Minimum Wage Implementation Campaign
Many agricultural laborers work in the fields for 12 to 14 hours a day — all for less than minimum wage. Though Gujarat’s minimum wage is one of the lowest in India, daily labourers often receive significantly less than that. When they try to stand up for their wage rights, landlords often simply stop hiring them, and employ another set of poor labourers desperate to work for whatever money they can make.
Many organizations have tried to organize rural labourers, but they have faced a major hurdle: caste. In Gujarat, agricultural daily labourers are generally composed of Dalits, tribals and OBCs (other backward castes). Typically, OBCs do not feel much sense of loyalty to Dalits, as they consider themselves higher up in the caste ladder.
The Navsarjan Minimum Wage Implementation team consists of not just Dalits activists but also tribals and OBCs. This was a conscious decision, as the makeup of the team should reflect the makeup of the labourers. More than a decade of work has been done on the ground in Vadodara, Anand and Mehsana districts, including thousands of day and night meetings to educate people about their rights. Navsarjan and its Minimum Wage Implementation team have worked hard to gain the labourers’ confidence and trust.
Results have been impressive. A labourers’ union, Gujarat Kamdar Ekta Sangathan, was formed, and through this union, minimum wage rights are being asserted. Within the union, there is diverse membership which reflects the makeup of the labourers in the targeted areas. Union membership cuts across caste and religion – 25% are Dalits, 50% are tribals, and 25% are OBCs. There are also some Muslims.
Because of the diversity within the union, Dalits and non-Dalits are becoming closer. They sit together and drink tea together, and fight for minimum wages together. This fact has the added benefit of decreasing untouchability practices in the target areas. The membership fee for join the union is Rs 125.
Navsarjan organizes leadership training camps to help train male and female union leaders. The goal is to make the union totally autonomous and self-sustaining. Navsarjan has also organized a life insurance plan for union members. Family members of the union members who have died received Rs 30,000 each under the insurance cover.
Navsarjan has also been involved in campaigning for increasing the minimum wage for farm workers. The campaign has seen important successes. In 2009, the Gujarat government revised the minimum wages for agricultural workers to Rs 100.
In order to build the union’s organization, the Navsarjan first sets up a unit in a village. This unit then spreads the union activities to the neighbouring villages, becoming an independent organization fighting for the cause of agricultural workers. The labourers see how organizing themselves and working together can benefit one and all.
Dalit and tribal women labourers are becoming increasingly vocal, though OBC women are often found to be dormant in the right for their rights. This is primarily because of Navsarjan’s sustained work among Dalits and tribals, though it has not worked as extensively among the OBCs.
Work among the the labourers has helped create a higher level of democratic awareness among them. An interesting instance is that of Diver village, where the fight for minimum wages began in 2006. Due to persistent efforts, the labourers began getting minimum wages, and so did the labourers in the neighboring villages. During the local elections, the entire panchayat body of Diver village was made up of agricultural labourers. Voters — majority of whom were labourers — voted their own representatives into the local government.
Following major challenges need to be addressed in the right for minimum wages:
- Convincing labourers that joining the union is in their interest
- Convincing labourers across caste and gender lines to join the union
- Successfully implementing strikes for minimum wages
- Heavy resistance from the dominant caste landlords