight hours’ recreation; eight hours’ rest” was still a dream far from actuality. Similarly, many powerful rulers and writers had, by now, advocated the importance of regulated working hours. Karl Marx, for example, in his book Das Kapital writes “By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production, not only produces a deterioration of human labour-power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour-power itself.”

These episodes incited worldwide protests. Lockdowns and agitations were carried out across Europe, America, Britain and many other countries. Consequently, by the beginning of the 20th century, labour movement saw fresh developments and this time they were for good. After World War I, the preamble in the constitution of the United Nations Peace Conference mentioned: “Conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled.” As a result, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed in 1919. Its objective is to function for the improvement in the standards of living of the breadwinners across the globe.

The wave of a decent labour atmosphere floated to Asia too. In India, the International Labour Day or May Day was celebrated in the erstwhile Madras in 1923. It was commemorated by The Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on Marina Beach in Madras. A red flag was hovered on this day which is synonymous with the May Day in India. Towards the tail end of the 19th century, trade unions began to emerge in India. The first organised labour union in India was Bombay Mill Hands Association established in 1890. Today, there are more than 16000 registered labour federations in India representing more than 10 million workers. These unions work for the economic wellbeing of workers in a myriad of sectors including Banking, Insurance, Services, IT, so on. As a result of the tireless efforts of some leaders and workers’ coalitions, the quality and standard of work atmosphere have changed for good.

The collective efforts of brotherhoods, governments and judiciary have come a long way in the refinement of the life of workers. The days of forceful 15 hours of work a day are long gone. Today, a worker lives a decent life. Jobs are secured by laws. The work environment is regulated. Yet, we have a lot to achieve. Yet, we have a spectrum of issues and problems that need to be dealt with. The global movements were able to prepare the ground for decent work-life, humane treatment, respect, participation in decision making and so on. The unions were able to clinch increments, vacancies, emoluments, bonuses, etc. However, there are some issues that are still spoiling the smell.

Problems faced by the workforce today

1. Unemployment: In India every year around 12 million people enter the workforce. As of 2015, India’s workforce stood at 470 million. This number is larger than the population of the US. To cater to the job requirements of such a huge number, our country has failed to create jobs. Unemployment has surged to 5.4% in December 2019. There is no end to the burden of empty pockets.

2. Delay in wage settlement: The periodic wage settlement in our country is always delayed, lingered on and profited from. It is the workforce that suffers. For example, the 11th Bipartite Settlement for Bank employees, which was due on November 01, 2017, and valid for three years, is yet to be implemented. This inordinate delay has put the lives of 15 lakh bank employees in unending discomfort. The decision has been falling prey to political games. Similarly, there are other sectors where decent and timely wages are delayed and denied. The war revolves around wages. Companies strive for ’Subsistence wage’; unions demand ’Living wage’—a decent wage for workers— and the government strives to find the middle ground: ’Fair wage’. It is the common worker who is at the receiving end.

3. Work-life imbalance: The labour movement was started to get rid of long working hours with extreme drudgery. This is past. Today, there are some sectors of our workforce where people still work for long hours. These sectors belong to private companies, PSUs and the like. This circumstance has resulted in a disturbance in the work-life balance of millions of jobbers in banks, insurance sector, IT, etc. It is not only long hours that haunt them; the pressure of the bosses in and outside the organisation, work stress, achievement of targets, etc add salt to the injury.

4. Unorganised agricultural workforce: Farming sector is still the biggest contributor to the workforce of our country. This sector is also the biggest contributor to our national produce. More than 40% of our population is engaged in agriculture. Of all the manpower, half is employed in agriculture. But, this sector has the distinction of being the most scattered and the most unorganised. Moreover, who enters and who leaves the workforce, remains unaccounted for given the fact that agricultural activities are mainly carried out by family members in rural areas. This is technically called ’Disguised unemployment’. No concrete efforts have been made to save the workers of this sector.

5. Contractual jobs: This is one area of concern that has emerged lately. It concerns us the most. For instance, government departments, colleges, universities hire people on contract. They are given one-fourth of the salary that a permanent jobber would normally draw. But they are made to work three times more. This is sheer injustice and misuse of the unemployment crisis of our country. The qualified, capable and competent workforce is abused in this manner.

Postscript: International Labour Day is not just any other holiday. For workers—both blue-collar and white-collar—this day holds utmost significance. It is time to stand united. It’s the time to raise our concerns and voices and make those at the helm of affairs listen to our voices. Each and every individual worker should do his bit towards this end. This is the time to relive the essence of this day. This is the time to give meaning to the actions of those who had started the movement in the late 1880s. Their efforts should not go in vain. It is our collective responsibility to render meaning to this day. We are important. Without us, nothing would prosper. We make the difference. Let’s stand together on this day and make a grand display of our consonance and congruence.

(The author, an MBA, works in the middle management of a PSU Bank. The views are personal.)