Organising the unorganised in India

When will the workers of India become sufficiently united to demand a change in terms?

Tea plantations in Munnar, India. Jon Brew/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I am Gopinath K. Parakuni and am with Cividep India, an NGO based in Bangalore, India, that focuses on workers’ rights and corporate accountability. We undertake a range of activities in support of workers, which include supporting the formation of trade unions in sectors with little union organisation, worker education, research on working conditions, dialogue with brands and suppliers on remedying violation of fundamental rights at work, and capacity building on international mechanisms like the UNGP, OECD Guidelines and ILO conventions. The most satisfying work, of course, is helping workers have their own voice in the form of trade unions or other social organisations.

Neil Howard (oD): What brought you to this struggle?
Gopinath: I was a student at university when the internal national emergency was declared in 1975 by the then Indian government curtailing democratic rights. Students all over India participated in the struggle to restore democracy, answering the call of the legendary socialist leader Jaya Prakash Narayan who led the movement for ‘complete revolution’. It’s now known more as the ‘JP Movement’.

The labour movement will gain strength if it eventually becomes the vanguard of the broader movement for democracy and secularism, equity and justice.

Despite all the talk of development and some let up in extreme poverty, working people in India are still deprived of basic rights in workplaces. Legal protections for labour benefit only a minuscule part of the working population and this needs to change. Powerful worker organisation is an important necessity for any such change. We believe that we are contributing in a small way to this endless struggle.

Neil: What are some of the major challenges you face in your work?


  1. Workers in global supply chains are paid poverty level wages.
  2. The hostility of management and the unhelpful attitude of brands make it difficult for workers to organise.
  3. Central trade unions have yet to make serious efforts to organised the unorganised.
  4. Some pseudo-intellectuals calling themselves trade unions try to establish their own hegemony, though they are funded and supported by NGOs that depend upon solidarity grants from abroad.
  5. Governments are also suspicious of organising efforts and government agencies often collude with managements.
  6. Brands largely give only lip service to labour rights and human rights and do pretty little in earnest to change matters.

Neil: What prospects do you see for the labour movement in India?
Gopinath: In the short run labour will be under tremendous pressure, as can be seen in the attempts of the ruling powers to undermine labour legislation and labour rights. We expect reorganisation of the working people in the broader context of political mobilisation to defeat right-wing forces that seek to divide the country on the basis of religious beliefs. The labour movement will gain strength if it eventually becomes the vanguard of the broader movement for democracy and secularism, equity and justice.


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Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

Courtesy: Open Democracy



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