Talk to them


The united trade union movement, except for the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), has served notices to go on strike on September 2, 2016 on a 12-points charter of demands. It is interesting to note that on these very 12-points, the movement went on a massive strike on September 2, 2015. 

Reportedly, around 10 crore workers, covering both the organised and the unorganised sectors, struck work and the guesstimated loss ran into several thousands of crores of rupees. Another such strike is in the offing. 

The first question that arises is why the trade union movement is resorting to strike on the same set of demands after one year of such a demonstrative work stoppage? Something is wrong somewhere, ain’t it?

It must be remembered here that the BMS, the unofficial labour wing of the BJP, withdrew from the September 2015 strike on the written assurance by the government that it would hold consultations with the trade unions and positively look into the workers’ demands.  It was not wrong for the BMS to withdraw then, as it was not merely for political reasons but it made sense to give time to the dialogue-ready government.

But now, it is known that since September 2015, the government did not hold consultations with the trade unions nor did it come close to fulfilling any of their demands. On the other hand, the government, apart from some pro-labour reform measures like maternity benefits enhancement, has carried out several pro-business reforms and tried often to tinker with workers’ provident fund amount but in vain. 

The BMS, in its recently concluded Bhopal meeting, passed strictures on the NDA government for failing the working class of the country and for its “callous attitude.” It is noteworthy that the BMS has been conducting its protest activities against the government in a stand-alone manner on a regular basis, be it the government’s foreign direct investment (FDI) policy or labour law reforms.

What are the trade unions demanding for? Are they making outrageous demands? The trade union movement is basically opposed to two things: neo-liberal economic policies like privatisation and FDI in critical sectors, and measures of labour flexibility.

They are also asking for dialogue with the trade unions before making amendments to labour laws, effective implementation of labour laws, a price-indexed minimum wages of at least Rs 18,000, universal social security for all, including an enhanced pension of Rs 3,000, and assured process of trade union registration. 

Further, to protect the people’s and especially workers’ welfare, they demand price control through universalisation of the public distribution system, banning speculative trade in commodity markets and measures for employment generation.

Now, it must be simple for the government to assure some unassailable demands like effective implementation of labour laws (which is a governance requirement), due process of trade union registration or due consultation with trade unions for law reforms, to pick a few from the list. To boost the trade unions’ case, India has ratified Indian Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 and Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976. 

Why doesn’t the government come forward to honour these procedural and governance requirements? Because it probably militates with the neo-liberal environment that it has carefully nurtured implicitly and explicitly.  It is the political economy of neo-liberalism that prevents the government from making workplace governance a reality. More importantly, the government has made up its mind to reform labour laws. 

It is but natural for workers to be concerned about the consequences of privatisation and FDI since labour rights could be, and in some cases are, at risk eventually. Why should trade unions oppose these two measures if the government would enforce labour rights in the privately and foreign-managed workplaces?

So long as the public sector character of the establishment is statutorily assured via parliamentary proceedings, disinvestment up to some level should not be a problem for workers, because as the reformers claim, the infusion of private capital could discipline the typically inefficient government governance. Trade unions should claim a share in these and the government would not mind it as was evident in the Coal India case.  
If multinational companies respect Indian labour laws and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Develo-pment (OECD) Code for them, trade un-ions should not oppose them. But the fie-ld realities are so alarming that workers typically protest against these measures.

Increased intensity
Are these demonstrative work stoppages atypical? No. The post-reform period has witnessed around 15 all-India work stoppages and various forms of agitations such as morchas, dharnas, trade union conventions and so on. Much against the common thinking, the labour intensity of work stoppages has increased manifold during this period.  The reasons are not far to seek. 

The aggressive drive of employers and the governments to run industries according to free market principles has created an intense sense of insecurity among the workers and the economic crises have made matters worse.  Industrial conflicts either of spontaneity (Munnar plantation women workers) or of temporary organisation (Wazirpur industrial estate workers) have taken place to even challenge the established trade unionism.
Industrial violence has characterised much of the large conflicts in the last few years. The industrial relations system is in ferment. Workers’ fears and apprehensions need to be assuaged. 

It is surprising and even shocking that as trade unions claim, effective social dialogue is not happening which is vital for any policy reform.  It is arduous but the only democratic forum available. The September 2, 2016, strike would then be a reflection of the failure of governance, absence of social dialogue and the policy lobbying failure on the part of trade unions. 

(The writer is Professor, XLRI School of Management, Jamshedpur)

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