Volume 7, No. 7, August-September-October, 2006

 

What SEZs mean for women

 

In May this year the Lok Sabha passed legislation under which the Special Economic Zones will function and the process of sanctioning SEZs to private players has also begun in right earnest. This process was already under way for the past couple of years but with the present steps by the Central Government the process has picked up speed all over the country. State Governments are vying with each other to invite the comprador capitalists and MNCs to pick up stakes in and run the SEZs or at least invest in them. The so-called left parties like the CPM have been trumpeting the fact that they forced certain changes in the regulations for SEZs which will be of benefit to workers employed in the SEZs. But the reality is far from what they claim. The setting up of SEZs is representative of the kind of regime the imperialists would like to work under in the third world countries and it is a major victory for the forces of globalisation. The minor controls regarding work conditions the CPM and allied forces have tried to ensure in no way change the basic nature of SEZs as foreign territory where the laws of the country whether related to taxation or to labour laws will not be applicable.

Policy for SEZs

The preamble to the SEZ policy in Maharashtra (2001) states that the "SEZs are specifically delineated duty-free enclaves treated as a foreign territory for the purpose of industrial service and trade operations, with exemption from customs duties and a more liberal regime in respect of other levies, foreign investment and other transactions". The developer of the SEZ is granted income tax exemption for 10 years and so are those who invest inside an SEZ. The environmental clearances have been made far more liberal and all permissions made smooth with the single window clearance. From the working class point of view labour laws are also being amended for the purposes of the SEZs. Several State Governments have already announced the changes they are making in the labour laws for the SEZs to make them more "attractive" for the imperialists and compradors. The West Bengal Government, for example, has made all industries in SEZs Ďpublic utility services" thus making strikes illegal. They have also amended the trade union act so that only internal unions are allowed. The Maharashtra government has already stated in its policy document that section VA under the Industrial Disputes Act which made it mandatory for a company with more than 100 workers to get state Government permission before closure will be amended to 300 workers. Also provisions of the Contract Labour Act will be changed so that contract system will be allowed in many more industries and services of a permanent nature. In brief we can say that through announced and unannounced measures workers will be denied even the meager and inadequate protection that they have at present. Already the Central Government has amended the factory Act in March 2005 to make it possible for women to be employed in the night shift in many more industries. This has been a bonanza for the garment and the IT industry. They had been hankering for this amendment for some years now. The consequences of the night shift for women are being felt in the major cities like Bangalore where call centers are concentrated.

Conditions for Women Workers

The rape and murder of Pratibha Shastri a young call center employee in Bangalore in December last year highlighted this problem sharply. She was on her way to her "graveyard" shift at around 2 a.m. in the night when the driver of the vehicle which picked her up raped and killed her. Yes, the IT industry has a shift which begins late in the night and is called the graveyard shift. It has become common in the USA but is not yet well known in India outside the world of call centers. So the Central Governmentís claim that they have ensured transport facilities in the amendment rings completely hollow. Providing transportation to the women does not solve the problem of security for women. They remain vulnerable to violence. Women are exposed to the constant fear of violence against them. Their health is also affected.

A large number of workers in these SEZs are and will be women. 60 % of the workers in the Cochin SEZ are women. Large numbers of women are employed in the electronic factories in the Santacruz SEZ (formerly SEEPZ) are women. As special IT SEZs are set up and garment industries concentrated in these zones the condition of women workers is going to be a matter of grave concern for all those who realize the importance of organizing the working class. In a study of the Cochin SEZ journalist Venugopal writes, "Despite employing more than 3500 women, the zone does not provide accommodation facilities nor are there any creches. Transportation facilities are inadequate. The workers are taken by vehicles to the factories for the morning shift, but they are left in the lurch once the shift is over." "After the night shift, we are taken in a vehicle and all of us are forced out in front of the first house where some among us stay. All the rest run for their life in the dead of the night," says 25-year-old Mallika working in a ceramic unit. The lofty ideals of each zone developing into townships catering to all the needs of the work force including housing, education, medicare remain only on paper." Women will be exposed to sexual harassment at work, fear of molestation on the way to work and no mechanism for redressal.

A large number of workers in these SEZs will be on contract. This means that they will be denied many of the facilities that are due to them. Women for example will find it difficult to get maternity leave. The CPM has been claiming that they forced the Central Government to drop the clause where maternity leave and similar rights would not be implemented in SEZs but will this prevent the managements from actually denying them to the workers? The condition of contract workers in big companies today is one of unlimited exploitation and denial of all rights guaranteed by the law. Whether it concerns hours of work, minimum wages, and facilities at the work site all these are violated with impunity. So what will happen in the SEZs whether run by the Government or by these private "developers" who are out to reap unheard of profit levels can be easily imagined. Trade union rights will also be severely curtailed if not formally denied.

"There are restrictions even in going to the toilet. The supervisor will shout if we take more than a few minutes," says Sajitha, a semi-skilled worker in a ready made garment unit. "How much ever hard we work, we are scolded and shouted at in front of others. There are very few days when Iíve not cried." The workers are reluctant to talk, and are afraid of being quoted. Sajitha [not her real name] and other women workers who spoke about the intimidating atmosphere in the Cochin zone insisted on changing their names when quoted." This is the situation in Cochin which is one of the better run SEZs where they say conditions are better than elsewhere, so what the situation will be in SEZs in places like Haryana and Gujarat can only be imagined.

Women will be forced into working for long hours to meet production targets. They will be stuck in low paid, low skill jobs with no scope for promotion and advancement. Mcjobs these are now called in modern parlance, a take-off on the kind of jobs that the MNC McDonalds creates wherever it sets up shop. Thus though job opportunities will be created for women in these modern enclaves, in reality the conditions of work will be akin to those in the early period of industrialisation. These are the ways in which the woman worker in India is experiencing globalisation.

The proletarian forces in India have to take account of this situation and plan their tactics for organizing this large workforce coming into existence. Gender sensitivity too is extremely important if women workers have to be brought into the forefront of the struggles within these SEZs and the wider struggle to boot out the imperialists and the compradors from this country.

 

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