Tens of millions of Indian workers strike in fight for higher wages

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State banks and power stations shut and public transport halted in some states as tens of millions take industrial action

Tens of millions of Indian workers have gone on strike demanding higher wages and an end to what they call the anti-worker and anti-people policies of the Narendra Modi government.

Last-minute concessions by the countrys finance and labour ministries, including a 104 rupee hike (1.20) in unskilled workers daily minimum wage, failed to ward off the action, which was expected to see state banks and power stations shut and public transport halted in some states on Friday.

Among the trade unions 12 demands are a 692 rupee daily minimum wage, universal social security and a ban on foreign investment in the countrys railway, insurance and defence industries.

A nationwide bandh Sanskrit for closed on the same day last year reportedly involved 140 million workers, and unions say the figure could reach 180 million this year.

Early on Friday, Indian media reported that schools and colleges in Bangalore had been shut as a precautionary measure and arrests had been made in West Bengal, whose chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, had promised a crackdown on demonstrators.

Images broadcast on Indian TV also show protesters blocking railway tracks and roads in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.

Just one major union pulled out of the national strike: the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh which, like the ruling party, is an affiliate of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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A deserted railway station in Dharmanagar, India, during the strike on Friday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Modi won power in 2014 promising to replicate across India the double-digit economic growth he oversaw as Gujarats chief minister. He steered a landmark national goods and services tax through Indias parliament last month and has opened up sectors such as defence and aviation for foreign investment.

The government has also raised more than 564bn rupees by selling shares in state-owned industries but pulled back from full privatisation and left labour market reform largely to the states.

The Modi government is probably the most pro-state sector government weve had in 25 years, said Mihir Sharma, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. The unions are the only people who have bought the idea that the government plans big reforms.

Sharma said the protests, the fourth all-India strike since 2009, were to remind the government of the cost of moving forward with its liberalisation program.

Prof Jayati Ghosh, a development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said Modis changes had built on a 25-year neoliberal reform agenda that had left workers across the country worse off.

Less than 4% of workers in India come under labour protection, and even those protections have become more and more eroded. Theres a general sense that instead of targeting poverty they are targeting the poor, and there has been a real running down of spending on essential public services, she said.

She said health workers in some states had not been paid in months, food subsidy and distribution schemes were being neglected and private employers who wish to discourage any kind of unionisation are being actively encouraged by the central government.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/02/indian-workers-strike-in-fight-for-higher-wages