Bengaluru For several years in Bengaluru (Bangalore) our main focus has been organizing informal workers into unions, not because it’s easy, but because it’s necessary. Informal workers in construction, domestic work, street vending or hawking, and wastepicking in the state of Karnataka cannot obtain identification cards and therefore ration cards unless their employer or their union can verify their address. Besides the normal benefits that come with unionization (solidarity, improved livelihood, collective action and protection), creating a registered union of informal workers allows such workers to qualify for social security and other benefits.
Technically the law in Karnataka had said that a petition had to be signed by 100 or more valid workers in each occupation and a “charter” or registration would be issued to ACORN Bengaluru for a union for domestic workers, a union for construction workers, and a union for wastepickers. The regulations raj wasn’t moving though and our petitions have now been sitting for 18 to 24 months without action by the state. A belated May Day action with many joining with us several weeks ago pressed the demands to the state for action, and finally Karnataka has moved to speed up the process of registration for all of our unions. Today in an all day meeting with one of our large settlements of Dalit construction workers, where 60 members have already signed with our union out of the 200 families living there, our tireless organizer, Suresh Kadashan, was informing the leadership that a final meeting would be happening within two weeks with the registration complete so enrollments could be complete.
The organizing tool Suresh was using this Sunday was setting up a “health camp” in the construction workers squatting settlement on disputed land between a private holder and the railway. He had convinced a doctor to volunteer and provide health screenings for diabetes, heart, and blood pressure and then out of his pocket provide some simple medicines, the diabetes strips, and referrals if needed to area hospitals. Over 4 or 5 hours, we provided 99 screenings without the doctor and his equally volunteering nurse taking a break. On the plus side as a medical process it was the most transparent and community supporting health event that I’ve ever seen. Everyone clumped around and watched. They laughed at the pinprick the doc would administer on a finger. Without prompting, the men stepped back and allowed the women and children to go first for hours and hours. On the minus side 37 of the 99 tested positive for diabetes across all age groups, which was startling. The culprit seems to be diet and the fact that most the cooking oils are not refined making them amazingly dangerous (Suresh told me that studies had found 9 of the 10 local companies in violation and having gone to market with bribes rather than filters). They are killing people stated flatly. This unusual organizing exercise was felt by Suresh to have been a success today, since the last man to be tested was the informal “mayor” of the village, and seeing the process he gave the union a ringing endorsement after he was examined.
Our union of street vendors or hawkers faces greater challenges though in Bengaluru. The national hawkers law passed by the Indian Parliament in recent years established a similar entitlement for these informal workers to have a union, but left it to each state to determine the ways and means. Karnataka has essentially sat on the process. First they claimed to us that they weren’t sure what a “street vendor” was, so we turned in over 2600 surveys filled out by workers (there are an estimated 60,000 hawkers in Bengaluru!), and still nothing. A committee was finally established late in 2011, but still no real action. We are committed to political action over the rest of the year and have an agreement from several advocates to file a PIL (public interest lawsuit) before the end of the year to force action.
It’s not easy in India, but slowly but surely, we’re getting it done in Bengaluru!