In India, millions of people are on strike for better pay and labour rights

Millions of workers began a nationwide two-day strike across India on Monday to express their anger at the government’s economic policies and press their demands for improved rights for industrial workers, employees and farmers.

About a dozen labour unions that organized the strike want the government to provide universal social security coverage for workers in the vast unorganized sector, hike the minimum wage under a flagship employment guarantee program and stop the privatization of public-sector banks.

The strikers are also demanding that the government halt plans to sell state assets.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government says privatizing some state-owned banks would overhaul the banking industry and that asset sales would help raise money to spur economic growth.

The strike had little impact in India’s capital, New Delhi, and the financial hub of Mumbai, but daily life was affected elsewhere, including southern Kerala, where the state government led by the opposition Communist Party of India backed the protest. In some states, demonstrators blocked highways and railroad tracks, affecting public transportation.

Activists and supporters of the Left Front, Indian National Congress and various trade unions try to block a road in Kolkata, India, today during a nationwide strike. (Bikas Das/The Associated Press)

The All Indian Trade Union Congress, one of the country’s largest trade unions, said it expected more than 200 million formal and informal workers would join the strike, but the figure could not be independently verified.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, an important trade union affiliated with the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said it wouldn’t participate in the strike, calling it “politically motivated.”

Unemployment higher

Essential services related to banking, transportation, railways and electricity were expected to be impacted in several states. A number of public-sector banks, including India’s largest lender, the state-run State Bank of India, said banking services may be affected because many employees were expected to join the strike.

India’s economy has bounced back after experiencing a major blow during the first two years of the pandemic. But many jobs have disappeared, with unemployment rising to eight per cent in December.

Modi’s government grappled last year with huge farmer protests demanding the repeal of new agriculture laws it had billed as necessary reforms.

The protests by farmers, who feared the laws would dramatically reduce their incomes, forced Modi to make a rare retreat just ahead of crucial state elections that his party eventually won.

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