Division in TU unity, a blow to fight against labour reforms

Division in TU unity, a blow to fight against labour reforms


After the fiasco of the Land Acquisition Bill, it was a general belief in the political circles that the BJP-led government would not touch issues relating to labour legislations, at least for now. Not so long ago – during the last of week of July – Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have taken a soft stand towards labour reforms. He declared that no reforms would be made without a consensus among the trade unions, the government and the industries, the three stake holders.

In his speech at the recent Indian Labour Conference (ILC), he endorsed the idea that the tripartite consultations were necessary to end disputes and acknowledged that the full participation of workers was necessary for the industry to grow at a desired rate. However, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hinted at what would be the real course of the government’s line on labour reforms. He spelt out government’s priorities and made it clear that labour reforms were necessary for the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and growth, and that without growth, there would be no employment generation.

But after the ILC, there was a perception that the government would agree to the demands of trade unions, at least partially, so that the national strike – eventually held on September 2 – could be averted. Now, after the strike, it can be said that the stand declared by Modi was only aimed at dealing with the immediate threat of agitation.

The prime minister certainly succeeded in bringing trade unions to the negotiation table and forced them to reopen issues which they had already rejected before deciding for a national strike. His appeal prompted two or three trade unions, including the RSS-affiliated Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). to stress that the government’s stand was positive enough to initiate a fresh dialogue. The Left trade unions and INTUC had to concede to the idea of coming to dialogue.

Senior trade union leaders, including Gurudas Dasgupta, Tapan Sen and A K Padmanabhan, say they were convinced that the government was not going to offer anything concrete. However, the negotiation process went on until two days before the strike. The government neither agreed to stop the process of labour law amendments nor did it accept the demand of raising the minimum wage to Rs 15,000 a month.

The 12-point charter of demands, for which trade unions went on strike and are continuing to struggle, included issues like stopping privatisation of Public Sector Units, prohibiting FDI in railways, defence and insurance,  ending contractisation of regular jobs,  curbing price rise , universalisation of Public Distribution System, better terms for pension and gratuity etc.

Though the government failed in persuading trade unions to withdraw the call of national strike, and now, hardly any room for reconciliation is left, it succeeded in dividing the trade unions. For almost a decade, central trade unions including CITU, AITUC, INTUC, AICCTU, BMS and the HMS had been maintaining unity over a range of issues which include “no” to FDI, privatisation of PSUs and “anti-worker amendments” in labour laws. This could be achieved despite their allegiance to diverse ideologies including communism, socialism, right wing, ultra-Left and the centrist. They all agreed that the economic reforms are bad for the people in general, and the workers, in particular.

This unity was manifested on more than one occasion. The aggressive stance of BMS leader BN Rai at the ILC matched any of his Left counterpart in the trade union movement. All the trade unions appreciated his stance. But the BMS could only maintain its stance till just before it walked out of the national strike on September 2. The unity was broken.

Reforms in states

It is obvious that the BMS also had other reasons to withdraw. But, the negotiation process had a disruptive pact on trade union unity. Jaitley, along with Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, won over a section of trade union leadership – those who were politically close to the party in power.

A big central trade union like the BMS would be supporting them in bringing amendments in labour laws. It would also withdraw its opposition in states like  Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. All these states are implementing labour reforms aggressively.

The government is prepared to bring the Small Factories Bill, Bonus Act, the Minimum Wages Act and the Bill on Industrial Relations during the winter session of parliament. On the cards is replacing 44 labours laws for small units. According to the trade unions, this would result in sending 70 per cent of workers out of the purview of labour laws. “The government wants to deprive workers of their right of collective bargaining by putting severe restrictions on trade union activities,” said CITU president Padmanabhan.

The government claims that its intention is to ensure economic growth and employment generation.  However, labour organisations point at the growing inequality of masses and say that FDI or privatisation of public sector units will accelerate it. The amendments to the labour laws will result in dividing trade union movement on the lines of organised and unorganised sectors.

Among the proposed changes is giving  social security to unorganised sectors in terms of wages and through other security schemes by making steps such as minimum wages mandatory. Financial guarantee to workers in case of retrenchments and shut down may, many say, also look like redressing, at least partially, the problems of workers in small factories.  

Trade unions have a point in asserting that social security means nothing when most of the workers lose their right of collective bargaining as they would be out of the purview of labour laws. With all these, a renewed confrontation between the government and the trade unions is imminent. 

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