Protest demonstrations and strikes have been organized by fair price shop workers in many parts of Tamil Nadu in the past week. Their demands included the granting of a 31% dearness allowance (DA), the creation of a separate department for them and the renewal of the provision on earned leave.
The Fair Price or Ration Shops are a network of shops run by the state government under the Public Distribution System (PDS) of Tamil Nadu. These are cooperatives under the Food, Civil Societies and Consumer Protection department.
Fair-price store workers have urged consecutive state governments to welcome them as public sector workers and guarantee them related benefits. They waged struggles to assert their claims. There are about 12 lakh workers in this sector at present.
Although the current government of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has promised provisions of the AD and the creation of a separate department for fair price shops is part of its election manifesto, it is hesitant to implement them.
While answering questions in the State Assembly in early April, the Department of Food and Consumer Protection, R Sakkarapani, assured a 31% DA to employees of fair price stores, according to employees of the state government. The Minister promised to pass a GO after obtaining the agreement of the Ministry of Finance and ensuring its implementation.
However, the Tamil Nadu Department of Finance has not granted permission for the DA provision. This destabilized the workers and, at the call of two unions, strikes and demonstrations took place in various districts of the state.
“There was a good response from the workers to the strike call. We expected 1,000 employees to participate, but 2,000 of them joined,” said K Balasubramanian, honorary chairman of the Fair Price Shop Cooperative Workers Union.
Their union has called for a three-day strike from June 7 with a 25-point charter of demands. It included instituting raises for those who have completed 10 and 20 years of service and requiring payment of salaries by bank transfer.
Another union, the Tamil Nadu Fair Price Shop Employees Union, called for an indefinite strike. G Rajendran, president of the union, said: “DA is a minimum benefit for workers; they have to pay it. It gave the government a bad name. I’m sure they will enforce it.
After the Registrar of Co-ops promised on June 10 to pass the DA within a week, the strike was called off.
During the strike call, Cooperative Registrar Tami Nadu Shanmuga Sundaram sent circulars to joint registrars at zonal level saying “no work, no pay”; wages for workers who went on strike would not be paid for those days.
The department has formed a committee to provide DA for fair price store workers, in addition to the Registrar providing the assurance. Union leaders ask “what is the need for a committee to pass a revised GO?”
Krishnamoorthy, the state secretary of the CITU-affiliated Fair Price Shop Workers Union, said: “It seems that forming a committee is a way to delay the process. Now the committee will meet, deliberate and give recommendations, the recommendations will be reviewed, and that will take time.”
He further said: “There is no need for a committee to pass a revised GO stating that whenever government employees get an increase in DA, co-op workers should also get the same. “
Although the CITU union did not issue a call for demonstrations, in some districts union leaders and members participated in the demonstrations.
Notably, the DA will be given by the board of cooperatives, not by the finance department. Approval from the finance department is only necessary to ensure that departmental funds will not be affected.
Fairtrade workers are asking for the renewal of old benefits that have been suspended, but they are not even receiving them.
“In 2010, after a long struggle, fair price store workers won DA, time pay, municipal compensation allowance, shopping allowance and other increases under the leadership of DMK Chief Minister Mr Karunanidhi The workers are just asking for their renewal,” Balasubramanian said.
He further said, “The DMK made big promises ahead of the elections, and a year after their tenure, we don’t see any development.”
Fair-price store workers are organized in various unions such as the ruling party-affiliated Progressive Labor Federation (LPF), AITUC, CITU and other independent unions. Each of them leads independent struggles and the workers are divided among themselves.