`There is an offensive of capital against labour'

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Prakash Karat, Polit Bureau member, CPI (M).

The effect of the policies of economic liberalisation on labour and the working class can hardly be understated. However, accompanied with this is a growing intolerance, from almost all sections of society, towards any form of collective action. Senior Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi on the context and implications of such intolerance by influential sections of society. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the implications of the observations made by the Supreme Court Bench for the right to strike?

The judgment of the two-member Bench of the Supreme Court terming strikes by government employees as illegal and declaring that there is no fundamental, constitutional, or moral ground to go on strike, is against the existing laws of the country, in the sense that the judgment has made a sweeping assertion that strikes are bad and should not be allowed. We have statutory rights for workers to go on strike enshrined in the Industrial Disputes Act, the Trade Union Act, and there are procedures to go on strike and for collective bargaining. The Supreme Court has gone into matters that are extraneous to the petition, which it was hearing regarding the dismissal of government employees.

As far as the government employees are concerned, they invoked the right to go on strike following failure in the negotiations with the government. In fact, there is the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA), which is invoked by governments to prohibit strikes, which shows that a strike by itself is not an illegal act. We are against the ESMA - it is an anti-democratic law - but the fact that ESMA is invoked does not per se mean that there is no right to strike. There is an ILO (International Labour Organisation) convention that specifically accords trade union and other rights to employees in the public sector. The Supreme Court judgment goes not only against the Acts enacted by Parliament but also against ILO conventions. What is needed is for the government to intervene legislatively to protect the right to strike. The government also needs to ratify the conventions which safeguard the rights of workers and government employees.

Another aspect is that such observations reflect a trend within the higher judiciary, which is hostile to working class protests and mass actions. There is a trend in a series of judgments where the higher judiciary has been coming out against the use of collective forms of protest - whether it is the order prohibiting bandhs, hartals and now the right to strike. Next, probably, it will be the right to organise that will be questioned. It is already happening. The Tamil Nadu government has cancelled the recognition of 26 government employees' associations. This trend comes from an overall ethos that has been fostered in the last one decade of liberalisation where there is an anxiety to please foreign capital and our own business. There is then a need to have a disciplined labour force. Therefore, you see a series of judgments that do not recognise the rights of the working class. I think that not only the Supreme Court but the High Courts are also reflecting an increasing level of intolerance to any form of protest or democratic action. This is harmful for a democratic system. In all democratic societies, not only collective association but the right to protest is recognised. But in India, a climate is being generated, whether it is reflected in the media or in some sections of middle class, of an understanding that any form of collective action is harmful for the stability of society - the kind of stability that is required to implement those policies that will eventually affect the working class.

If this is not reversed and fought back, it will affect other sections also. One area deals specifically with archaic service conduct rules. What the British decided as service conduct rules have been applied for our government employees. The Tamil Nadu Service Conduct Rules is an example - it says that even if one wants to have a demonstration outside office hours, one has to take permission from a superior officer. The West Bengal government scrapped its archaic rules in 1980 and framed new service conduct rules. It does not treat government employees as some kind of bonded labour. Besides, it is universally recognised in democratic societies that public sector employees have rights as any other section of employees.

Is the working class and labour under siege today?

Along with this intolerance towards working class actions, the fact is that the working class has been under siege in this period. More man-days are lost owing to closures, lock-outs and management actions and not owing to strikes. Even the existing provisions in the labour laws are not being exercised. It is already being used against them. What is demanded now is the reform of labour laws - all this attack has come at a time when liberalisation has led to a large-scale displacement of jobs. With hardly any compensatory mechanism, to gag the workers and say that you have no right to strike is not acceptable. In reality, people are coming out in collective forms of protest against the whole gamut of policies that both the Central and State governments are implementing. But such protests cannot be eliminated by judicial fiat. Strikes take place, hartals will take place, and it is not possible for the judiciary to intervene in this area. It could do so if there is any violation of law during the protest, but beyond that, to place any restrictions on forms of protest will be unacceptable in a country like India.

Are trade unions getting isolated? Critics of trade unions, particularly employers, feel that "old style" trade unionism is no longer relevant. Has the trade union movement weakened in the last one decade? If so, what are its implications for Indian democracy?

There are efforts to marginalise the trade union movement. There is an offensive of capital against labour. It is not because of the wrong actions of the trade unions that they are getting marginalised. At the same time, we have seen that the trade union movement has fought back vigorously against this offensive. The leading force against the policies of liberalisation are the trade unions and that is why they are targeted. The institutions of the state are getting adjusted to the prevailing ethos. You don't see the judiciary intervening in the privatisation process where several laws are violated.

The Enron plant at Dabhol is an interesting example. The issue went up to the Supreme Court but it did not intervene. After all, the judiciary is influenced by the values of the dominant sections in society. It is clear that there is only a one-sided intervention. There is no intervention to check the malpractice due to liberalisation. It not only affects workers, but is a loot of our public resources as well. This mindset is disturbing. It is not just a question of trade union rights, it is a wider question of the democratic rights of citizens. If it is workers and government employees right now, the rights of other sections can be encroached upon any time. The trade unions will take up the matter jointly, but all those who want to see democratic rights assured must take this up and assert that within the framework of law, all the rights of citizens to express their protest, including the right to strike, has to be there.

What has been the impact of economic liberalisation on the working class? How have the economic policies affected the living conditions of people, particularly after the NDA took over?

In the last one and a half decades, these policies have led to a loss of livelihoods. Traditional industries like handloom, weaving, fishing and coir have suffered. In the rural areas, there is a drastic drop in employment, especially that of women. So there have been policies that are literally grinding down every section and the fight against that will have to be collective action. The court expects individuals to go and seek relief individually, but that won't solve the problem. The fight against the loss of livelihood, loss of jobs, hunger, can be only done collectively.

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