Published Oct 27, 2011 8:06 PM
Workers World contributor Dante Strobino interviewed Meghna Sukumar, a young organizer with the Women’s Workers Union, Garment and Fashion Workers section, on Sept. 24, the opening day of the United Electrical Workers union 72nd National Convention in Pittsburgh. Her union is part of the New Trade Union Initiative of India (NTUI). Sukumar was participating in the UE Young Activist international convergence, along with young militant trade unionists from some of the most progressive unions in France (CGT), Quebec (CSN), Mexico (FAT) Japan (Zenroren) and many young UE activists from across the U.S.
WW: On your website, the NTUI says that part of your mission is “to meet the challenges of the offensive against the working class, under capitalist globalization.” What is your view about some of the challenges faced by unions and workers in India during this world capitalist economic crisis since 2008?
MS: I think the biggest challenge has been coping with the scope and pace of informalization of work in many industries. This means that there is a large workforce that not only works for wages far below living wages, but also workers who are working in extremely precarious conditions with no job security and no social security. Unions in India are struggling to organize [these] contract workers. Another huge battle has been resisting the tremendous offensive on the right to association and trade union rights. It is important that trade unions remain independent and internalize democratic principles.
WW: Have conditions changed for workers in the past few years in India?
MS: I think there has been a renewed attack on trade union and collective bargaining rights. Especially in new industrial areas and Special Economic Zones, workers are facing tremendous obstacles from management and government to form or join unions of their choice.
WW: In June your union won passage of an important new labor law covering domestic workers. Can you tell us about that?
MS: The women workers’ union in Chennai has been campaigning for recognition and regulation of domestic work for several years now. Our demand has been for the inclusion of domestic work under the Minimum Wages legislation in the state of Tamil Nadu and a demand for 30 rupees [U.S. $.60] per hour as the minimum wage, a paid weekly day off and an annual bonus of one month’s salary. While there has been no legislation passed for regulation of domestic work as yet, the historic convention on Rights of Domestic Workers that was adopted by the International Labor Organization this year, which the government of India voted in favor of, is definitely a step in the right direction. We will continue to campaign for bringing domestic workers within the ambit of labor laws.
WW: We have witnessed in the past year that young people and workers have led many rebellions across the world, mostly catalyzed by record unemployment and police brutality. How is your union responding to these conditions within India or elsewhere around the world?
MS: What we are witnessing around the world is definitely encouraging and is a resounding call for change. It is quite inevitable that it will be the youth that will take the lead in any such movement towards social change. The trade union movement must be prepared to give any such movement direction and energy.
WW: Why does your union focus on the leadership of women workers? Have you seen the capitalist crisis disproportionately affect women? If so, how?
MS: Without a doubt, women are disproportionately exploited. It is a clear case of how capitalism uses patriarchy and vice versa to ensure that women’s work is unrecognized and grossly underpaid. In India, industries where women work have, on an average, much lower wages than industries with a primarily male workforce. The apparel industry is an apt example where the average daily wage is just over $2. Moreover, women’s work is only seen to be supplementary to a man’s income in a family. Also, more and more new industries like auto parts and electronics are being set up which employ first-generation young women workers with absolutely no knowledge about their rights at the workplace. This makes them extremely vulnerable to violence and exploitation. For these and a host of other reasons, it is important to build women’s leadership in unions so that women workers’ issues are brought to the forefront.
WW: Were you shocked or did you learn anything new about conditions in the U.S. in your meetings with young workers here?
MS: This has been my first interaction with workers in the U.S. Of course, we have been reading extensively about how the budget cuts have been affecting public sector workers’ social security. But meeting many young workers and actually hearing about the struggles that they have been facing over the past couple of years has been a tremendous eye opener. It is surely going to be a tough fight ahead.