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Movement of the Working Class in India

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  • Last Updated : 11 Nov, 2022
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In the nineteenth century, India saw the emergence of the contemporary working class. This change resulted from the construction of contemporary factories, railroads, dockyards, and other types of buildings and roadways. In terms of relatively modern labor organization and a comparatively free labor market, it was a modern working class. This rule had a few significant exceptions. The plantation workers, who also created items for their capitalist bosses and sold them on foreign markets, were hired and forced to work in oppressive conditions. In truth, the bulk of workers in colonial India did not have as free of restrictions on hiring and working hours as they did in some other nations with more advanced capitalist systems. The working class movement saw effects from this scenario as it evolved over time. Along with the less developed economy, colonialism also had an impact on the labor movement. In India, the labor movement prioritized worker care over promoting workers’ rights. Despite being well-organized, they weren’t present throughout all of India. Most of their concerns and demands were about how women and young employees could support themselves. The Indian labor movement was led by and for the workers, not by the workers themselves.

Silent protests, passive resistance, individual protests and strikes, more organized welfare activities, as well as larger protests and strikes that reach the level of general strikes, are all included in its scope. There are numerous variations of worker responses to the industrial system. These reactions might be intended to improve living and working circumstances inside the industrial system, but they might also be directly in opposition to the industrial system. Thus, labor activism can take numerous forms, from the small-scale battles of the workforce to broad-scale strikes that affect an entire industry or a number of industries. It covers both the labor movements and actions that take place within the capitalist system and those that resist it.

Problems of the Working Class Movement:

  • Unorganized workers, who make up a sizable portion of the working class, were excluded from union membership.
  • The unions choose the comparatively simple route of advancing the interests of those who could be quickly organized or whose demands were likely to be heard by the government.
  • The country’s industrial working class failed to join forces with the peasants and other groups in collective direct action on political matters.
  • This demonstrated how the working class lacked political consciousness.
  • Neglect for Marginalized Groups: Trade unions in the organized sector failed to address the issues faced by women and members of socially marginalized groups.
  • The number of labor unions that advocate for the country’s workers has increased since its independence.
  • The existence of numerous unions in a capitalist economy keeps the working class divided and open to all kinds of pressure.
  • The country’s trade unions had not offered solutions to the working class’s challenges.
  • As a result of their division and ensuing conflict, unions frequently failed to address the problems facing the working class.

Movements of the Working Class In British India:

Several congress leaders were imprisoned during the final few years of British rule, and the communists were able to completely seize control of the AITUC. After being released from prison and unable to advance inside the group, they founded the Indian National Trade Union Congress in 1947, which gained significant support from the government. The new industrialization strategy of the government (1947–1966), which placed a strong emphasis on import substitution, grew state firms and increased employment in the public sector. Trade unionism grew quickly among state firms that were expanding and had high employment rates. Collective bargaining processes have to be highly politicized because of the very centralized nature of trade union bureaucracies. Inflation was brought on by the industrial standstill that developed between 1967 and 1979, which led to the railroad workers’ strike in May 1974. The strike lasted 21 days and was supported by 1.2 million railroad workers. At the same time, Congress employed Shiv Sena to undermine the foundation of communist unions. 

In the years following independence, the state took over as the only arbiter of disputes between businesses and the working class. The government’s top priorities during this time were to promote industrial peace, economic growth, and effective management of labor-management conflict. The state created legislation like the Industrial Dispute Act in 1947 and presented the Labor Relations Bill and Trade Unions Bills in 1949 in order to accomplish these objectives. The employees in Bombay had financial troubles as a result of the economic slump in the late 1960s. It might be seen in the rising jobless rate and workers’ mounting debt. The inability of the conventional trade unions to address the issues facing the working class created a favorable environment for Shiv Sena’s emergence and expansion. The Bharatiya Kamgar Sena is a union that was created by the Shiv Sena. It came into existence as an alternative to conventional trade unions. However, the working class was split along ethnic lines by the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena. It claimed that the numerous laborers who had immigrated from other parts of the nation, particularly south India, were to blame for the working class troubles. The Shiv Sena movement broke up the working class’s cohesiveness in Bombay by dividing them along ethnic lines. This separation, which had already been established, persisted later. Some contend that Shiv Sena agitated on the industrialists’ behalf to polarize the working class. The Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, however, also failed to win over the workforce. It not only caused the non-Maharashtrian workers to feel insecure, but it also caused them to become divided along racial and religious lines.

The Bombay textile workers went on strike in 1982–1983, which was deemed to have “few analogs” in the country’s working-class struggle. In 1974, the railway workers who belonged to the major trade unions—all but the INTUC, which was linked with Congress—organized a nationwide strike. Throughout the strike, rail operations were suspended. The government’s response was a vehemently anti-worker one, and it attempted to end the strike. The employees were unable to maintain the strike in the face of the government’s resistance. A few years after this strike, the government led by Congress declared a state of emergency in the nation from 1975 to 1977 and put in place policies that made it harder for employees to strike. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) broke from AITUC to form CITU. The strike eventually had some success. The working class’s situation improved between 1947 and 1960, and there was a decrease in the number of strikes.

Issues Related to Labor Movements:

  • Despite an increase in trade union membership, the great majority of employees were hesitant to join any unions. Due to this, the collective negotiating strength that could have been used to raise demands and problems was diminished. In comparison to the opposition, they were slightly helpless due to their numerical disadvantage. They didn’t have the public’s backing either because they were seen as slowing down development.
  • Politicians were typically in charge of the unions, and their political goals took precedence over the demands of the workers. The number of unions increased dramatically, which further multiplied the amount of care needed. The unions didn’t have a distinct division based on different types of labor. More conflicts of interest developed as political parties and unions proliferated.
  • The weak financial situation was the biggest drawback. The Trade Union Act of 1926 imposed an incredibly low membership cost. Their main rivals, primarily corporate businesses, had substantial capital, which was incomparable to the condition of these unions, which are primarily made up of people making minimum wage and daily wages.
  • Development was not consistent. It largely concentrated on structured sectors and urban areas. Low-wage labor was largely excluded and underrepresented in rural areas.

Development of Labour Laws In India:

  • Industrial Employment Act 1946: Employers in industrial establishments are required by this Act to clearly define the terms of employment and submit drought standing orders to the certifying Authority for certification. By establishing mechanisms and procedures for the investigation and resolution of workplace disputes through conciliation, arbitration, and adjudication as specified by statute, the Industrial Disputes Act seeks to ensure industrial peace and concord.
  • Industrial Disputes Act 1947: It is India’s main law guiding how disputes are resolved. It was passed to make provisions for the investigation and resolution of labor disputes, to stop unlawful strikes and lockouts, and to give workers relief during layoffs, following retrenchment, or after being wrongfully fired. It covered the entirety of India and governed Indian labor law with regard to trade unions and individual workers employed in any industry on the Indian mainland.
  • Factories Act, 1948: It is an Act that amends and codifies the laws governing factory labor. The Act’s primary goals are to ensure sufficient safety precautions, advance the health and well-being of factory workers, and limit the haphazard expansion of industries.
  • Minimum wage Act, 1948: The minimum wages that must be provided to skilled and unskilled laborers are established by an Act of Parliament pertaining to Indian labor law. It is introduced to ensure that all workers receive a living wage in the public interest, to establish the employees’ daily work schedules, to stop employers from abusing their employees, and to guarantee the laborers’ ability to maintain a respectable standard of living.
  • Maternity benefit act, 1961: The Act safeguards women’s employment during pregnancy and grants them the right to a “maternity benefit,” or fully paid leave from work, to care for their unborn child. The Act controls how long women can work in specific places before and after giving birth and offers maternity and other benefits.

New Economic Policy, 1991:

Its main goals are to increase global trade in products, services, capital, human capital, and technology while also focusing on accumulating foreign exchange reserves and reducing market constraints. 1991 New Economic Policy India helped the nation’s economy liberalize by opening its markets to domestic and international investors, promoting imports, and lowering taxes to stimulate profitable commercial activity. The new economic strategy was centered on reducing roadblocks to economic expansion and fostering a more competitive environment with access to the global market. India’s New Economic Policy of 1991 brought about changes to foreign trade and investments, industry privatization, and financial restraint. It included LPG (Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization). The workers’ position in capitalist negotiations suffered with liberalization. The policy did not establish a legislated minimum wage for labor. It completely granted employers the power to hire and fire. 

Some of the Major Labor Unions:

1. All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC):

The oldest trade union federation in India is the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). AITUC has been the main trade union organization in India operating under the Indian National Congress since its founding when unions started to organize along party lines. Learn about the founding of the Indian National Congress in the article linked. The Communist Party of India has been ideologically allied with the All India Trade Union Congress since 1945. It was created in opposition to the ruling that sentenced freedom warrior Bal Gangadhar Tilak to six years in prison. The AITUC grew until it broke up in 1929. Following the First World War, there were numerous worker strikes throughout India. The majority of these unions, as would be expected, were located in advanced industrial hubs like Bombay, Calcutta, Kanpur, Ahmedabad, and Madras. Cotton and jute textiles, railroads, ships, iron and steel, and post offices and telegraphs were the key industries where these unions were established. The communist ideology, which is based on the doctrines of Marx and Lenin, gives the working class center stage. Therefore, it made sense that communists would be deeply active in India’s labor movement.

2. Indian National Trade Union Congress:

It is an Indian national labor union. The International Trade Union Confederation is one of its affiliates, and it was established on May 3, 1947. The largest Trade Union in India, INTUC, with 3.95 million members in 2013. Basically, it is to ensure that laws for the protection and advancement of labor are properly enforced and to control hours and other work conditions in accordance with the conditions of the workers.

3. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh:

BMS was established on July 23, 1955, which was also the birthday of Freedom Movement veteran Lok Manya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Only by studying the past of the trade union movement, the successes, and failures of various Unions, political divide. The causes that gave rise to the foundation of BMS can the growth of BMS in the current Trade Union Movement be properly understood. BMS had previously used a different approach that had worked well despite the lack of a wide range of expected leaders. The last movement to enter the scene, BMS, went on to become the largest Trade Union in the nation, according to the third phase of history up to the present. Others are just unions that have broken apart from Communist or trade unions affiliated with Congress primarily for political reasons.


During colonial times, the organized working class made up a tiny fraction of the Indian population. However, the fact that it was concentrated in a few significant cities provided it cohesiveness and political prominence. The early nationalists were not particularly concerned with worker’s issues. They opposed regulations governing the working conditions in mills and factories because they supported an indigenous capitalist path to development. The working class in India fought hard and won some rights back from the capitalists and landlords who have ruled the country for the past 75 years. Workers consistently rejected divisive tribal politics during the freedom struggle and banded together to strike ferocious blows against the colonial authorities. India’s workers must rise to the occasion once more and fend off any attempts to contaminate their solidarity.

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