`Unemployment generation is the trend'

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with M.K. Pandhe, general secretary, CITU.

In the present context of unrelenting attack on labour on all fronts, the need to forge broader alliances to combat anti-labour policies in this era of economic liberalisation has acquired urgency. The aggressive attack on labour in the last one and a half decades, especially in recent times is unprecedented. The recent dismissal of more than one lakh government employees by the Tamil Nadu government is an example of the growing intolerance to trade union action. M.K. Pandhe, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi on a range of issues confronting the trade union movement and labour in general. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the implications of the observations of the Division Bench of the Supreme Court on the right to strike and the unprecedented dismissal of 1.7 lakh State government employees in Tamil Nadu?

The Jayalalithaa government has taken certain steps not taken normally by any other government in any country in the world. There is no such instance anywhere in the world after the Second World War, where 1,70,000 workers have been summarily dismissed with the stroke of a pen. The Chief Minister took excessive steps to suppress the strike. Even the Tamil Nadu Essential Services Maintenance Act, which she amended, says that the government is authorised to put out a notice on the notice board stating that an employee has been terminated from service. That will be treated as a termination notice without giving it in writing to the worker. Also, if a worker is absent on reasons other than strike, the Act says that it will be presumed that he is on strike and action will be taken accordingly. This type of draconian law exists nowhere in the country.

We have written to several international trade unions, and we have received very positive reactions from them. It will become an international issue as nowhere such an unprecedented number of people have been dismissed. We have also written to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) seeking its immediate intervention so that the Indian government can direct the Tamil Nadu government to withdraw all the victimisation and grant full trade union rights, including the right to strike, to the entire community of public service employees in conformity with ILO conventions. There are no charges of violence against anybody. They say FIRs have been lodged against them. We have copies of the FIRs. The names of employees who participated in the strike are considered as FIRs. How can this be a criminal action? Even now 6,000 workers are out of duty. We are planning a countrywide action after a national convention in September. Already the State and Central government employees are planning a one-day strike to oppose the Supreme Court judgment and other workers will also join them. As for the judgment, it has no operative part. It is an opinion expressed by the Judges, saying that strikes are bad. But the shocking aspect is that, it is implied that even if the demands of the employees are justified, they cannot go on strike. What if the demands are justified and the government does not listen to the workers, what does the worker do?

Strikes are internationally accepted as a part of the right of collective bargaining. It is not a separate right as such. Collective bargaining includes negotiations, talks, mediations, state intervention, arbitration and referring of disputes to tribunals and, if all fail, then the option is to strike. Therefore, the Supreme Court cannot pass an observation on this right. Strikes are the culmination of the right to collective bargaining of the working class. This is the question that is being raised by worker representatives and workers all over the country. Soli Sorabjee has pointed it out correctly that the Supreme Court has no business to go into this issue. In Europe, government employees have the right to strike. Another shocking aspect of the judgment is that it does not even mention the inconvenience caused by lock-outs and closures to the workers. It talks about public inconveniences. When a VIP moves, there is a lot of inconvenience caused to the people. Why isn't there a similar observation? The fact that State and Central government employees are going on a one-day strike protesting the judgment will be a clear-cut opposition to the observations. Representatives of over one crore workers will go on strike. As the order speaks about all strikes, it is pertinent to look at the Industrial Disputes Act (IDA), which speaks about notices to go on strike. The present law, despite its drawbacks, at least admits the right to strike. The court has no right to challenge the legal validity of such laws.

Increasingly, there are calls to dilute the IDA. What are its implications? Does the IDA offer an adequate measure of protection for the labour force? If not, was this due to the deficiencies in the law or deficiencies in the process of enforcement?

The present IDA, though it gives the right to strike, has several provisions that makes it practically difficult to conduct a legal strike in our country. This is a serious shortcoming. It says that if the workers give a strike notice and the Labour Ministry gives a call for conciliation proceedings, then the strike becomes illegal if organised during the pendancy of the conciliation. What generally happens is that when a worker gives a 15-day notice, the conciliation meeting is called on the 13th day and then suddenly another day is fixed for conciliation, after 10 or 12 days. This provision is faulty and we want to change this. Conciliation should be over within the 15 days and if it fails, the worker should have the right to go on strike. The government has also been given powers to declare certain services as essential services. Therefore, under this, it has the power to ban the strike. There are some ridiculous instances where this clause has been used. In Bihar, for instance, rickshaw-pullers went on strike. The court ruled that pulling rickshaws was an essential service and the strike was banned. Another instance was a strike by temple priests in Kerala for better wages and working conditions. They gave a notice for strike. The government went to the High Court and the court described it as an essential service. These are two extreme instances. Any industry can be declared as essential service, that much arbitrary power is given to the government. These are the shortcomings in the IDA and this is misused by the government in several cases. So, many strikes take place illegally and the governments have not been able to take action. The act provides for punishment but in practice, it has not been imposed by the governments. Workers have gone on strike despite this provision.

Does that mean that essentially labour laws as they exist today have not been exactly very labour friendly?

Today, some restricted right to strike is given, but by industrial action, the trade union movement has asserted its right to strike. Even if conciliation fails, we go on strike. Conciliation does not lead to success. In the case of a strike by Reserve Bank of India employees, even as the dispute was on, the government referred it to the tribunal. The workers overruled the decision of the tribunal and went on strike. Ultimately, the government had to settle it with the employees. The present legal provision restricts the right to strike, but in actual practice the working class has overruled those restrictions.

Is it not true that there is a societal reaction against workers going on strike? Is this trend a result of trade unions not being able to connect with the people and having confined their activity to certain sectional interests, essentially the organised sector?

The trade union movement is not adequately explaining to the people the causes for strikes and the reason workers go on strike. They have to explain to them their legitimate grievances and the attitude of the respective governments. This is more so in the case of doctors and nurses as when they go on strike, patients react very unfavourably. Our experience is that when people are taken into confidence, they do sympathise with trade union action. But, sometimes unions do not explain the legitimate demands of the workers and how the government is depriving them of the same. Sometimes, the negative attitude of employees also tends to put off people. We should have an explanatory campaign among the people about the issues and demands of the workers. We emphasise in our trade union activity that whenever we come in contact with the mass of people our attitude should be very positive.

Is the trade union movement getting increasingly isolated from the rest of society in this era of economic liberalisation and globalisation?

No. It is not the case. People are also suffering from the effects of globalisation - withdrawal of food subsidies, drastic reduction in the benefits of the Public Distribution System, rise in prices of essential commodities, taxes on people, and concessions given to big business houses. When workers organise against globalisation, people generally support them. The drawback is that our struggles are not powerful enough to change the policy of the government. That should be our priority - to intensify our struggles. The national platform of mass organisations, for instance have brought together students, youth, women, farmers, agricultural workers, who form the bulk of society. If they are with the workers in the struggle against globalisation, then the working class does not get weakened. They constitute the bulk of society and if they support the working class, there is no question of the isolation of the trade union movement. But this relation between the working class and mass organisations needs to be strengthened. We are making a systematic attempt to meet people. In our last conference, we organised jathas or people's campaigns. We got an overwhelming response from ordinary people. The sufferings are much more severe than what we think. If issues are explained to the people, their sympathies are roused. For example, when we agitated in the Nathpa-Jhakri project in Himachal Pradesh, the entire peasantry joined us. People in the city also joined the struggle. In the Nalco privatisation case, it became a people's struggle of Orissa. The struggle was so powerful that a Minister could not even enter the factory. It was the popular support that the trade unions received. The Prime Minister was forced to defer the privatisation of Nalco. This experience is very important for us. In Balco we could not do that but in Nalco we succeeded.

What has been the impact of economic liberalisation on the industrial working class? How have policies affected the living conditions of workers in the organised and unorganised sectors of Indian industry in the last five years, particularly after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power?

Everywhere there is a slogan of downsizing of manpower. The drastic reduction of manpower has only added to the high rate of unemployment already prevalent in the country. Production has suffered owing to the closure of a large number of units. Poverty has increased even though official data say that it has decreased. The Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranks India much lower than what it was before. Earlier it was ranked 123 and it has gone down to 127, among a total of 175 countries that have been ranked on the index of human development. This shows how India is lagging behind in growth as compared to other countries. It shows how people are suffering due to the policies of the NDA government. The rights of the working class is under attack. The argument is that foreign capital is not coming and the government says it is because of the labour laws. A policy of hire and fire is being suggested in industrial undertakings and as a result regular jobs are being converted to contractual jobs. In the name of outsourcing, so many jobs have been handed over to the private sector to reduce the cost of production. As a result, regular employees have been forced to work as contract workers. We have seen this picture all over the country. Globalisation has created a serious situation in the employment market. After the advent of globalisation, there has been a decline in the wages of workers. There is an increasing reluctance on the part of employers to give economic concessions.

The legal situation is also very grim. The government is planning to amend the IDA, which will allow industry to close down, lay off workers, retrench without any legal difficulties. All trade unions should oppose this. Next month, the Indian Labour Conference will meet and three subjects have been placed on the agenda for consideration. They are, employment generation, a Bill for unorganised labour, and social security. The government has accepted this agenda.

Today it is "unemployment generation" which is the trend. No new factories are being set up, and job creation is limited in the Information Technology sector. More than 12 crore people are without jobs. Recent data from the National Sample Survey point out that even the number of days of work an agricultural worker used to get earlier, have gone down drastically. The withdrawal of subsidies by the government owing to World Trade Organisation (WTO) conditionalities has further brought down the standard of living of the working class. Similarly, the electricity subsidies given to the poor have been withdrawn as the government wants to commercialise the power sector. Foodgrain prices have gone up as the government claims it is not economical to price it lower. How are Food Corporation of India godowns full despite agricultural production having gone down by 17 per cent? There is no offtake as people cannot afford to purchase even at those rates. On industry, speculative capital is gaining more than industrial capital. Some industrialists have told us that even if they work the whole year round they are unable to make profit, but those who have shares in their company make more money.

What are some of the key policy decisions that have affected the living conditions of the working class in India?

The entry of multinational companies (MNCs) in a big way has been very detrimental. Existing production capacity is suffering and the MNCs are trying to capture the market. In that process the working class is a victim as MNCs employ more and more contract workers. For example, the majority of workers in Hindustan Lever are contract workers. Regular jobs are being constantly denied to workers by the MNCs. The government does not entertain any disputes with MNCs. In the name of encouraging foreign capital, the government does not encourage disputes, particularly in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs). The government has made it clear that labour laws will not apply to the EPZs. The Development Commissioners in the EPZs have been given powers to deal with labour disputes. Workers are denied minimum wages, have no job security, and they work beyond eight hours a day. All these have affected the working class adversely. The government has decided to increase the number of EPZs, to call them Special Economic Zones with many more concessions so that they can export all their capital and profits outside the country. Despite the concessions to industry, like lowering the rate of interest, taxes, allowing more depreciation, subsidy in export promotion and so on, there appears to be no apparent development of industry. None of the savings has been invested in the economy, and that is one of the reasons why employment generation has not taken place.

Has massive unemployment caused the weakening of the trade union movement? Is there a need to change strategies especially as critics of trade unions, particularly employers, argue that "old style" trade unionism is no longer relevant? Is there a need to expand beyond the confines of the organised sector?

Yes, it has already happened. We have to take up the cause of unemployment in a big way as unemployed people are always ready to work for less. This affects our bargaining power. A rise in unemployment is harmful to the trade union movement. We have to take up the issue of unemployed workers to strengthen the existing trade union movement. There is a need to do much more work in the unorganised sector. There are more than 50 lakh fishery and bidi workers. There are more than a crore construction workers. The trade union movement in this sector is very weak. Secondly, our struggle must be concentrated in areas that are crucial to the economy. Our first priority will be the energy sector, which includes power, oil and coal. The second, the finance sector which includes banks, insurance, and other financial institutions. The third is the transport sector and the fourth is the communication sector. If there is joint action from all these sectors, the government will be forced to think in favour of labour and employees. Our priorities have to be properly worked out. Our strategies will be the same. We cannot ignore some sectors any more and that includes the unorganised sector. Any movement we launch in the unorganised strata, our movement also gets strengthened. With this perspective in mind, we will carry forward trade union action all over the country.

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