Workers' strike shuts industry, financial operations

Thursday, 22 May 2003, 07:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI: Business activities were crippled across India Wednesday as some 40 million workers stopped work to protest government plans for further privatisation of industry and to oppose proposed hire-and-fire policies.

Terming the strike "unwarranted and without a just cause", Indian industry said the nationwide shutdown would result in a loss of billions of rupees to the exchequer.

"The country needs a mature union leadership that can effectively contribute to the economic development of the country," said Ashwin Dani, president of All India Organisation of Employers.

While the workers' protests resulted in a general shutdown in states like West Bengal, Kerala, Assam and much of Andhra Pradesh, industrial and financial activities were thrown completely out of gear in virtually the entire country.

The strike was supported by all major trade unions except the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the labour wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"The strike was a complete success all across the country," boasted Tapan Sen, national secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is linked to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).

"Nearly 90 percent of workers from organised and unorganised sectors participated in the strike to protest the disastrous economic policies of the government," Sen told IANS.

"The response to the strike is overwhelming in all strategic industrial sectors such as ports, coal and mining, banks, oil and petroleum and insurance. In some states, the strike took the shape of a complete shutdown."

Sen claimed over 40 million workers joined the strike.

The one-day strike was called to protest the government's economic policies that unions say have resulted in large-scale job losses and victimisation of workers.

Unions were also opposing the government's move to privatise state-owned companies, end import restrictions and reform labour laws to enable companies to hire and fire workers and shut down businesses.

The government is under pressure to tighten its decades-old labour laws and allow companies to hire and fire at will.

Currently, only companies that employ fewer than 100 people can fire workers and close loss-making units without government permission. The government proposes to extend that limit to companies with as many as 1,000 workers.

The agitating workers took out processions in different parts of the country waving red flags, forcing shops and business establishments to shutdown.

In other cities and towns, workers were seen sitting outside factory gates shouting slogans against the government's free-market economic policies, which, they said, has resulted in large-scale job losses.

Financial activity across the country was crippled, with five out of nine public sector bank employees' unions supporting the strike.

Transactions at all leading state-owned banks, including the State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank and Bank of India, were badly hit, said a bank union leader.

"Around 80 percent of bank workers didn't report for work today. In most of bank branches, no transaction could be carried out today due to the strike," said a spokesman of the All India Bank Officers' Confederation.

State-run banks, which account for about 75 percent of the industry's total deposits and advances, wore a deserted look across the country.

In the national capital, workers organised noisy demonstrations outside some public sector bank branches.

India is estimated to have around 850,000 banking employees registered with different unions. The strike is estimated to result in disruption of nationwide banking transactions worth 1 billion, say bankers.

The strike also paralysed banking operations in Mumbai, the country's financial capital, but commercial transport plied as usual with the influential Shiv Sena party's labour arm deciding not to join the shutdown.

In Communist-ruled West Bengal, the shutdown took the shape of a general strike. Roads were deserted, shops downed their shutters, and government and private offices did not function.

Educational institutions remained closed in the city and in the districts. Work at ports, in mines and industrial units came to a halt.

Jet Airways and Air Sahara, India's two leading privately owned domestic carriers, cancelled their daily flights to Kolkata in view of the strike. State-run Indian Airlines, however, decided to maintain its service.

In Kerala the strike resulted in a complete closure of banks, post offices and both government and private establishments. Except for private two wheelers and a few four wheelers, buses and private heavy vehicles stayed off the roads.

Financial services were badly hampered in Gujarat as employees in banking and insurance sectors stuck work. Apart from employees of public sector banks and insurance companies, income tax department officials also joined the strike.

In Andhra Pradesh, nearly 120,000 employees of the central government, banks, insurance companies, and state public sector undertakings participated in the strike.
Source: IANS
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