Radical Ruptures Emerging from Global Wageworkers

The following notes were the basis of a contribution to the internationalist communist summer meeting organized by TPTG, Underground Tunnel and friends, July 11–17, 2017, in Greece.

The recent past entreats us to look towards the future. We look at ourselves as a part of the seven billion who inhabit the earth, and our efforts as part of ongoing efforts by these seven billion in shaping the present and coming times. Our ancestors are ancestors of seven billion, and our descendants will be descendants of seven billion, hopefully. We try to find radical ruptures in the present, accept the gifts of our ancestors that are useful, and to let go of baggage that are best left behind. We are living in an era of unique and together human beings—these two aspects being the source of all creativity and activity among the seven billion.

In a time when ongoing social processes have opened up the possibility of complete annihilation of our (and other) species, activities among wageworkers are fostering an optimistic counter-force. This emergence of global wageworkers has been accompanied by increasing social death and murder faced by peasants, artisans, and the almost complete extinction of non-market societies. These sections have existed in great numbers in Asia, Africa and Latin America till recently, just as they once were in Europe and North America. However, with the introduction of electronics in the production processes, their desperation has spiraled up, and continues to increase. Whether this desperation has led to widespread slaughter between these sections in the guise of different identities, or whether they have taken to killing themselves in alarming numbers, the signs are blared clearly in the mass media for the world to watch. A peasant who kills himself is pitiable for civic consciousness and sets the discourse for welfare, whereas one that channels their rage outwards is considered a menace to be weeded out. Hence, questions such as which factions are at loggerheads in Syria, the dynamics of new regimes, or what welfare measures states have planned to make the social death of these sections slower are all dead ends. What is usually discussed as “national/international affairs” is bereft of any considerations of the social questions, and is more or less akin to betting on horse-races, replacing horses with nato, Russia, Rojava and so on. The terrain of these debates is statism, and hence to be avoided.

What adds to the increasing irrelevance of the statist tendencies today is that sections which found them suitable—professionals such as doctors, intellectuals, teachers, journalists, artists, lawyers, writers and others—have become workers—medical workers, education workers, research workers, art and design workers, legal workers, etc. Thus, by and large, a social strata which, a hundred years ago, claimed to have the capability to provide their intellectual leadership to the working class, and continued doing so in the period that followed, has shrunk. This division of labour between the intellectual and the physical—so essential to the functioning of wage labour–based commodity production—replicated itself even in dominant expressions of resistance to it in the past century. In the present scenario, workers often say, “We will listen to everyone, but decide upon ourselves,” and request, “Please don’t give unsolicited wisdom.” Irrespective of which strain it belongs to, statism is becoming untenable and irrelevant. The question of consciousness, so central to the left theorists of the last century, has withered away.

In its stead, coordinated, mutually inspiring exchanges between persons who are unique and together emerge as the basis of the transformations. The audacity of these exchanges is clearly seen by the amount of effort that managements put in attempting to break co-ordination among workers.

In 2011, in the [Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.] factory in Manesar, there were 950 permanent workers, 500 trainees, 200 apprentices, 1,200 workers hired through contractor companies for work in the direct production process, and around 1,500 workers hired through contractor companies for various auxiliary functions… All around discontent coalesced into a sudden stoppage of work. On 4 June 2011, when A and B shift workers were together in the factory, they took over the entry and exit points… It has been observed that important questions dealing with life, time, relations, representation, articulation and factory life were brought to the fore by the de-occupations of June and October 2011.

In the words of a worker: “Inside the Maruti Suzuki factory, 7–14 October was the best time. No tension of work! No agonizing about the hours of entry and exit! No stress over catching a ride in a bus! No fretting about what to cook! No sweating over whether dinner has to be eaten at 7 or at 9 pm today! No anguishing over what day or date it is! We talked a lot with each other about things that were personal. All of us drew closer to each other than we have ever been before, during these seven days.”

These activities by workers frequently overstep different kinds of individual and social differentiations, e.g., factory boundaries.

Shatrughan was a worker hired through a contractor at the spm Autocomp Systems factory in imt Manesar. He had been working since 3 years as a helper [considered to be the least skilled category of worker]. At 4 am on 6 April 2017, he got caught in a conveyor belt. When the workers took him out and took him to the hospital, he was declared dead upon arrival. The police were informed by the management, and they arrived to look after formalities and left. As soon as the police left, workers from Honda, Maruti Suzuki, Munjal Showa, fmi Automotive, Endurance Technologies, Bellsonica Autocomponents, etc., factories entered the spm factory. Production in the factory remained halted all day, and even for the night shift. This also affected production in the industrial area. The police were called. Management was forced to offer compensations.

A similar report from January 2012:

This is exactly what needs to be done! A Maruti Suzuki, Manesar, worker hired through a contractor company was on duty on 13th January 2012, when he received a call from a factory, Allied Nippon. Apparently, there had been a fire in the factory, in which one worker sustained burn injuries. The company had taken him to Sapna Nursing Home in Aliyar (the nearby village), and the doctor there said that he would be discharged by evening. Both legs of the worker had been burnt right up to his thighs. The Maruti Suzuki worker told the worker from Allied Nippon to ensure that the injured worker is not discharged from the hospital that evening. On the morning of the 14th of January 2012, 10–15 workers from the Maruti Suzuki factory went to the nursing home. When the doctor told them that the injured worker would be discharged, they told him to keep him there, if the company did not pay for him, they would. Nobody from the company visited the burnt worker on the 14th and 15th, though many worker-friends kept visiting him. When the production manager of Allied Nippon was contacted on Sunday evening, he bluntly lied that he did not know a worker had sustained burns. The Maruti Suzuki workers who visited the injured worker on 16th morning were asked to pay up, or else the worker would be sent to the esi Hospital (Employee’s State Insurance is a scheme meant to cover medical requirements of all factory workers). Some friends were informed, and within half an hour workers hired through contractor companies from the press shop, paint shop, assembly, weld shop at Maruti Suzuki, and along with them Suzuki Powertrain workers living in Aliyar and Dhana [villages nearby]—in all about 70–80—gathered at the nursing home. From there, they reached the Allied Nippon factory. They asked to meet the factory manager. The factory manager refused to speak a word about the injured worker. Workers even suggested that there was no need to be afraid, that he could even speak from the other side of the gate, but the manager refused to listen. Half an hour passed with the contract workers from Maruti Suzuki and Suzuki Powertrain still gathered at the Allied Nippon factory gate, when a supervisor from the contractor company which had employed the burnt worker arrived. It was decided after discussions that the expenses of the nursing home, along with payment for the time of treatment would be borne by the contractor company, and that the family of the injured worker would be called by phone. On the afternoon of the 16th, the injured worker was taken to the esi hospital in Sector-3, imt Manesar, where they asked for the esi card—he did not have one. The supervisor asked for 2 hours from the doctor, and got the esi card of the worker employed since 12th December 2010 made on 16th January 2012. The accident report was made. The father of the injured worker has arrived from his village. He’s been admitted at the esi hospital till today, the 24th Jan. Durgesh, the worker who sustained burns at the Allied Nippon factory, lives in a rented room at Baasgaon. The workers from Maruti Suzuki and Suzuki Powertrain who took the steps in this context lived in rented rooms in Aliyar and Dhana, and were not acquainted with the Allied Nippon worker earlier. Having de-occupied the factory twice in six months, new emotions and ideas arose among the Maruti Suzuki workers. To bring back workers hired through contractor companies into the factory, the permanent workers and technical trainees of Maruti Suzuki had removed the control of the company from the factory from 7th to 14th October 2011 and…at the same time, workers of 11 factories in imt Manesar had also de-occupied those factories. This has transformed the whole scenario. In a world in which even keeping acquaintance is problematic, there the practice-thought that even strangers are our own will work wonders.

There have been numerous area-wide outbreaks coordinated among workers in recent history. In February 2013, workers in noida attacked factories and vehicles, leading the district administration to impose a local shutdown, and caused a loss of Rs. 6,000,000,000 as per the local association of industries. The very next day, women and men workers in the Okhla Industrial Area in Delhi joined in chorus before noon, coming out of factories, moving from one to another factory, shutting down thousands of factories in Phase I and Phase II. In January 2014, workers from factories in the PrithlaBagola area on the outskirts of Faridabad moved from factory to factory, increasing in number, shutting production in one after another. Large-scale police deployment the next day! Workers arriving at work stepped inside factories, avoiding confrontation. Managements’ association, in their complaint to the state government, said that the police kept aloof when the workers were attacking factories. In February 2015, tens of thousands of women and men workers in Udyog Vihar (literally “Industrial Place”) in Gurgaon, close to the Delhi border, began attacking factories. Udyog Vihar police stood aside. An additional 500 policemen were rushed from different places in Gurgaon. Seeing the numbers, they too stood aside. Two thousand police personnel from Faridabad, Jhajjar, Rewari districts reached Udyog Vihar. By this time, the whole industrial area had been in turmoil, and managers-directors had run away from factories. Seeing the large police presence, workers left the industrial area. No arrests were made. Police attempts to seek evidence through cctv footage failed as, like in other places, workers had smashed the cameras and recorders in different factories.

And these expressions are also spatially connected to many other similar ones spread across. In September 2015, women tea-estates workers of kdhp company in Munnar left different trade unions and started increasing their coordination. In the beginning of October, they stopped work. The activity of these 7,000 women workers created a stir. Leaders of various hues began flocking to “support them and extend solidarity.” These women workers shooed them away. After two weeks’ stoppage of work, the company stepped back. The reverberations of these women workers resonated in the rubber and cardamom plantations in Kerala, in Tamil Nadu, and far away in tea plantations in Northeast India. On 18 April 2016, without any leaders, representatives, or unions, one hundred thousand garment workers in Bengaluru, mostly women, came out of over 1,200 factories. The Employees provident fund of forty million workers is managed by a trust which has members of the central trade unions, central and state governments, and industry bodies representatives as trustees. They announced a new rule restricting access of workers to their own money, which was resented by workers all over India. The central government, reacting to Bengaluru workers’ action, postponed the rule by three months. On the next day, the April 19, still larger number of garment workers left their factories and came on the roads. The central government, in panic, canceled the new notification. In December 2016, workers of Windy Apparels Ltd. did not turn up for work. In the peak season of garments manufacture, when overtime runs up to 150–200 hours a month, this absence of workers from factory pushed a terrified management into removing 121 of them from work. Next day, tens of thousands of workers of half a dozen factories did not turn up for work. Managements of 80 terrified companies decided to shut down on December 20. Two hundred thousand workers on the roads! A war-like situation! In this war-like situation between the workers and the managements, the Bangladesh government promulgated wartime laws against the workers. Armed forces of the state in the Ashulia Industrial Area! As per a police official, production began once again from December 27 in the factories. Earlier, the us Congress, ilo, and the Bangladeshi government in one voice called for formation of unions. The number of unions among garment workers leaped from 2 to 61 by the end of 2014, still the workers refused to be shackled. The replacement of the military regime by a democratic regime in Myanmar encouraged the formation of unions to control garment workers whose numbers increased very rapidly since 2011… And in February 2017, workers attacked the Hangzhou Hundred Tex factory. The manager was thrashed and supervisors were surrounded. The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China intervened; the police attacked the workers in the factory to free the supervisors.

Some interesting steps by workers in factories:

In the G4S group company, Indo-British Garments factory, Faridabad, 13,000 pants came back to the factory. Reason: one leg short, one leg long in each. In October 2015, in the Globe Capacitor factory, Faridabad, one hundred workers working on seven assembly lines on the third floor of the factory had stopped production for tea at 10:30 am. Tea had not arrived. The production in-charge came and shouted at them for having stopped production, and warned that if anybody leaves before 1 pm for lunch, they will be thrown out. No worker reacted to this. At 12:15 pm, in ones and twos workers went to the washrooms, returned. At 12:30 pm, the production in-charge came and stood at the gate, he didn’t find anyone going to the washroom. Then he found the workers sitting idle on the lines. First, he tried persuading them amicably. Some workers made feeble pretense at work. Then he tried shaming the senior workers, appealing to their loyalty. No response. After receiving nothing but silence from workers, he lost his cool on the foreman: “This is all your mistake! You must have started this!” When workers from the lower floor came up to the third for washing hands, the production in-charge vented his anger by shouting at them, and all the workers on the lines burst out laughing. The production in-charge did not come back to check on the workers at 6 pm, or on the next day at lunchtime. Six thousand construction workers in Saudi Arabia hailing from Trivandrum, or Gorakhpur, Bhagalpur, Delhi, Ludhiana, Lahore, Karachi, Dhaka, Chittagong, Kathmandu, Pokhra and other places, housed together in various dormitories. Different languages and food habits! No legal rights to hold meetings, or collective bargaining! A worker said: “Today we did not leave our dormitories to go to the site. Vehicles were left empty in wait. A few hours passed. Foremen arrived, requested us to board the vehicles. Engineers came and requested. No worker got into the vehicles. Managers arrived and requested, but nobody came out of the dormitories. The same happened the next day too. And the day after that! And on the fourth day too! Ten days passed like this. On the eleventh day, the Saudi police arrived and fired shots in the air to scare us. But why would we be scared? We weren’t. Nobody was.” Not leaving dormitories, not reporting on work like this is routine and happens at least seven-eight times a year. And, mass faintings on the shop floor of many factories in Cambodia led to a headline in a major daily, “Workers of the world, faint!”

“No meetings were held; nobody went around informing; no one called anyone. It wasn’t magic. Such things happen once or twice in a month,” said a worker of Globe Capacitor. These seem to be morphic resonances. It is the very being of workers that makes them speak through such unmediated, collective acts. This is visible in Globe Capacitor…Saudi Arabia…Bangladesh…Cambodia… And in the Bata factory of Faridabad in 1983: after the union-management long-term agreement, automatic lines were installed in place of semi-automatic lines. Workers did not hold meetings, nor did any group of workers campaign. And 1,500 workers began giving less production on the automatic lines than they were giving on the semi-automatic lines. The company cut wages. This went on for one and a half years. The company dismantled the automatic lines and reinstalled the semi-automatic lines. And now to millions of workers in the 1930s—let’s remember historian Tim Mason’s research on workers’ activities in the wartime Third Reich: industrial production fell by 35 percent. In the fervor of patriotism, and the rule of Nazi Party!

And what about meetings?

Six hundred workers of Maxxop (Plot nos. 10 & 27, Sec-6, imt Manesar) work in two shifts of 12 hours each. Overtime is paid at lesser than the single rate (when by law it is to be double). We had begun discussing among ourselves regarding taking overtime at double the rate. We had just begun having meetings. The hr department had planted some workers in the factory. They attended the meetings, and informed the management about the proceedings. The management found targets. We 50 were removed 15 days soon after in March 2017. “We were having discussions in groups of friends since quite long. Conversations expanded in reach. We were successful in putting pressure upon the company. Nobody became target. The management found nobody to attack. Meetings played havoc. Meetings are easily marked events for managements. Company informers even make videos for the company at meetings on their phones.” This had happened at Bellsonica as well as at Track Components factories. “Building relations of trust are easy and straightforward ways of harmonized action between large numbers of people.”

It is wageworkers who are the active subject, and companies and governments that react. The very being of the workers makes them act so. A significant part of workers today are women, very often in their late teens and early 20s. While civil society—academics, media, radical activists—has often been found demanding increased security for women, more police, more security cameras—emphasizing their vulnerability—what women workers have been doing in collectives has been a different story. Young women and men workers of ASTI electronics in imt Manesar sat outside the factory together, day and night, for 40 days. This is emphasized by events over the years at Napino Auto. In 2010, when 800 workers stopped work and sat in the factory for four days, 100 women workers returned home by evening. In 2014, they stopped work again in the same factory, this time the women workers staying in the factory with the male workers day and night for ten days. These radical ruptures in gender-relations are unpalatable to channels of representation—liberal or conservative.

In 1992, discussions took place among Japanese managements on the question of permanent and temporary workers. The managements were aware that they could not afford to keep permanent workers, even though they had some loyalty towards the company. On the other hand, temporary workers were cheaper, but had no loyalty whatsoever towards the company. Companies could see this danger clearly over these twenty-five years, temporary workers have increased very rapidly all over the world, and the number of permanent workers has shrunk. In industrial areas today, 80–90 percent of factory workers are temporary workers. With the fig leaf of conditions and wages out for these workers, and the assertions of these workers ever present, the question that plagues the governments and companies is: what do the workers want?

Employment is a problem, and nobody wants to work. For ages, automation has been considered the bane of work, and many among different shades of thinking have dreamed that one day, technology would minimize work. And yet, those on the left and right do not tire preaching about the necessity of increasing employment. The socially necessary labour-time today has shrunk exponentially, and yet workers do between 100–200 hours overtime in a month. Abolition of work is on the agenda. Further, we live in the times where phrases such as “seizing the means of production” could only mean perpetuating the present. We must, instead, think on lines of what could be an alternative for a happier, more fulfilling, meaningful life. The amount of production has increased the antagonism between humans and nature, part and whole at large, putting life on earth at stake. A paradigm shift is needed. We wish you incessant festivities!

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