The challenge in Tamil Nadu

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The labour movement in Tamil Nadu is going through a bad patch under the present State government, but the workers hope to find a way out, as they have done in the past.

THE unprecedented measures including summary dismissals that the Tamil Nadu government took to put down the recent strike by government employees and teachers, the Supreme Court's dismantling of the right to strike and its appreciation of the State government's handling of the issue, and, above all, the Union government's studied silence over the developments, all appear to be a prelude to taking the nation even more aggressively on the path of the second stage of structural reforms. One of the core components of the second stage of reforms is "labour reform", which means taming the labour force by curtailing its collective strength to subserve the interests of trade and industry in the changing context.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu has lost no opportunity to declare its support to the reforms regime. This is in contrast to some of the policies followed by the party during its previous term (1991-96), when Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had challenged the Union government's decision to sign the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement. She even went to the Supreme Court on the issue and sought the help of the West Bengal government to fight the accord.

Even during the run-up to the 2001 elections, she had opposed the structural reforms. But a few months after winning the elections, she changed tack. The AIADMK government declared itself to be on the side of the reforms regime. That she was firm on this became known in October-November 2001, when the AIADMK government used strong-arm tactics to suppress a strike by employees of the State transport corporations called to protest against a drastic cut in bonus. Many other benefits, such festival advance, enjoyed until then by government employees and workers of government-owned undertakings were either withdrawn or drastically reduced on the grounds that the State was going through a financial crunch. The workers' repeated efforts to highlight their plight through memorandums, public meetings, demonstrations and even a day's token strike did not bring the desired result. The government enacted the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Act (TESMA) despite strong protests from Opposition parties and trade unions.

This year, it was the government order radically altering the rules governing the computation of the terminal benefits of employees, such as pension and gratuity, that proved to be the proverbial last straw on the camel's back. One of the principal demands of the employees during the July strike was that these benefits be restored.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the ruthless action taken against the strikers and the unions by the Tamil Nadu government has greatly demoralised the employees and also a substantial number of their service associations that organised the strike, if not the trade unions that lent support to them. The employees were dismayed by the mass dismissals, the humiliating conditions imposed on them to rejoin service even after the strike was called off, and their failure to get any of their grievances redressed. The frustration, a section of the trade unions feared, could spread to other sections of the working people, such as industrial workers.

But experienced trade union leaders, including those of the Left parties, asserted that this frustration was only a passing phase and would soon be overcome. Apart from the government's ruthlessness to suppress the strike in its eagerness to further the cause of the reforms regime, the ground reality in the State in several respects has also been largely responsible for the failure of the strike, observers say. The vast number of unemployed people, thousands of whom were only too eager to replace the strikers, and the industrial crisis encompassing several sectors have to be taken into account while assessing the impact of the strike.

Owing to the policies followed by governments at the Centre and in the State, particularly over the last 10 years, there has been a general crisis in the industrial sector in Tamil Nadu. The textile industry - be it the spinning and weaving mills, the powerlooms and handlooms, the hosiery factories or the garment units - has seen lockouts, layoffs, retrenchments, offers of voluntary retirement schemes and wage cuts, which have affected a large section of workers. These industries have started recruiting more and more casual and contract labour in all productive lines. The government had not intervened to protect the employees, or even the industry, say trade union leaders. This has been the case with the engineering, cement, and plantation industries as well.

So it is not fair to blame the workers and the trade unions alone for the number of man-days lost, say labour leaders. They argue that more man-days are lost because of lockouts than strikes. In 2002, for instance, the loss of man-days owing to lockouts amounted to 11,88,502, while the strikes led to the loss of only 6,46,718 man-days, trade union sources pointed out.

Moreover, the numerous industrial estates across the State, which house the medium and small-scale industries, have almost collapsed in several places. Most of the units in these estates have not been operating for the past few years because of competition, external and internal.

In the Ambathur industrial estate in Chennai, claimed to be the largest of its kind in Asia, which had housed 1,600 industrial units, medium and small, employed nearly two lakh people and gave jobs indirectly to thousands of others until a few years ago, only around 900 units exist now, according to industry sources. Thousands of workers have been displaced.

At the Gummidipoondi industrial estate, there has been a drastic reduction in the number of units now - from 163 to 26. The labour force has also shrunk from 12,000 to 3,000.

Besides these factors, recurring drought conditions, the policies of the government in respect of the supplies of agricultural inputs, and the near-collapse of the rural cooperative credit system have played havoc with the lives of the rural people. The purchasing power of these people has gone down, affecting the industry, in turn. Rural youth in thousands migrate to towns in search of jobs. There have been no serious attempts from the governments at the Centre and in the States to resolve these crises.

In the case of industrial disputes, trade union leaders say, the total failure of the Labour Department machinery has been a noticeable factor. In recent years, it has made no interventions to solve problems through conciliation and negotiations, as was done earlier. Barring a committee on minimum wages, none of the tripartite committees of the Labour Department was operational in the real sense. If arbitration and adjudication instruments had been functioning properly and had intervened promptly whenever the need arose, industrial relations in the State would have been better, labour leaders aver. But one wondered whether they had been deliberately crippled, one leader said. The Labour Welfare Board for workers of unorganised sectors is also not functioning. The actions of the industrial managements, together with the attitude of the government, have not been helpful to workers, these leaders feel.

One of the vice-presidents of the State unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), A.K. Padmanabhan, asserted that the trade unions would overcome the hurdles, because they had experienced and risen above similar situations in the past. He referred to the "upsurge" in trade union activities in the State in the 1970s, when adverse government action could not break the unions. The period saw a number of strikes being ruthlessly suppressed by employers with the help of the government. There were strikes in companies such as Simpsons, EID Parry, Metal Box, Ashok Leyland and TVS Motors, and there were mass dismissals. The police even resorted to firings to put down strikes. Action was taken against several trade union leaders such as V.P. Chintan and R. Kuchelar under the Defence of India Rules. But the workers fought back and got the dismissed persons reinstated.

"It is true that the strike action in recent years had succeeded in the State only in respect of the Tirupur hosiery workers and workers in the beedi industry, who had fought for higher wages. It should be noted that both these industries have been in a better position compared to other industries. In most other cases, the employees and the unions have been put on the defensive. Their prime task now is to protect the existing benefits," the CITU leader said.

"The thinking among the working people now is to move towards trade union action at the industry or regional level so that the attack on them can be tackled from a better position. This is a happy development," Padmanabhan said.

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