Challenging the adage that ‘In India, unionism starts at forty,’ a new generation of Indian workers are taking the reins of union leadership in their workplaces. With some 600 million people under the age of twenty-five, young Indian workers have the potential to transform the way Indian unions look and organise.
This transformation, however, is no easy task. Economic factors which favour a de-unionised generation of workers – such as high labour market competition for skilled jobs, slow public sector employment growth, growing rates of precarious work, a four-decade high unemployment rate of 6.1%, and an informal work rate of some 93% – are compounded by norms within labour unions and wider Indian society that impede the active participation of young people, such as rigid gender roles and a high cultural esteem towards age and experience that can overlook and disregard the qualities and capabilities of young workers.
Speaking to Dennis Doley, Project Coordinator at the global public-sector union federation Public Services International (PSI), Lives and Times was told that “though India is a very diverse country, in unions you won’t see much of that diversity.” If you were to walk into a typical union meeting, Dennis says, you are very unlikely to see many young people, women, or Adivasi, indigenous people. “There is a detachment between unions and young people,” he says.
Dennis helps coordinate the PSI’s youth leadership skills development program in South Asia, which builds the skills of young union members and workplace delegates across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. For India’s public-sector unions, this task began in 2006 when the 700 affiliated unions of the PSI, representing some 20 million public-sector workers across 163 countries, committed to achieving a 30% participation rate of young unionists in decision-making and training activities. Today, unions are seeing the fruits of these structural reforms with more and more young members entering elected positions within their unions.
Across South Asia till 2020, more than sixty young public-sector unionists who are receiving training and support in the PSI’s youth leadership program. In healthcare, energy, defence, and local government, these young union members are using their newly-developed skills in negotiation, communication, and decision-making to organise their workplaces and step up into higher leadership roles within their local unions.
Thanks to their skills training, many of those young unionists have played an instrumental role in opposing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which led to the Indian government opting out of the free-trade agreement. Their organising impact was also felt in the General Strike of January 8 2020, organising discussions and rallies in India’s major cities.
Kavitha Paramasivam is one of these young unionists who has used her PSI training to play a greater role in her workplace and union. Kavitha works as a Record Clerk in the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital of Chennai, and she has recently been elected as North Chennai’s Women Wing Secretary in the Tamil Nadu Government Officials’ Union (TNGOU). She told Lives and Times that “I don’t expect anything [from this position]. I don’t do this for appreciation or for an award; I do this only for my own interest and enjoyment. Because we don’t know that what are the problems will happen in the future, I hope that the union should be a support and a backbone for me.”
Kavitha’s training with the PSI has helped her develop her skills in communication and decision-making. “Decision making,” she says, “is very important. We should not take a decision individually, but we should get the opinion from all workers in different sectors before making a decision.” Above all, the training has given Kavitha the confidence to speak and act; “The union gave me a great opportunity to sit and even talk with the higher officers.”
Kavitha explains that “young people are not getting the opportunities” in workplaces because of gender discrimination, classism, and ageism. In her own workplace, Kavitha says, “staff have been mocked on the basis of their position. I don’t understand it. Sweepers are public servants even though they are sweeping. I am a public servant even though I am an administrative official. Generally we are working for the public. Here people treat us on the basis of their positions; my first aim is to change that. We should look at everyone equally. Each one has their nature of work, they have to do it. But there is no respect.”
“I feel very strong. I can do anything, and I am so happy.”
As young Indian workers like Kavitha challenge these discriminatory barriers in their workplaces, so too are they building inter-generational solidarity in their own unions. Asked what younger and older union members can learn from each other, Kavitha told Lives and Times “When we talk about service, we need the support of the seniors. They guide us with their experience. We young people do not have the experience of the seniors, and the seniors do not have our vivacity and energy. That is the only difference.”
In a society where discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, and age remains a daily barrier to participation and advancement in the workforce, young workers like Kavitha are building their collective power to win fairer workplaces and a fairer economy. Asked how her involvement in the union has changed her, Kavitha’s smile beams: “I feel very strong. I can do anything, and I am so happy.”