Tens of millions of Indian workers continued their two-day nationwide strike on Thursday in protest against the government’s “anti-labour" policies.
The banking and transport sectors were among those hit by the strike called by 11 trade union centres to protest against a series of economic reforms embarked on by the government last year.
In a ten-point agenda, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions called for the strict enforcement of labour laws and concrete measures to create new jobs, as well as a solution to high inflation, rising fuel prices and the country’s pension crisis.
It also called for the compulsory registration of trade unions with a 45-day period, raising the minimum wage for all workers to 10,000 rupees (185 US dollars) a month and social security provisions for all workers.
The unions are against contentious government reforms which include opening the retail, insurance and aviation sectors to increased foreign investment and raising the price of the subsidised diesel used by farmers.
The steps purportedly aim to free up state-control of India’s economy – the tenth largest in the world according to latest IMF figures – and reduce India’s ballooning subsidy bill and fiscal deficit.
But that is not how ordinary Indians see it.
Trade unions say the government’s recent move to liberalise the supermarket sector will hurt millions of small shop owners who will be unable to compete against multinational retail giants.
And bank employees oppose the government’s decision to allow big companies to enter the sector as well as the privatisation of state-run banks.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had appealed to unions to call off the strike, but talks with the unions collapsed on Monday.
"The workers are being totally ignored and this is reflected in the government’s anti-labour policies," said Tapan Sen, General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
"The last time that we called a strike [in February 2012], nearly 100 million workers participated. This time we’re expecting a bigger number," Sen told news wire service AFP.
The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimated losses from the strike at around 200 billion rupees (3.7 billion US dollars), based on a 30 to 40 per cent reduction of the country’s gross domestic product.
The strikes have been marred by sporadic outbreaks of violence.
In one incident in the northern city of Ambala in Punjab state, trade union leader Narender Singh was killed after he was run over by a bus driver who was breaking the strike.
Early reports suggested that he had been stabbed to death but a later statement from a local union official confirmed that he was hit by a vehicle.
Angry protesters clashed with the police after the incident. More than a dozen union activists were injured, five seriously.