Why millions of Indians staged the biggest labour strike ever

strikeThis month tens of millions of Indian workers staged a one-day general strike that unions billed as the biggest work stoppage in human history.

180 million workers stayed home to demand a number of changes to labour laws, including establishing a $270 monthly minimum wage for unskilled workers and ensuring social security for every worker.

The 24-hour strike cost the Indian economy up to $2.7 billion, and affected electricity, mining, telecommunications, banking and insurance operations in several states.

This was the latest salvo in an escalating battle between India’s leading public-sector trade unions and PM Narendra Modi’s government, which they accuse of pursuing a pro-business agenda while
ignoring workers’ rights.

The unions represent several million workers in a country of 1.3 billion people. But the changes they are seeking would have the greatest effect on those who toil in India’s vast informal economy, which includes 90% of the workforce. In Mumbai, domestic servants sometimes leave jobs for raises of as little as $15 a month.

The battle over labour laws is shaping up a crucial test of Modi’s efforts to turn the nation into an economic juggernaut.

Under the slogan ‘Make In India’ the government has proposed laws that would make it easier for companies to lay off employees, avoiding paying severance, and extend working hours.

One Cambridge University professor said he is optimistic about the strike bringing the labour issue into the foreground in a way one has not seen since the Modi government came to power. Unfortunately only the trade unions are talking about the issues.