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Millions of Indian workers strike for rights

28 FEB 2012

RIMANEWS-Millions of workers in India have begun a 24-hour strike to demand improved rights for employees and to protest over rising prices.

Tuesday’s strike, one of the biggest in recent times, is being backed by all 11 major trade unions in the country, including the left affiliated All India Trade Union Congress [AITUC] and Indian National Trade Union Congress [INTUC] linked to ruling Congress party, local television station NDTV said.

The strike marks the latest test for Manmohan Singh's government, which has has been shaken by a succession of corruption scandals and popular protests since the prime minister's Congress party won a second term in 2009. 

The government’s appeal on Monday failed to impress the unions, who want the government to take measures to contain inflation, provide universal social security cover for workers in the vast unorganised labour sector, and to stop selling stakes in state-run companies.

"We will have to think about our future course of action if the government does not come forward with proposals on how it will react to our demands," G Sanjeeva Reddy, president of INTUC, told Reuters news agency.

The strike threatens to disrupt transport and port operations, while banks and post offices could also be closed.

Workers from state-run telecom companies and postal department will also join the shutdown, which comes amid weakening economic growth and a slew of state-level elections.

Last week, the country's labour minister said the government was ready for talks on any labour-related issues, NDTV website reported.

But AITUC leader Gurudas Dasgupta rejected it saying, "The government had enough opportunity earlier to sit with unions to discuss the issues".

Financial impact

Al Jazeera’s Prerna Suri, reporting from New Delhi, said: "The strike has little impact in the country's capital, but in states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura where the communist parties have presence, local agitators have blocked roads and rails and commuters have harrowing times."

"In the city of Mumbai for instance life has not come to a complete standstill. But I suspect the government is actually going to be more afraid of the financial impact from this crisis.

"There are 800,000 striking workers across state companies that include banks and financial institutions like life insurance companies."

The protests are not expected to significantly affect banks and financial markets in Asia's third-largest economy, but traders said there could be some volatility in the bond market if volumes are lower than normal.

"Volumes could be lower, but settlement should happen," said a senior dealer at a state-run bank.

Al Jazeera's Suri said: "Bombay Stock Exchange traders have been telling the strike might have an impact on their profits. So, a larger financial impact is something that’s worrying the government."

"India might have run financially better compared to rest of the western countries, but back home the government has faced criticism for not doing enough to contain inflation and bring up minimum wages," she said.

"One of the key demands of the strikers is to implement labour laws, a legislation that’s been passed decades ago but not been implemented.

"Government says it is ready to negotiate, but trade union activists say they are going to stick with their demands and they are going to wait for something much more concrete rather than empty promises."

Hit by high interest rates, stubborn inflation and a stuttering reform agenda, India's economy is expected to grow by about seven per cent in the fiscal year ending March, compared with earlier expectations of about nine per cent growth.

Congress is currently fighting five state elections, including one in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state.

Tuesday's strike will be India's 14th general strike since the country opened up its economy with major reforms in 1991.[ach/aljazeera]

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