Workers’ Uprising in Surat, India – Only the First Whistles in the Simmering Cooker of Working Class Revolt

By a worker in Delhi. First published on Kaam se chutti (Time off Work)

On the second day of the nationwide lockdown, March 24th, there was a clash between workers and police in the Vadod area of Surat, in which more than one thousand workers were involved. Last night, April 10th, in Surat’s Laksana area, groups of workers again took to the streets, attacked and burned vehicles, and threw stones at the police when they came to apprehend them. The media has attempted to spread panic, with TV news anchors using twisted narratives and lies that cannot not contain the truth: That workers are revolting. The next morning the government deployed the Rapid Action Force in the region and police arrested around 60-70 people.

The media is trying to spin this predicament in some way, but has failed because the demands of the workers are not being met and they are protesting, pelting police with stones, setting fires, and otherwise breaking social distancing and the lockdown. The media are accusing the workers of not understanding the intensity of the epidemic, telling them to stay in their rooms, remain calm, and eat the food given to them by NGOs and civil society. In response, the workers practice social solidarity, unable to practice physical distancing.

Workers are responding to the fact that physical distance has gone to the dogs. They live in closely adjoining rooms, use shared kitchens, bathrooms, and taps, and stand in long lines to eat. Many ask: Who are the people teaching us physical distancing lessons? The intention of those who give food is fine, but the food is tasteless. The owners of the companies are refusing to pay the wages for the time both on and off work. Police have stopped the movement of people. Millions of laborers from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha work in the textile, diamond, and construction businesses of Surat.

Although governments have banned the movement of people, the workers’ actions show that the social distance and the lockdown scheme that the governments have foisted upon the working class is useless. They say that for the people to not die of disease, the governments and the rich have left them in the grip of hunger and desperation.

Actually, there is another truth hidden behind these events which the media and experts are afraid to say. The diamond trade has been on the wane for a long time. This is not a new thing. In times of global recession, the demand for diamonds and gems fall. The diamond industry and workers engaged in it have been experiencing this for a long time. No wage hikes, no or low bonuses—these have been the experiences of the last few years. The slope of the diamond industry has been getting steeper for some years. At the same time, the demand for ready-made garments has also decreased due to the global recession. The global recession has also reduced demand for textiles and thread. Companies are finding it difficult to pay workers’ salaries, and are also currently failing to abide by the government’s order to them to pay workers even for the duration of the lockdown. The same is the case with the construction business, which has been going through a massive recession for at least the last 6 to 7 years. Companies are unable to run, cannot repay the loan installments, and banks are going bankrupt.

Today, the coronavirus epidemic has become a great excuse for governments and companies to cover up their social decline by:

• Stopping workers from meeting and gathering together
• Creating fear among the workers
• Making workers sit at home, away from the factories, and
• Avoiding companies and institutions that do not fulfill their responsibilities to the workers.

In this time of recession, workers have already understood how the government and the wealthy are using the pandemic as an excuse to hide their own weaknesses. On the one hand, government-companies-experts-rich people are denying sociality to the mass of society, whereas on the other hand, the workers are practicing basic human sociability in defying the curfew. You cannot merely sit out the pandemic at home; better conditions for care and treatment need to be created. The workers are taking big steps to push towards such favorable conditions.

Elsewhere, on April 1st, nearly 19,000 workers who operate about 4,700 ambulances in Uttar Pradesh struck for two days claiming that they haven’t been paid salaries for the past 2 months nor have they been given protective gear while at work. The UP government officials spoke with the association head and assured them that they would be given their wages and protective gear soon. The ambulance services have since restarted. The official also observed that it is illegal to strike in emergency situations like this.

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