'Labour is being sidelined everywhere'

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Hasubhai Dave, national president, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) is the trade union wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, yet it has, under the rule of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), occasionally, disagreed with the manner in which labour law reforms are sought to be imposed on the working class and has expressed concerns over the impact of liberalisation policies. Hasubhai Dave, national president of the BMS, spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi on the organisation's perspective of the changed policy environment. Excerpts from the interview:

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 segments of Indian industry in the last few years, particularly since the NDA government took over? What are the key elements of policy that have impacted the living conditions of the working people in India?

The effect of liberalisation has been the worst on the worker. The NDA government has also had a role in this. The kind of haste the NDA government is showing with respect to implementing economic liberalisation was not even shown by the previous Congress(I) governments. Labour is being sidelined everywhere. In all the committees and task forces or advisory committees on employment constituted by the NDA government, you will find only the representatives of leading employer organisations, not a single trade union representative.

Not even the BMS?

No, not even us. And what these committees recommend has been found to be against the interest of workers. If the government had done something for tripartitism, the results would have been different. When we told the Prime Minister about the effects of disinvestment, particularly in Balco and Modern Food Industries, he set up a fact-finding committee, comprising the employer, industry representatives, and me as the sole trade union representative. When the report comes out, the impact of such policies will be clear.

The impact of globalisation has been manifold. There has been a negative effect on the small scale sector and several units have closed down, unable to compete in the open market. There was closure and retrenchment even before and these policies have heightened these trends. The Voluntary Retirement Scheme is being implemented everywhere. Globalisation was supposed to generate employment, but what is happening is the reverse. People from the organised sector have been compelled to shift to the unorganised sector. These trends are not good.

Your comments on the recent observations of the Supreme Court on the right to strike.

The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, gives workers a statutory right to strike. The Supreme Court judgment has been given in the context of the strike by Tamil Nadu government employees. The court has also said that employees can approach trade unions and Tribunals for a proper remedy. It has used strong words against the Tamil Nadu government, describing its action as unprecedented. The judgment's observations that there is no statutory right for employees to go on strike are not incorrect. There are the Conduct Rules of the State that restrict the right to go on strike and the observations have been given in that context. Of the total four crore workers in the organised sector, 2.5 crore are State and Central government employees, and their right to strike is prohibited by their Service Rules. It is our demand that these rules be removed. As for an industrial worker, the right to strike is still there and even the Supreme Court cannot say that it is an illegal right. We have to try hard to change the service conditions that restrict employees from going on strike.

But is there not a growing intolerance in society to strikes by industrial workers or government employees? Are trade unions getting isolated from the rest of society as every section seems to be critical of trade union action?

First, we believe that the right to strike has to be there. Secondly, it is not that we should resort to direct action each time without taking other steps. Three, it must be the last resort. In today's situation, everyone is highly reluctant to go on strike. Resorting to strike action every time is not fair.

But is it not true that the number of man-days lost owing to lock-outs and closures are more than those lost owing to strikes? Trade unions have always resorted it to as a last resort.

Yes, it is true that the number of man-days lost owing to lockouts and closures is more than those lost owing to the actions of workers. Whenever there is a lock-out or a closure, it is never because of the worker but owing to the machinations of the employers. The second National Labour Commission also offers an option to strike using strike ballots. In fact, a report by the Reserve Bank of India shows that the inefficiency in units is not because of workers. Nearly 63 per cent of the responsibility lies with the mismanagement by the employers and only 3 per cent is the responsibility of the workers. The remaining loss is owing to factors such as failure of electricity and so on. The fault of the workers is negligible.

But do trade unions have to modify their strategies in the changed circumstances? Your comments on the argument that "old style" trade unionism is no longer relevant.

These leftist unions always resort to a `Bharat bandh' and a call for strike. We have to look at other options. The capacity to struggle by workers has gone down. There is loss of wages, and the no-work, no-pay rule applies. There was a lot of exploitation after Independence. But it is not the case now. We cannot say that the condition of workers has not improved.

But even the National Labour Commission report observes that liberalisation has resulted in more unemployment and a rise in contract work. Are these not manifestations of increasing exploitation?

I would not say that exploitation has gone up. Because of globalisation, in the Prime Minister's words, there is growth, but it is "jobless growth". And he has said that this kind of growth is not good for development. Even the ILO [International Labour Organisation] has admitted that there is development, but jobless growth. All this is happening owing to the effects of globalisation. China has prepared itself for joining the WTO [World Trade Organisation], but in our country, old systems of production and manufacturing are prevalent. Casual labour is on the rise and exploitation is increasing in this sector. The contractualisation of labour should be stopped. The proposed legislation to convert certain regular forms of employment to contract work should not be brought in. We are going to oppose this. Now in the Special Economic Zones, it is deemed that no labour laws will apply. This is not correct. In fact, it was expected that exploitation would be less owing to globalisation. But that has not happened.

There are calls for the dilution of provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act. What are its implications? Did the Act afford an adequate measure of protection to the labour force? If not, was this because of any deficiencies in the law, or in the process of enforcement?

There should be reforms and comprehensive legislation covering all sections. But we oppose the amendment to Section V B of the IDA, wherein the restrictions to `hire and fire' are sought to be removed. We obtained this protective legislation after much struggle. The IDA has been effective overall. The Bombay Industrial Disputes Act and the IDA are perhaps the only laws that provide some protection to the workers. We say that if the government wants to introduce some reform in labour laws, it should be in the Provident Fund Act, raising the existing ceiling in the Bonus Act, and raising the ceiling of minimum wages as well as ensuring strict implementation in the payment of minimum wages.

How many times have the trade unions been taken into confidence by this government when discussing issues of the working class?

There is no question of taking the trade unions into confidence. NDA leaders go for employer association meetings, but never attend anything called by the trade unions. The Prime Minister calls us for a meeting once a year for an hour. How is it possible to cover the entire range of issues involving the organised and unorganised sectors in such a short duration? There should be routine meetings. It is very rare that the Prime Minister attends any activity organised by trade unions. Whatever the employers say, the government is always prepared to listen and agree.

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