The PF stir: The bell is tolling, but is anyone listening?

The PF stir: The bell is tolling, but is anyone listening?

Submitted by alvin on Wed, 2016-04-20 20:25 The unprecedented and violent protest by ready-made garment workers in Bangalore on April 18 and 19 has taken both the government and society at large by surprise. At a time when fierce labour agitations were considered to be a thing of the past, what was seen on the arterial roads of Karnataka capital reminded one about the heyday of trade unionism. Ironically, the agitating workers in Bangalore were not even unionized and their agitation was not directed by any leadership.The protest was against the union government’s decision to impose certain restrictions on the withdrawal money from employees’ provident fund.  While the decision affected workers of all categories, the agitation in Bangalore was orchestrated only by ready-made garment workers, whose number, according to some estimates, is more than half a million mark in the city alone. The PF withdrawal issue might have been considered to be too small by the government. But it was not so for the workers. And that says a lot about the policymakers’ ability to perceive and appreciate the problems facing the working class. For these workers, whom one academic has described in the Indian Journal of Labour Economics as “permanently temporary workers”, the paltry sum accrued in their provident fund account is the only source of security in their lives, otherwise full of uncertainties and insecurities. A large number of studies, including one sponsored by the International Labour Organisation, has highlighted poor working and living conditions of garment workers. The government’s move to allow only partial withdrawal of the PF money was therefore seen by them as a direct attack on their only source of financial security. The importance of that these small sums hold to the household management of the ordinary working class is something which the decision-makers in the government completely failed to take note of. The government obviously needs to have a better mechanism of understanding the kind of lives that the working class has been forced to lead in the post-liberalization Bangalore. Even if the Union Government had consulted and educated all the stakeholders adequately before taking this crucial decision, the unfortunate turn of events in Bangalore could have been averted.The state government wasted no time in blaming the union government as the workers hit the road and the situation was threatening to go out of control. No doubt, the decision relating to the PF withdrawal was entirely the Union Government’s. However, one thing that the state government cannot hide is the fact that the labour welfare is an issue in which the state too has important role to play. In the state cabinet, Labour is never considered a plum or important portfolio. The portfolio of Labour is generally given to a junior or less important politician. This year, the Karnataka budget allocated a sum of around Rs 2,000 crore to the department but much of which would go to running Industrial Training Institutes, leaving very little to the labour welfare measures.The current Congress Government in Karnataka swears by its concern for social justice and claims to have hiked the outlay for social welfare substantially in the last three years that it has been in power. However, going by the strong sense of alienation among large sections of working class, which was obviously behind the spontaneous and intense uprising of the garment workers, shows that there is something obviously wrong with the welfare policies of the state government. The turn of events for the past two days and the factors that have led to these events should alert the state government to re-examine its social welfare strategy.The controversial notification has now been withdrawn, but the problems that the working class has been facing in the new economy seem to stay.Author:A Narayana is a faculty member at Azim Premji University Bangalore