Trade unions: Facing new challenges in the Modi era

Trade unions: Facing new challenges in the Modi era

The scenario seems to have completely changed since Prime Minster Narendra Modi has taken over.

 While the government is declaring concessions after concessions to industry and getting applaud from it, the trade unions (TU) are increasingly feeling restless and preparing to take the Centre head-on. It is different from what it was a year ago. 

The previous Manmohan Singh government had been proposing reforms but could never push it, mainly because the Congress-led UPA depended on other parties to pass any bill. Also, Congress wanted to continue with the image it had acquired over the years of being a party of the poor and the downtrodden. Despite a strong push from inside the party and outside it, Manmohan Singh always remained slow on amending laws according to the requirement of the industry. 

Modi has no such baggage. His party has hardly any history of leading a workers’ movement or a peasant struggle. It advocated free market economy at a time when no party preferred to do so. The situation is clearly painful for the TUs when there is hardly any meeting point on how to achieve a harmonious relation between workers and the industrialists. 

The divide is so clear that even the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), BJP’s trade union outfit, is not ready  to buy  Modi’s ‘Make in India’ slogan despite the fact that it is part of the same Sangh Parivar which the BJP belongs to. 

“Modiji is giving open invitation to everyone including Japan, China and the USA to come and do business in India. What he is doing will not remove policy paralysis, but paralyse the society,” says BMS general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay. He is highly critical of all the amendments in labour laws the government has moved in parliament or intends to. He points out how the limit of hours of overtime has been increased from 50 to 100 hours in a quarter. “We are in the process of finalising our protest programme with other central TUs,” says  Upadhyay. 

CITU president A K Padmanabhan echoes BMS leader’s views and explains how the amendments in Factories Act will keep 70 per cent of the workers out of the purview of the Act and deprive them from the “statutory benefits”. According to him, “changes in the Apprenticeship Act are only to provide cheap labour. It provides for wages which would be 70 per cent of the minimum wages irrespective of production and output. That is what they are doing in the name of apprenticeship. They will be under perpetual exploitation.”

Kept in the dark However, TU leaders are worried more about what is in store for the labour force. They are concerned about the government’s next move on issues like the amendments to the Industrial Dispute Act and the Contract Labour Act. 

They cite the example of Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje who has got all these legislations passed in her state. The labour leaders complain how both the state and the Centre are doing amendments without taking the trade unions into confidence. 

However, industry is happy over the Raje government move. Said the Confederation of Indian Industry: “It was long overdue. The state government had recently asked for suggestions on the labour laws and the CII submitted points related to Industrial Disputes Act, Contract Labour Act as also Factories Act.”

The CII views that the steps such as registration of a labour union with 30 per cent  members, time limit of 3 years for raising dispute by labour, no government permission required for retrenchment up to 300 workers, compensation to labour of 3 months’ salary and 6 months’ bonus at the time of retrenchment, no registration required with less than 50 workers etc will lead to less of ‘inspector raj’ and increase in employment. 

“Applicability of Factories Act with more than 20 workers with power and 40 workers without power will take a large number of factories out of the ambit of Factories Act. This will give more time to focus on production and hence, more employment,” the CII added. 

The worry of TUs does not seem to be unfounded if we look at the assertions of the PM and his ministers. In his speeches in the US the PM asserted his readiness to give a goodbye to all those laws which, in his eyes, have become impediments in the economic development. 

Union labour and employment minister Narendra Singh Tomar talks of how these laws are to benefit workers and increase employment in addition to facilitating economic growth. If trade unions are organising themselves for a battle, the government is also taking up programmes of mass mobilisation by organising events to highlight welfare measures it has recently implemented. It includes highlighting increase in the minimum pension and other facilities provided by Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation.   

The TU leaders have to take on both government and the industries. They say that amendments have nothing to do with economic growth and employment and stress that high growth rates were achieved without any such changes and labour contributed in it. “Now they are accusing us for the slow growth,” leaders say.

“We will not allow privatisation,” says general secretary of All India Railwaymen’s Federation Shiva Gopal Mishra. Indian railway is the largest public sector with over 13 lakh employees.

The battle lines are drawn and one has to see how the trade unions meet the threat to their survival in the new world of liberalised and globalised economy. 

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