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Pressure tactics end South Gujarat's 1.5 lakh sugarcane workers' strike for more wages

Sugarcane workers' protest in Bardoli
By Jayesh Gamit, Denis Macwan* 
On the first day of the strike of sugarcane harvesting workers of South Gujarat, February 28, in which tribal migrant workers under the banner of Majur Adhikar Manch (MAM) participated, two teams of the trade union visited labour camps in and around Bardoli to assess the impact. The teams found that around 30 per cent workers went on strike and did not work.
The factory management deployed full strength of its recruitment staff to persuade workers to continue working. Recalcitrant workers were asked to pack up and go home without settlement of their accounts. Supervisors threatened workers, who had stopped work, that they would not be allotted farms for cutting sugarcane.
Nearly one and a half lakh sugarcane workers had agitated for higher wages, improved working and living conditions, and social security for last five years. Hence, on the second day, February 29, a general meeting and rally was proposed in front of the Bardoli Sugar Factory. For this, approval was sought and granted by the office of executive sub-magistrate, Bardoli, on February 27.
It is noteworthy that in spite of the enormity of pressure by the factory management, about 30 per cent of the harvesters had stopped work on the first day of the strike. There was a high possibility that the strike would spread furiously in the area after the general meeting and a rally of the protesting workers to the sub-magistrate’s office in Bardoli.
Fearing this, on the evening of February 28, the block administration cancelled its permission of organizing a public meeting due to the enormous pressure brought on by the sugar factory management and their vast network of political associates.
This became evident through the string of reasons that the administration presented to the members of MAM, Surat, which appeared baseless. The office of the magistrate conveyed that ground approved as the venue for the meeting was the space where the factory vehicles were parked. 
The said space is about 50,000 square feet of vacant space located in front of the factory. Out of this, the union had sought permission for meeting for 200 people only, for which 1000 square feet would be more than enough.
The pertinent question is, if the harvesters working for the factory do not demonstrate in front of the sugar factory for their demands, where else will they go? This step of the administration is a direct violation of the human and labour rights of the workers as per our Constitution. The union appealed against this move to the sub-division magistrate.
There was possibility that the strike would spread furiously in the area after the general meeting and a rally of the protesting workers to the sub-magistrate’s office in Bardoli
This is not the first incident of its kind. Earlier, on February 14, a closed-door meeting organized by MAM with the harvesters in the hall of the Bardoli Medical Association was unceremoniously interrupted by the police and the management of the sugar factory. The management of the Bardoli Medical Association was pressurised to cancel the booking made for the meeting after the attempts by the police to halt the meeting did not work.
It is the constitutional right of the workers to organize and fight for their rights. The factory management and the administration should know that if this right is violated, the anger of the workers will manifest in other ways, as was witnessed in Chalthan Factory in 2016, as per the information received by the union.
The factory management worked day and night to disrupt the strike. Representatives of the factory were using threats such as immediate dismissal and non-payment of wages to deter harvesters from stopping their work. Contractors were also being constantly threatened with non-clearance of accounts and that they would no longer be given work. Furthermore, the management went to the extent of threatening the workers with mechanization which would render the harvesters unemployed.
The extent of pressure being exercised by various powerful stakeholders was experienced by the union team when they were besieged by the sugarcane farm owners in Timbarawa village during the press coverage on February 28 while the strike was going on. The union team was threatened with dire consequences if they did not leave the area.
Given this atmosphere of terror and the excessive pressure by the administration, the union decided to withdraw its call for strike to ensure the safety of the harvesters. It submitted a memorandum on the demands of the workers to the Chief Minister through the province officer.
The struggle for human and labour rights will continue. The union will soon file a suit in the appropriate court against factory management for not following labour laws; while the efforts will continue to organize the harvesters.
---
*Secretaries, Majur Adhikar Manch, Dang and Surat, respectively

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