`Trade unions stand isolated'

Print edition : September 12, 2003

Interview with Subrata Mukherjee, president, INTUC, West Bengal.

Subrata Mukherjee has been involved with the trade union movement for the past 28 years. He was a member of the Governing Body of ILO from 1990 to 2000. Currently, he is the president of the West Bengal unit of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), a Trinamul Congress member of the State Assembly and the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Excerpts from the interview he gave Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay:

SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

What has been the impact of economic liberalisation on the industrial working class? How have the policies affected the living conditions of workers in the organised and unorganised sectors in the last few years, particularly since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed office?

Workers in the organised sector have been very badly hit by globalisation, and the extent of damage is steadily increasing. On the one hand, there is no employment generation, and on the other, those who have been working for a considerable period of time are finding themselves out of work. This phenomenon is particularly dangerous. After working almost all your life in a place, one fine morning you are told that it is closed down and you have to leave, or simply you just have to leave and at that point there is little recourse left for the worker other than committing suicide. I even know of the wives of out-of-work men, who out of desperation do sex work to keep the family alive.

One of the main reasons for this is the Government of India's lack of awareness. This liberalisation was first initiated during the end of Pranab Mukherjee's tenure as Finance Minister and took proper shape during Manmohan Singh's time. The Government of India did not create a level playing field for Indian companies vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts. Neither did they invest properly, nor make any attempt to modernise existing plants. They did not even provide the companies with proper management. As a result, local industry and production could not compete with international competition and was totally destroyed. If big companies such as Burn Standard and Jessop could keep on supplying to the domestic market, they would still be alive today. For instance, Durgapur Steel was modernised and it did not have to close it down, but right next to it there is IISCO, which is on the verge of closure. Globalisation is a reality we have to accept, but the Government of India should have created a level playing field first, instead of taking the short cut.

Another policy that the NDA government took was abolishing the concept of mixed economy. This is very dangerous for a developing country like ours. It has totally destroyed the public sector. We are absolutely against this policy. If a private individual can run a factory, then why cannot the Government of India, with all the power at its disposal, do the same? That just goes to prove that it is not the industry, which is sick, but the government. This has grave social implications. We are, in fact, heading towards anarchism and this will continue if the problem of unemployment is not tackled.

During the Congress(I) government's tenure it was announced that the organised sector alone would generate employment for three crore people every year. But that never took place. They assured us that globalisation would not go against the interest of the working class, and that workers would be retrained and absorbed in the companies. But no such programme took off. In developed countries such as the United Kingdom this programme has paid dividends.

INTUC has always politically supported the Congress(I) at the Centre, and yet it was the government led by the party that initiated the economic reforms. Did this not clash with the INTUC's trade union interests?

The INTUC and the Congress(I) are not one. Neither is the INTUC a blind supporter of Congress(I) policies. Although we may politically back the Congress(I), we are affiliated to the International Labour Organisation. We did voice our opinion on this issue, but it was, obviously, not heeded.

What are the key elements of policies that have impacted the living conditions of the working people in India?

No policies were drafted recently to save the organised sector. Some policies are being announced for the unorganised sector, but they are not being implemented. For example, it has come up that certain segments of the unorganised sector will be given Provident Fund. In the organised sector, in West Bengal itself, workers in various industrial units are yet to get their Provident Fund, to the tune of Rs.250 crores.

How has the deregulation of Indian industry, manifest in the gathering pace of privatisation, and the growing demand by employers that they be allowed flexible deployment of labour, affected labour? How effective has collective bargaining been in dealing with the situation created by the policy environment?

The concept of flexible deployment of labour is a myth. Till date the government has no policy whereby workers from the organised sector can be deployed elsewhere.

In India there is no practice of collective bargaining. Unless there is government support, there is no hope for collective bargaining. A way to go about collective bargaining is by reaching tripartite agreements with the management, the government and the trade unions representing the employees. Although each party signs on the dotted lines, none of the agreements is implemented and, as a result, the working class is losing its confidence in trade unions. I believe there is a concerted effort to destroy systematically the tradition of trade unionism in the country. One of the main objectives of globalisation is to destroy trade unionism.

What are your comments on the Supreme Court's recent observations about strikes?

That particular ruling has no meaning, and it will not be implemented either. The Supreme Court should never have done such a thing. The reason why the apex court can give such a ruling is because the national leadership is weak. We have the Industrial Disputes Act and other laws to protect the interests of the employers and employees. To an extent we are also to be blamed for this. Today there is an element of dread in the word `strike'. And in many places, owing to regular strikes for reasons not always particularly significant, the general public is fed up.

Do you mean that trade unions themselves have done harm to their own movement and cause?

Yes, to some extent we are to be blamed for the way things are. Today we have very little sympathy from the masses. Just screaming for rights is not enough. The trade union movement today is an isolated one. Whatever issues and problems we have, we deal with them and project them only in our own little circles. For example, when we are discussing whether to call for a strike in the jute industry, only those involved with the industry know about it. The general public have no idea. We have, in fact, alienated ourselves from the masses.

How far do you think politicising of trade unions has affected the movement?

It is true that we have all become appendages of various political parties - the INTUC belongs to the Congress(I), the CITU belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and so on. As a result of this politicising, the trade union movement has not only been crippled, but the unity among trade unions has also been destroyed. Only when the trade union movement transcends politics will it be successful, as in Japan or even the United States.

There are now calls for a dilution of the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act. What do you think its implications would be? Did the Act afford an adequate measure of protection for the labour force? If not, do you think it is because of any deficiencies in the law or in the process of its implementation?

I believe certain changes need to be made in the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act. The laws need to be more balanced. Just as I don't think that it would not be correct to make it legal to gherao, it would be wrong to abolish the right to strike.

I do not think the Industrial Disputes Act provided enough protection to the labour force. The problem lies not just in the implementation of the law, but also in certain aspects of the law itself. For example, the law states that only seven people are required to form a union. There is no justification for this any more.

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