May 1, 2022
By Beena Sarwar, Sheeba Aslam Fehmi and Priyanka Singh
The last Sunday in April this year (April 24) marked the ninth anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka. It was also the birthday of the late South Asian feminist and activist Kamla Bhasin, who was a lifelong advocate for workers’ rights.
Organized by the Southasia Peace Action Network, or SAPAN, an online rally was held, complete with songs, and leading activists and researchers participated and spoke from across the region on the theme “Labour Rights and Democracy in South Asia”.
Youth activist Sarita Bartaula from Nepal hosted the event and participants vowed to continue the struggle for peace and democracy, to forge ties and build solidarity.
This is even more critical given the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic that workers in South Asia and around the world continue to grapple with. Any threat to democracy seriously endangers workers’ rights, as evidenced by violence in the name of religion in the region. In India, this leads to the bulldozing of the homes and shops of the working poor in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. The attack on the livelihoods of Muslim workers and businesses is well documented. All of this undermines already weakened democratic systems and impacts those who are already vulnerable, pushing them even further to the margins, further affecting their rights and dignity.
POINTS OF AGREEMENT
The idea of regional solidarity, said the analyst and Naya Daour editor Raza Rumi in his closing remarks. Coming from Ithaca, NY, where he teaches journalism, he highlighted three main points of agreement from the discussion:
1. Solidarity among South Asian workers and their representative organizations, considering the community of issues,
2. A visa-free regime in the region for workers’ representatives, as well as all citizens to meet; and
3. More research, cross-learning and sharing of experiences and strategies across the region.
Rumi highlighted the gender, caste and class dynamics at play in the region that impede access to decent work, and the plight of indigenous peoples who are excluded from the “fruits of so-called development”. Neoliberal policies and the colonization of our own people lead to discontent, pushing them to rebel, he noted.
The opposition of the people of Balochistan against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which threatens their livelihoods is a good example.
He also noted the emergence of the “gig economy” and how governments and big business are encouraging “de-unionization.” A “brutal and archaic visa regime” prevents people from meeting and forging the cross-border regional solidarities that are the need of the hour. Meanwhile, work reporting has dwindled as a beat for reporters, Raza observed.
The interconnectedness of the issues is evident in the way the slogan “Save the Farmers, Save Bangladesh” resonates throughout the region. If the farmers survive, the country will survive; the crisis of the peasants is the crisis of the whole population, said young activist Lucky Akter in Dhaka.
The former student activist works full time as a central executive member of Bangladesh Krishak Samity or Bangladesh Peasants Union, the oldest and largest peasant organization in the country and is a central member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh . She also sang improvised in Bengali, reiterating her desire to “organize the peasants so that they can assert their rights”.
Famous singer Arieb Azhar from Islamabad has shared his version of the workers’ anthem, The Internationale. Opening with a Bengali translation, he sang his original verses in Urdu reflecting contemporary realities, calling for a reawakening of the masses, women, youth, workers and farmers, and to join the movements and struggles of peoples all over the world.
The concept that the strength of workers lies in unity emerged strongly from the discussion. Year-long farmer protests in India forced the government to roll back the three farm bills. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has brought workers to the streets in historic protests.
“Those who build cities have no homes and those who produce wealth have
absolutely no part in it,” said Maitreyi, a Bengaluru-based member of the All India Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) who moderated the discussion. She also highlighted the ways in which neoliberal policies reinforce existing structures of oppression.
Sociologist Haris Gazdar from Karachi has shared the results of a study he conducted with Delhi-based Nitya Rao on female agricultural workers in the region. The study revealed that women make up more than half of the agricultural labor force in South Asia. And yet, governments, society, families and even women themselves often fail to recognize this.
When the interviewer asks questions listing various related activities such as tending livestock, “now more than half of the workforce turns out to be women”. “Agriculture matters to women, and women matter to agriculture,” he said.
The poorest workers in South Asia work in agriculture and in this sector,
women’s jobs are the lowest paid even though they are doubly responsible for caring for health, nutrition, family, children, etc.
The findings of the study generated enough momentum for the issue to be taken seriously in Pakistan, leading to groundbreaking legislation in Sindh, the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act 2019.
Those working on the issue “were able to do it because comrades in India had worked on a bill that was tabled in the Rajya Sabha,” Gazdar said, referring to the 2011 Women Farmers’ Rights Bill. which was deposed by the agronomist and then member of Rajya Sabha, MS Swaminathan.
Countries in the region also influence each other in terms of slave labor legislation, he commented. We “have a lot to gain by learning from each other”, whether at government or worker level.
In Pakistan, the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan have spent
legislation on the rights of homeworkers, added renowned women’s rights activist Khawar Rani Mumtaz in Lahore. “These are remarkable achievements that other South Asian governments can use to enact similar legal frameworks. Estimates indicate that nearly half of the world’s 100 million homeworkers are in South Asia. Most are women.
Mumtaz also presented the founding charter of Sapan with the basic principles of the coalition
demands such as freedom of trade and travel and visa-free South Asia, translated into Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi, Telugu, Marathi and Sindhi by volunteers.
The Sapan Charter, Gazdar said, reflects “not only the experience of one country but of the whole region”, which gives political weight.
“All of our countries share a common history of fighting global systems of exploitation – colonization, racism. These power relations still exist today.
CLEANING THE SH*T IN OUR HEADS
“Power relations also exist in other areas. What’s the problem if scavengers clean up human feces? They were born to do this. So why should we think? Why should we stop this?’
This is how people think while justifying the practice of manual cleaning “where they can treat a human being like a slave,” Ramon commented.
Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Prize winner, co-founder and national leader of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), Delhi, shed light on the plight of sanitation workers and manual scavengers in India.
“You create smart cities, big roads, highways and buildings but do nothing to modernize the sanitation system where sanitation workers don’t have to touch trash and garbage because the shit in the minds of those in power believe that democracy and dignity are not for sanitation workers,” he said. “Thousands of sanitation workers have died cleaning manholes and septic tanks,” Wilson said, stressing the need to mechanize this work.
Journalist, researcher and educator Asif Aqeel in Lahore spoke of a similar situation in Pakistan.
“The caste system is at stake, with most sanitation workers being
Dalits. Advertisements for sanitation jobs call for non-Muslim candidates and are sometimes taken down after activists raise the issue.
Aqeel is active with the Sweepers are Superheroes movement initiated by Pakistani parliamentarian Mary James Gill to dignify this work. He is also Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ) in Pakistan and teaches sociology at the Lahore Law School.
Labor activists Anton Marcus, Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zones and General Services Union, Colombo, Umesh Upadhyaya from the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), Kathmandu, and Apoorva Kaiwar, South Asia Regional Secretary, IndustriALL, shared their points of view on the challenges and victories of workers’ unions. They also agreed on the need to revive the South Asian Labor Forum (SALF) established in 1996.
“There needs to be an alliance of trade unions with workers’ associations and research associations and consortia — ‘we can’t afford
work in silos,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, summarizing the discussion.
Currently a Labor Specialist with the ILO’s Decent Work Team for South Asia in New Delhi, he is the former Executive Director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS).
Ahmed said it was unfortunate that even on the occasion of the Rana Plaza
anniversary of the collapse, there has been little expression of solidarity for those affected, or for the tragedy of the Visakhapatnam gas leak in May 2020, both caused by years of neglect.
Priyanka Singh is a data analyst in Delhi. Beena Sarwar is a journalist and editor Boston. Both are founding members of Sapan. Writer and columnist Sheeba Aslam Fehmi is also a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It’s a Syndicated feature of Sapan News.