Millions strike in India over wages and economic reforms

Public sector workers protest in Mumbai
Public sector workers protest in Mumbai

Millions of public sector workers went on strike across India on Friday (September 2), protesting against prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for greater privatisation and a proposed minimum wage hike they say is inadequate.

Up to 150 million workers from sectors including nursing, banking, manufacturing and coal mining as well as hawkers and daily wage labourers are expected to take part in the 24-hour nationwide strike, organisers said.

Ten major unions called the strike after talks with finance minister Arun Jaitley broke down, with leaders rejecting his offer to raise the minimum wage for unskilled workers from Rs 6,396 (£72) per month to Rs 9,100 rupees (£103).

“This strike is against the central government, this strike is for the cause of the working people,” Ramen Pandey of the Indian National Trade Union Congress said.

“Our strike will be 100 per cent successful… we will prove that this strike is the world’s largest ever.”

Workers are also demanding the government dump plans to shutter unproductive factories, raise foreign investment caps in some industries and sell off stakes in state-run companies – over fears that creeping privatisation will jeopardise jobs.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions said workers were “demanding an end to the all-round attack launched by the government against their lives, livelihood and dignity” and that 150 million people were expected to lay down tools.

It accused the government of a “vile conspiracy… to privatise the public sector and invite foreign capital in some parts of industry”.

Unions are seeking the introduction of universal social security as well as an increase in the minimum wage to Rs 18,000 (£203) a month because of rising prices.

It was not possible to independently verify the number of workers on strike.

Banks, shops and schools shut down in several parts of the country including southern Karnataka and Kerala states where public transport stopped running, stranding commuters and travellers.

Television footage showed flag-waving protesters squatting on railway tracks in the states of Orissa and West Bengal, which has a long history of left-wing union activism.

More than 20 protesters were arrested after they damaged two government buses in West Bengal, senior police official Anuj Sharma told reporters.

India’s power minister Piyush Goyal said the strike would not have any impact on coal supplies as there is “no shortage of coal anywhere in the country”.

Modi won a landslide election victory in 2014, promising a string of business-friendly reforms to attract foreign investment and revive the economy.

According to the latest budget, the government aims to raise some Rs 560 billion (£6.3bn) through privatisation in 2016-17 and shut down some state-run firms, after losses exceeded $4bn (£3bn) in the last financial year.

Previous strikes have brought cities to a standstill and cost the Indian economy millions of dollars in lost production.