A knowledge-based organisation that functions as a centre for workers' education

"CEC works on peripherals but on those issues that have bearing on the core of labour"
J John, Executive Director, CEC, April 2009
(Excerpts from the Welcome Note given during the CEC Silver Jubilee Celebrations of CEC held in April 2009)

In 1983, Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) was formed by a group of visionaries responding to a situation of dissolution and reconstruction. The Emergency was just over, and an upsurge of social activity was taking place. Ideas like ‘community organisation’, breaking the ‘culture of silence’, and the practicing of the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ were in vogue. Some of the groups were those dropping out from the traditional Left and the extreme Left as well as Gandhians.

CEC was conceived as a centre for workers’ education, directly in response to two trade union experiences in India that went beyond the traditional trade unionism in organising workers – the Kollieries Kamgar Union in the Dhanbad coal belt of Jharkhand, and the experience of the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSS) in Chhattisgarh, largely in the Dalli Rajara Mines managed by the Bhilai Steel Plant of Steel Authorities of India Ltd (SAIL). In both cases, the ‘Adivasi’ identity of the workers, their agrarian base, and other social factors were integrated into the trade-union activity.

As a labour-resource centre, CEC engages in ‘knowledge generation’, ‘knowledge dissemination’ and ‘capacity building’ with the objective of enhancing the dignity of labour. The discursive character of the activities of CEC is usually emphasised vis-à-vis the service-delivery nature of NGOs. The discursive character makes CEC a knowledge based organisation. The knowledge it receives is the knowledge from the workers and the community. But the transformative character of this knowledge is such that in CEC’s engagement with knowledge, it considers the ‘subject’ as an ‘active entity’ rather than a ‘passive entity’. It is distinct from political parties and social movements, but exists in contestations with them. The structure of the Indian workforce and its general characteristics provide ample space and opportunities for CEC to work on labour, an area considered to be an exclusive prerogative of trade unions. From the early stages, CEC faced a dilemma in working on and with labour. CEC never entered into the core subjects of labour – organising, collective bargaining, and industrial relations. CEC addressed the peripherals – but those issues that should have a bearing on the core. Trade unions would like CEC to be identified as a support organization. While not denying the supportive role that CEC has chosen to play, it would like to emphasise its characteristic as a knowledge-based organisation. Moreover, in 1982, only 11 per cent of about 280 million workers were classified as organised, which incidentally has come down to less than 8 per cent of about 457 million workers in 2004-05. This gives us space for intervention.

CEC has undertaken a number of studies in the areas of trade, child labour, bonded labour, and occupational health and safety, and in sectors like garments, leather, fisheries and tea. CEC’s campaigns for the rights of fishers in the jails of India and Pakistan, the starvation deaths of tea workers in closed and abandoned tea gardens, the rights of sewage workers, the building of cooperatives of small tea growers, and the social security of unorganised workers have been some of its influential campaigns. CEC responded to the challenges posed by globalisation to labour by collaborating with trade unions in understanding the depth and reach of the impact; and by building national and international alliances for collective action. For instance, CEC spearheaded a national campaign against trade labour standard linkage in WTO, and simultaneously intensified the demand for observance of labour rights. CEC emphasised that even if one were to accept that a clause in WTO was not a protectionist tool of western industries and was meant to bolster labour standards against the effects of trade liberalisation, that was not the task of the World Trade Organization but national governments and International Labour Organisation (ILO), the two agencies that should enforce the rights of workers.

CEC has realised that under the globalisation regime workers have to reckon with national and global perspectives, which are conflicting and unifying at the same time. Production in developing countries, along commodity chains controlled by multinational corporations for metropolitan consumer markets calls for innovative strategic advancement. Global actions initiated by cross-country networks are a case in point. In such relationships, CEC has always emphasised the recognition and integration of worker-centric producing-country perspectives in the overall articulations and specifics of the campaign. Essentially, it says that the struggle is against contemporary forms of accumulation of capital and, therefore, direct exploitation of workers in the producing countries should be at the centre of articulation.

CEC is a networked organisation. Networking in our case is not just a means to achieve something, and it is not a mechanical process. For us, networking is organic and a partnership with mutual respect and responsibility.

It should be emphasised that CEC carries out its activities in partnership with various forms of organisations of workers. CEC, while acknowledging new forms of organisation of workers in response to atypical forms of work, believes that the role of trade unions as autonomous entities should in no way be undermined; rather, it should be promoted wherever possible with the objective of achieving social justice, peace, and development. CEC’s relationship with trade unions and other forms of workers’ organisations is one of mutual trust and mutual learning. We work with labour to build a wider horizon.

The organisation has evolved a governance structure independent of the executive. CEC’s governing body is constituted of eminent academics, activists, and trade unionists. None receive any emoluments from the organisation. We should also say that our credibility is derived from our public accountability. CEC considers itself as a public institution. Therefore, we consider ourselves accountable to the public.

CEC has a wider reach, not only based on the number of activities it takes up, but also because its alumni reach out to many locations and over different periods of time.