Death in the air – A recent rebellion in Udyog Vihar

Note: The article has been written by Akash Bhattacharya on the basis of the findings of a Labour Solidarity Forum (LSF) team and an independent fact-finding visit by Amit Chakraborty. The LSF team comprised of Dheeraj Anand, Leila Gautham, Parag Bannerji, Pratik Ali, Santosh Kumar and Sthira Bhattacharya, besides Akash Bhattacharya.

11 February 2015. Shamichand, a thirty-two year-old worker at Gaurav International – a garment factory at Udyog Vihar in Gurgaon – reported ten minutes late for the second shift that starts around 1:30 p.m. The guard at the factory gate stopped him and an altercation ensued. Shamichand was brutally beaten up. Within an hour news spread that he had died. Workers of Gaurav International and its sister concern Richa Global, indignant at the atrocity, attacked and damaged the buildings and vehicles of the two concerns in the vicinity. Within a day English and Hindi newspapers reported that workers had “gone on the rampage” and “vandalized” the factories upon mere rumours of a death.
Shamichand had not died; and the workers’ acts of “vandalism” were not merely about his suspected death. Few in fact seemed to have accurate information about the incident. They had mutinied against the conditions that make death probable. They work, earn and reproduce amidst oppression, degradation and fear. “If one person stands up, he will be dismissed [from the factory] and everyone will be too scared to do anything” claims Rachna, a female worker in Udyog Vihar. Fear surrounds their homes too in the shape of exploitative landlords and contractors. Sita’s brother-in-law had committed suicide some months ago under suspicious circumstances and the police had refused to accept a First Investigation Report (FIR). She suspects foul play by the maliks (either factory owners or the landlord).
The need for a pliant and flexible labour force for “development” requires their lives and deaths to be rendered invisible. The simmering anger sometimes boils over creating minor but threatening ripples on the tranquil surface of a comfortably ignorant society.
Insignificant Lives
Two days after the incident, a fact-finding team that reached Udyog Vihar was greeted with some suspicion. Outsiders – often upper class people – are correctly deemed unlikely to side with workers. Besides, the police had already filed FIR against two hundred rebellious workers and were looking to arrest them. Knowledge was therefore to be carefully circulated; largely preserved within a subterranean information society. At Kapashera, the border between Delhi and Gurgaon, we were welcomed by a banner with a smiling Arvind Kejriwal thanking all citizens of Delhi for delivering the historic election verdict in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party. Across the border is Udyog Vihar – the industrial area – while the worker’s colonies saturate the lanes on the side of Delhi. They aren’t however the “citizens” that Kejriwal was thanking.
Mostly migrants from agricultural districts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and West Bengal, the workers face acute social and political isolation. Shamichand for instance hails from Gorakhpur. Neither are they allowed to unionize themselves nor are most of them voters at the site of their exploitation. In fact the latest wikipedia entry for Gurgaon denies their existence altogether: only the bustling Information Technology sector features under the “economic activities” section. Spatially locked away in the by-lanes near the border, their existence is sometimes trivialized as chhotamota – meager, inconsequential – by more privileged local residents.
Garment workers, numbering over lakhs in Udyog Vihar, are paid miserably low salaries. A permanent worker earns between Rs. 5000/- to Rs. 7000/- per month for 8 hours of work per day, which rises to around Rs. 9000/- with the addition of overtime pay. Unlike the automobile sector along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), salaries and employment security are similar for permanent and contract workers. Permanent workers better leave facilities and social security benefits on paper. The deduction of money for Provident Fund from an already meager salary however adds to their hardships in the present.
We began by asking street peddlers, fruit and vegetable vendors about the incident. Some denied any knowledge of the incident, nevertheless calling it “usual”. A rickshaw puller felt that a fine would have sufficed for coming late; the thrashing was unwarranted and unjust. Some did not seem to bother too much about it: we merely come there and sell our stuff to earn a living, what do we know of such incidents? Some said that they had noticed workers running towards the border as the police chased them: a rare instance of rebellious workers leaving a mark in the social space beyond their factory/home. Traffic was blocked along the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, IFFCO Chowk, MG Road and Signature Tower too; not due to a workers’ invasion but police efforts to insulate the privileged from the insurgents.
What the Workers Say
Strikingly many workers and other respondents on the streets continue to believe that Shamichand died or that he is fighting for his life. Unsurprising, as death-at-work is a common occurrence here. On 28th March 2014 Sunil Pushkar, a worker in the tailoring department of a garment factory, suddenly collapsed on his seat in front of the electronic sewing machine. He uttered hum ko bacha lo (please save me) to a relative before passing away on the way to the hospital. While the postmortem report claimed that it was a heart attack his colleagues suspected electrocution and blamed the factory management for inadequate safety measures.[i]
Sunil Pushkar’s relatives were fortunate to receive his mortal remains at least. We heard stories of workers disappearing, of dead bodies vanishing; to ensure that no compensation could be claimed and no subversive narratives weaved by the dead. Some workers in Udyog Vihar were not only convinced that Shamichand had died but also concerned about whether his mortal remains were ever going to be found.
Many women – industrial workers and house-workers – also believe that Shamichand is dead. They sympathized with his wife who worked at the same factory as her husband. She was suddenly told before 2 p.m. that day that someone was calling her outside. She rushed out to see her husband lying on the ground. His brutalized body, no longer fit to work, had been discarded. She, along with her brother-in-law, took him to Safdarjung Hospital where he was treated and discharged in a few hours. He later had to be admitted to the Employees’ State Insurance Commission (ESIC) Hospital in Gurgaon.
Indignation at Shamichand’s condition was palpable among women in the residential quarters even as they spoke of their unique difficulties which their men did not always sympathize with: double burden of industrial work to supplement family income and housework. Rachna works eleven hours a day in Udyog Vihar for a paltry Rs. 5000/- a month to finance her child’s education. A poster on the outer walls of Gaurav International celebrates the education of girl children even as the industry denies the finances to its workers to do so.
The outer limit of tolerance was not the same in all workers; though a sense of rage pervaded. Some said that while fines and reprimands were permissible, “We won’t tolerate slaps”. Some felt that the factory manager was responsible; for others, managers are decent people and it is the staff that mistreats workers. Either way the act was not to be condoned. Some accepted that it was wrong for Shamichand to have arrived late, for his job – quality checking – required on-time attendance though the punishment meted out had been disproportionate. Others said that it was unacceptable that workers be taken to task for arriving late whereas mangers and staff could take their own time. Many were angered by the suggestion that the ensuing violence was the work of outsiders, “union people from Haryana”, as an official at Richa Global claimed. They were proud that their colleagues could take such prompt and brave action. “The management was going overboard, something had to happen. Now they know how not to treat us”, several workers claimed. The lack of dignity at work seemed to pinch them as much as low salaries and hard living.

Of Rumours and Fabulous Tales
Amardeep Dagar, the Human Resource General Manager of Gaurav International provides a different account of the incident. According to him the guard had asked Shamichand to speak to his senior before entering the factory, upon which he slapped the guard. An altercation ensued and far from being grievously injured he went to the police to file an FIR. The police themselves shifted him to Safdarjung where he was treated and discharged. He had been asked to join work the following day but instead he let himself be instigated by outsiders and demanded 10 lakh rupees as compensation. On being denied, he lied to doctors to get himself admitted at the ESI Hospital. The next day his wife and brother brought around one hundred and fifty hooligans, pelted stones, burnt files, injured four members of the factory staff and damaged eight-eight vehicles. The police arrived and promptly stopped the arson. The Station House Officer at Udyog Vihar police station claimed that the police had accepted FIR from both sides and that there had been no injury to anyone.
Despite variations in the workers’ accounts of the incident one does notice a pattern in them. All of them claim that the guard beat the worker and not the other way round, that his colleagues retaliated in response, and that the police had sided entirely with the factory management. Their side of the story is eminently believable, for it has been repeated across scores of factories along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor over the past few years. The police, law and the labor welfare departments have taken the side of neo-liberal capital during unrests at Maruti-Suzuki, Munjal Kiriu, Asti (all in Manesar, Haryana), Autofit (Dharuhera, Haryana), Daikin Air Conditioning (Neemrana, Rajasthan) to name a few.[ii]
Beyond the core set of facts that is repeated by every worker, discrepancies surface. Some claim Shamichand was beaten by the guard alone, some say it involved bouncers. Some say he was beaten inside, some say outside. Not many know who took him to the hospital and what exact condition he is in right now. Some claim that it wasn’t workers who started the violence: it was a response to stone-pelting by the police. Discrepancies are partly deliberate, as none wants to be identified as a participant in the violence. The management has submitted the available CCTV footage to the police and the arrest of some workers is imminent. Four are already behind bars. The camera is rumoured to have been damaged in the violence and the entire footage is possibly unavailable.
The incongruities in the accounts emerging out of the subterranean information society point to the irrelevance of some details. Within the grand-narrative of neo-liberal “development” workers are destined for miserable lives and unceremonious deaths. Even if Shamichand did not die, someone did some weeks back and more will in the coming weeks. Rumours of death, so trivialized in many a report on the incident, are true; even if not in the immediate sense. To say that they are false would amount to a greater lie.
In the light of the great truth regarding the ugly underbelly of industrializing India many fabulous tales take root. In the varying accounts of the Shamichand incident, his brother emerges as a magic figure. Amardeep Dagar identifies him as the conspirator-in-chief: the man who instigated Shamichand to demand a compensation of ten lakhs instead of getting back to work. A landlady in the by lanes of Kapashera told us that he worked in the air-force; that he had managed to get the phone number of the vidhayak (parliamentarian) from a television channel, called him up and got him to send a police force! She however shed no light on what role that force was supposed to play. Several workers believe that he has greater financial power than the factory management and can pose a serious challenge to their machinations. Above all, being bade aadmi (big man) he is not going to take his brother’s plight lying down.
In reality, Shamichand’s brother, Shekhar, is no more powerful than a garment worker. A few workers speculated that the powerful one could be some second brother though we did not come to know of a brother other than Shekhar. He too worked at Gaurav International for seven years and changed his job barely a month ago. He has been running around in vain to file an FIR against the management for beating his brother to pulp. As the workers desperately hang on to their lives and dignity, fabulous stories surrounding materially powerful people rather than god-men aid their emotional sustenance. In the face of a severe crisis in the material world even God’s power is reduced to the material means at his disposal.

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Appeal to the Indian migrant workers in the Arab world

The situation in the Arab world today and the Indian migrant workers there:

The Arab world today is in the throes of a revolutionary situation. Whilst world attention has been mainly focused on the popular mass of demonstrators and protestors driving the popular national revolutions everywhere, a vital section of the masses – the migrant working class – has been completely neglected. Today there are over 12 million migrant workers in the eastern gulf. 8.4 million of them are from the sub-continent. In the eastern gulf region (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait) the mostly Indian migrant workers constitute the bulk of the working class population. In North Africa they constitute a significant segment of the population numbering 5.4 million.

These migrant workers have long been denied their rights as workers. Taking advantage of their position as migrant workers, the regimes of the Arab countries have exploited them to the hilt. Particularly the domestic servants who are forced to live under slave like conditions. These regimes are in active connivance with their class partners, the Indian bourgeoisie, in exploiting the migrant workers. Whilst the Indian bourgeoisie encourages the free flow of migrant labour to gulf countries and opens up the market to its neighboring countries as well, the economies of these hated regimes are kept afloat by a steady flow of both skilled and unskilled labour, and in return provide the Indian bourgeoisie its much desired oil. The US of course plays its part in securing this callous capitalist bargain (wage-slaves for oil) through its military infrastructure in the region. This chain of capitalism ties in the economies of the Gulf to the economies of the sub-continent. The migrant labourers themselves provide a free bonus for the Indian capitalist class as they send home billions of dollars as overseas remittances.

How do the Indian workers relate to the Arab revolutions?

What we are seeing today is a string of national popular revolutions in the process of toppling hated proxy regimes of imperialism. These revolutions are not yet at an advanced stage of socialist consciousness but are at the level of understanding of a popular and national uprising against imperialism. This is reflected in the passive response of the Indian masses to these revolutionary developments. However, each of these revolutions in the ultimate analysis is heading towards a socialist revolution. This is particularly so in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where the regimes have already been heavily punished.

The necessity of working class leadership in a socialist revolution is indisputable, and this is no less true for the Arab revolution. But here a vast section of the working class is comprised of migrant workers, mostly Indian. It is obvious that this substantial population has a decisive role to play in the Arab revolution and particularly  in the Eastern Gulf. To no small extent, the key to the future of the Arab revolution as a socialist revolution lies in the hands of the Indian migrant workers.

However, the dialectics of current revolutionary developments are not playing out favorably in this regard, and the Indian workers remain passive observers. There is tremendous potential energy to be released but no visible kinetic energy being released in revolutionary movement. This passivity of the Indian working class in relation to  revolutionary developments in the Arab world, (as recently as 2007 there was open revolt in Kuwait) yet again reflects the absence of revolutionary leadership in the class struggle. The passivity must not be seen as a negative sign of wilful ignorance or segregation from the Arab revolution, but as a silent call for revolutionary leadership. As long as the revolutions in the Arab world remain national and popular in nature, the migrant workers will not find the much needed common ground for solidarity with their Arab class allies.

The Arab revolution, the Asian revolution, the Indian revolution and the migrant workers:

The position of the Indian migrant workers in the Arab world situates them in a  strategically vital position. They are at the same time the concrete expression of an undeniable cultural, economical and political connection with India and a force to be reckoned with in the Arab peninsula. Thus they connect two vital regions of the Asian continent with a unified albeit invisible human chain. The present revolutionary situation presents a golden opportunity for struggle for this mass of workers in the Arab world. The revolutionary developments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere provide a unique opportunity to the migrant workers to intensify their long but ignored struggle for class demands, thus allowing them to be linked in with the revolutionary processes unfolding in the Arab world.

This in turn would of course open up the possibility of the of the Arab revolution spreading to the sub-continent, and from there to the rest of Asia. What holds back the Indian migrant population, apart from the crippling conditions imposed by autocratic regimes in the Arab world, is the lack of conscious revolutionary Marxist leadership in the struggle. This also means that a much needed internationalist perspective is lacking in the Arab revolution and that there is a universal incomprehension of its real dimensions. If on the other hand conscious Marxist leadership emerges in the ranks of the migrant workers themselves, this would immediately benefit the Arabs in their struggle by bringing all these factors to the fore.

Our Appeal to our Class brothers in the Arab world:

There are times in history when golden opportunities arise and provide a huge impulse in the revolutionary struggle. For the Indian workers in the gulf the rise of a pan-Arab revolution provides just such a golden opportunity. For too long their rights have been denied and for too long the capitalists enslaving the Indian sub-continent have colluded with the criminal regimes that exploit them. For many years they have been struggling against their conditions. But now the time is special as the Arab world is in the throes of revolution. One large mobilization today will have a thousand times greater impact than it would under more ‘peaceful’ conditions.

The Indian workers have so far only seen the ravaging, bloodthirsty faces of their Arab exploiters and enslavers and the hated regimes of the countries they reside in. But today they see another face of the Arab people, one that promises revolutionary emancipation. It would be foolish to lose such a golden opportunity because of any false prejudice towards the Arab people arising from their hate for the exploiters and their regimes. We warn Our Indian class brothers in the gulf against such suspicions and prejudices, for they inevitably help the exploiters in dividing the Arab people from their best allies, the Indian migrant working class! Now is the time for solidarity. If you demand your rights now at this decisive juncture, you will be greeted by unconditional support from the Arab masses and they would cheer you on and defend you in your struggle.

For full freedom to organize and agitate!

For full working rights and benefits! No one is a migrant! No to discrimination!

For decent, safe and proper conditions for work!

Health, education and welfare for all!

No to racist chauvinist divisions between Arabs and migrants! For class Solidarity!

Long live the struggles of Arab and Indian people! For Class solidarity across Nations!

Out with the monarchy! For a government of workers, peasants and all democratic forces!