A call for workers’ unity, solidarity and a visa-free South Asia

The last Sunday in April this year marked the ninth anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka.

It was also the birthday of the late South Asian feminist activist Kamla Bhasin, who was a lifelong advocate for workers’ rights, as highlighted in a May Day-related discussion last weekend.

Organized by the South Asia Peace Action Network, or Sapan, the online rally featured songs and speakers, including leading activists and researchers from across the region, on the theme “Labour Rights and Democracy in South Asia”. South”.

Any threat to democracy seriously endangers workers’ rights, as evidenced by violence in the name of religion in the region.

Participants in the Sapan discussion on labor rights and democracy Courtesy

In India, this leads to the bulldozing of the homes and shops of the working poor in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods. The attack on the livelihoods of Muslim workers and businesses is well documented.

All of these melee have already weakened democratic systems and are impacting already vulnerable people, pushing them further to the margins, further affecting their rights and dignity.

Points of agreement

One of the ways to stop these worrying trends is through regional solidarity, commented Raza Rumi, analyst and editor of Naya Daur, in his closing remarks. Coming from Ithaca, NY, where he teaches journalism, he highlighted three main points of agreement from the discussion:

1. Solidarity among South Asian workers and their representative organizations considering the community of issues,

2. A visa-free regime in the region for workers’ representatives, as well as all citizens to meet;

3. More research, cross-learning and sharing of experiences and strategies across the region.

Rumi highlighted the gender, caste and class dynamics at play in the region that impede access to decent work, and the plight of indigenous peoples who are excluded from the “fruits of so-called development”. Neoliberal policies and the colonization of our own people lead to discontent, pushing them to rebel, he noted.

File photo of workers welding at a shipbreaking yard in Chittagong Dhaka Grandstand

One example is the Baloch people who oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which threatens their livelihoods.

He also noted the emergence of the “gig economy” and how governments and big business are encouraging “de-unionization.”

A “brutal and archaic visa regime” prevents people from meeting and forging cross-border regional solidarity which is the need of the hour. Meanwhile, work reporting has dwindled as a beat for reporters, Raza observed.

save the farmers

The interconnectedness of the issues is evident in the way the slogan “Save the Farmers, Save Bangladesh” resonates throughout the region. If the farmers survive, the country will survive; the crisis of the peasants is the crisis of the whole population, said young activist Lucky Akter in Dhaka.

The former student activist works full-time as a central executive member of Bangladesh Krishak Samity or the Bangladesh Peasants’ Union, the oldest and largest peasant organization in the country, and is a central member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. She also sang improvised in Bengali, reiterating her desire “to organize the peasants so that they can assert their rights”.

File photo of farmers carrying raw jute bales after harvest in a village in Bangladesh Dhaka Grandstand

Famous singer Arieb Azhar from Islamabad has shared his version of the workers’ anthem, The Internationale. Opening with a Bengali translation, he sang his original verses in Urdu reflecting contemporary realities, calling for a reawakening of the masses, women, youth, workers and farmers, and to join the movements and struggles of peoples all over the world.

The concept that the strength of workers lies in unity emerged strongly from the discussion. Year-long farmer protests in India forced the government to roll back the three farm bills. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has brought workers to the streets in historic protests.

“Those who build cities have no home and those who produce wealth have absolutely no part in it,” said Maitreyi, a Bengaluru-based member of the All India Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) who moderated the discussion. She also highlighted the ways in which neoliberal policies reinforce existing structures of oppression.


Sociologist Haris Gazdar from Karachi has shared the results of a study he conducted with Delhi-based Nitya Rao on female agricultural workers in the region.

The study revealed that women make up more than half of the agricultural labor force in South Asia. And yet, governments, society, families and even women themselves often fail to recognize this.

When the interviewer asks questions listing various related activities such as tending livestock, “now more than half of the workforce turns out to be women”.

“Agriculture matters to women, and women matter to agriculture,” he said.

The poorest workers in South Asia work in agriculture, and in this sector women’s jobs are the lowest paid, even though they are doubly responsible for looking after health, nutrition, family, children, etc.

The findings of the study generated enough momentum for the issue to be taken seriously in Pakistan, leading to groundbreaking legislation in Sindh, the Sindh Women Agriculture Workers Act 2019.

Those working on the issue “were able to do it because comrades in India had worked on a bill that was tabled in the Rajya Sabha,” Gazdar said, referring to the 2011 Women Farmers’ Rights Bill. submitted by an agricultural scientist and then a member. by Rajya Sabha MS Swaminathan.

Countries in the region also influence each other in terms of slave labor legislation, he commented. “We have a lot to gain by learning from each other, whether at government or labor level.”


In Pakistan, the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan have passed groundbreaking laws on the rights of homeworkers, acclaimed women’s rights activist Khawar Rani Mumtaz added in Lahore.

These are remarkable achievements that other South Asian governments can use to enact similar legal frameworks.

Estimates indicate that nearly half of the world’s 100 million homeworkers are in South Asia. Among them, most are women.

Mumtaz also presented the Sapan Founding Charter with the coalition’s core demands such as freedom of trade and travel and visa-free South Asia, translated into Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi, Telugu, Marathi and sindhi by volunteers.

The Sapan Charter, Gazdar said, reflects “not only the experience of one country but of the whole region”, which gives political weight. “All our countries share a common history of fighting against global systems of exploitation-colonization, of racism. These power relations exist today.

‘Clean the shit up in our heads’

Power relations also exist in other areas. “What’s the problem if scavengers clean up human feces?” They were born to do this. So why should we think? Why should we stop this?

This is how people think while justifying the practice of manual cleaning “where they can treat a human being like a slave”, commented winner Ramon Magsaysay Bezwada Wilson, co-founder and national leader of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA ), in Delhi, highlighting the plight of sanitation workers and manual garbage collectors in India.

“You create smart cities, big roads, highways and buildings but do nothing to modernize the sanitation system where sanitation workers don’t have to touch shit and garbage, because the Shit in the minds of those in power believe that democracy and dignity are not for sanitation workers,” he said.

Thousands of sanitation workers have died cleaning manholes and septic tanks, Wilson said, stressing the need to mechanize that work.

Journalist, researcher and educator Asif Aqeel in Lahore spoke of a similar situation in Pakistan. The caste system is at stake, with most sanitation workers being Dalits. Ads for sanitation jobs call for non-Muslim candidates and are sometimes taken down after activists raise the issue.

Aqeel is active with the Sweepers are Superheroes movement initiated by Pakistani parliamentarian Mary James Gill to dignify this work. He is also Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ) in Pakistan and teaches sociology at the Lahore Law School.

Labor activists Anton Marcus, Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zones and General Services Union, Colombo, Umesh Upadhyaya from the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), Kathmandu, and Apoorva Kaiwar, South Asia Regional Secretary, IndustriALL, shared their points of view on the challenges and victories of workers’ unions. They also agreed on the need to revive the South Asian Labor Forum (SALF) established in 1996.


Veteran peace activist and trade union leader Karamat Ali in Karachi was a key figure in the formation of SALF which was active until a few years ago.

He was due to speak about his experience, but asked to be excused – he was recovering from a road accident a few days earlier when his vehicle tipped over to prevent a family on motorbikes from coming the wrong way. The action saved their lives but damaged the car and injured the passengers.

With the United Nations Global Road Safety Week taking place every May, Sapan’s next event on Sunday, May 29 will actually focus on road safety as a public health issue in South Asia.

All of these issues are interconnected. Unions need an alliance with workers’ associations and research associations and consortia – “we cannot afford to work in silos,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, summarizing the discussion. Currently Labor Specialist, ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia, New Delhi, he is the former Executive Director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS). BILS MP and Vice President Shirin Akhter was unable to attend due to connectivity issues.

Ahmmed said it was unfortunate that even on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, there was little expression of solidarity for those affected, or for the tragedy of the flight. of Visakhapatnam gas in May 2020, both caused by years of neglect.

The event was the 12th in Sapan’s series of monthly events held on the last Sunday of every month since its launch in March 2021 – “Imagine! Neighbors in Peace”.

Together with youth activist Sarita Bartaula from Nepal who hosted the event, participants pledged to continue the struggle for peace and democracy, to forge links and build solidarity. This is even more critical given the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic that workers in South Asia and around the world continue to grapple with.

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