RTI, Labour Laws: From Chicago to India, How Workers Fought for Basic Rights

As labourers, farmers, citizens unite to assert their rights and struggles in a democracy, the State must act fast.

6 min read
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On 1 May this year, as they have for over 130 years, millions of workers across the world will join each other to "celebrate" Labour Day and the many workers' struggles fought locally, nationally, and globally. The day has been celebrated to mark a victory of an eight-hour working day — a red line finally accepted across the world, as one amongst many basic standards for humane working conditions. 

May Day” marked the Chicago "Haymarket uprising" of 1 May 1886, ordained by a decision taken in 1889 to call for workers across the world to mark 1st May as labour day. Workers of the world responded, and here we have it.

The victorious struggle and its propagation through May Day celebrations established the first basic 'right" of all working people, not only in Chicago or the United States but across the world.

Hundred years later, on 1st May 1990 in a small town called 'Bhim' in Rajasthan, about 1000 workers gathered, drawing inspiration from the many workers' struggles across the world, and formed themselves into the "Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan" (MKSS) . As a peasant and workers' organisation, the MKSS has had much to add to the lexicon of workers' struggles to establish basic rights, and their contribution to a more just and humane society. 


These struggles of workers and small farmers began with traditional issues of land and minimum wages, and over two decades expanded into issues of democracy and development. MKSS has been an active contributor in driving successful nationwide campaigns and movements for The Right to Information(RTI), and The Rural Employment Guarantee Acts, but also later in a series of landmark rights-based legislations that signalled a paradigm shift in India's architecture of democracy and development. 

Right to Information and Right to Work

The 1st of May is an appropriate day to remember that India's celebrated Right to Information movement came from workers making a demand to access documents of their work and wages, as recorded in their muster rolls. Their demand was not just for themselves, but for a principle of transparency and accountability ("hamara paisa, hamara hisaab"—our money our accounts) to be a necessary part of any democratic framework. 

Similarly, the first nationwide Employment Guarantee law in the world came from workers' struggles against the neo-liberal "market-friendly state", growing increasingly hostile to the rights of workers. Workers organised to assert and re-establish that the state had a first and primary responsibility to provide and ensure the basic rights of workers, rather than facilitate corporate entities in their bid to capture markets, and increase profits.

The "Right to work" was a giant leap in establishing the state's responsibility to provide work—especially where markets had failed, rights-based legislation continued to be enacted in the early 2000s, with social movements leading campaigns that successfully resulted in national legislation for the right to food, education, street vendors, disability rights, social security rights, against domestic violence, amongst others. 

These victories were not comprehensive, or easily accepted. In fact, they still continue to be contested, and even the very idea of rights has been described as "revdi" by the Prime Minister, or "freebies" by some courts. The RTI Act has been amended and diluted by the Modi government, and the MGNREGA has been weakened through insufficient allocations and the use of technologies that exclude and frustrate the right to work.

Minimum wages were considered sacrosanct since enacted as law in 1948, but in 2023, the Indian state pays MGNREGA workers based on their output, at less than minimum wages. Since COVID, even the inviolable 8-hour working day is under threat! 

Recent Labour Codes Undermine Basic Workers' Rights

In India, Dr Ambedkar is credited with ensuring the introduction and acceptance of an eight-hour working day, in 1942 when he proposed it at the Indian Labour Conference, and had it accepted as the "Member Labour" of the Viceroys Executive Council.  But the disaster of COVID and the arbitrary lockdowns not only demonstrated how fragile and unjust the working and living conditions were for India's vast unorganised workforce but also that the state in many instances was more concerned about the rights and relief to be given to employers.

As soon as the lockdowns were lifted, the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan led the way in bringing about amendments to allow a 12-hour working day! A few months ago, Karnataka passed an amendment allowing a 12-hour working day, and only a week ago, Tamil Nadu put a similar amendment on hold following workers' protests.

Labour codes have been introduced and passed at a central level that undermines rights to better working conditions, wages, collective bargaining, and the formation of unions; won through decades of workers' struggles in India. As working class in India suffered, losing jobs and livelihoods during COVID, corporate India “worked from home”, and many earned windfall profits, at the cost of people and the environment.

In the run-up to state elections in Rajasthan in December 2023, and Lok Sabha elections in 2024, it will be interesting to see if acknowledging the rights of workers and ordinary citizens will play a role in drawing votes. The State Government of Rajasthan has shaped policy in sharp contrast to the Central Government, through many provisions such as free nutrition inputs in rations, subsidised gas cylinders, and free electricity to households and farmers, but also through four significant path-breaking legislations that have been passed or have been promised to be enacted soon. 

Legislation for Gig Workers Needs To Be Immediated

The Right to Health law has recently been enacted providing for free and universal public health services for all. A minimum income guarantee law promises a) the enactment of an enhanced rural employment guarantee, b) the first urban employment guarantee entitlement in the country, and c) the first social security pension with automatic increments—all promised to be guaranteed by law.

The promise to enact a social security law for "gig workers" in the state will make it the first of its kind in the world. Its significance comes from the fact that aggregators (employers) do not want to call those whose labour they are profiting from. Instead of "workers", they prefer to call them "partners" in order to avoid the mandate of labour rights and laws. The draft bill under consideration makes it clear that the app-based transactions must contain a percentage of the payment to be put aside with a legally mandated social security board, for the social security rights of the gig ‘workers’ or, whatever the employers choose to call them.

The accountability legislation called "RTI Part II" by workers and campaigners has hit a roadblock. The state government has repeatedly promised social accountability legislation but continues to hesitate on delivering on this important promise. There have been three budget announcements by the state government in its current term to enact an accountability law.

However, it seems increasingly clear that the workers gathered in Bhim and elsewhere in the state, will have to draw upon their lessons from the RTI movement to demand accountability, from the State Government on its promise to enact an accountability law. 


Workers' Rights are the Duty of the State

All four legislations mark an advancement in bringing together workers' rights and the universal rights of citizens. As Gig workers this special 'new' category of workers will have to craft a specific set of rights through organising and collective bargaining. At the same time, as citizens, all workers both rural and urban (including farm labour) will under the minimum income law,  have the right to get a minimum number of days of work at minimum wages anywhere in the state, and a minimum pension when they cannot work because of age or other physical conditions.

Similarly, the right to health, or the right of citizens to demand accountability, is of great value to vulnerable workers. But in fighting for the rights of all citizens, the working people of Rajasthan seem to have persuaded the state government that a universal rights-based approach is not only good for all working people but also for all citizens.

Most important is the acknowledgement, that guaranteeing the provision of basic rights and services, is in fact the basic duty of a state in a democratic framework. 

This coming together of workers, farmers and citizens to assert their rights and struggles to establish democracy with justice, equality, and solidarity, is what the workers of the world will celebrate, and what those at the "Mazdoor Mela" in Bhim, will echo, amplify, and propagate. They will do it when the winds are behind them, and even when the odds are stacked against them. May Day 2023 is special as well, and like every previous year the workers will assert, "nyay samanta ho aadhar, aisa rachenge hum sansaar."

(Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy, and Shankar Singh are social activists and founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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