`There is a move to dilute labour laws'

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Gurudas Das Gupta, general secretary, AITUC.

The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) has been, like other central trade unions, actively opposing the policies of economic liberalisation and the proposed labour reforms of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. But of more concern to the AITUC has been the observations made by the Supreme Court on the right to strike, especially in an environment where the attack on labour from all fronts has intensified. Gurudas Das Gupta, general secretary, AITUC, spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi about the new challenges faced by the trade union movement. Excerpts from an interview:

What has been the impact of economic liberalisation on the industrial working class, more particularly after the NDA government took over? What are the key elements of policy that have impacted the living conditions of the Indian working class?

The policies of liberalisation and privatisation are being effectively put into practice by the current government. There is massive downsizing going on, wage cuts as well as a freeze in dearness allowances. The whole intention is geared at reducing wage costs, one way or the other. There are two elements - one is the cost reduction of labour and the other is capital reduction in the form of reduction in interest rates. The impact of recession is sought to be taken care of and so-called competition in the market is looked at from the angle of reduction of costs. This has resulted in the intensification of exploitation of labour. In the unorganised and small-scale sector, there is gross underpayment of wages. The period of work is anywhere between 10 and 11 hours daily for a wage of Rs.1,400 to Rs.1,800. It is almost like bonded labour. Given the poverty and the galloping unemployment, people have had no option but to offer themselves at the cheapest rates in hostile conditions. This is globalisation.

There is a large-scale violation of labour laws and the government has given the impression to the industry and employers that they can violate them with impunity. There is also a move to dilute labour laws. The process may be delayed, but the implementation is on. Minimum wages are not complied with, Employees State Insurance benefits are denied to workers and defaults on payments of Provident Fund are increasing. Where laws can be enforced, there is default. Where there is a large grey area where laws are not enforced at all, there is violation. There is nothing that can regulate the duty hours of workers. The administration is heavily loaded against workers.

In its totality, the prevalent political system is hostile. The understanding is that there will be economic progress only if workers are paid less. Nearly one crore people have been thrown out of their jobs in the last few years, six lakh units have closed down and the number of unemployed persons runs into crores. In fact, entire families are on the job, and they are all underpaid. Atrocities at the workplace are on the rise. At the threat of being kicked out, women are subjected to all kinds of exploitation. Some of the specific policy decisions that have affected the working class include the reduction in the interest rates on Provident Fund deposits, rampant employment of contract labour, opening up of the market and the non-application of trade union laws in the export zones.

How effective has collective bargaining been in dealing with the situation created by the policy environment?

The attack has intensified but the resistance has also increased. We have not been able to reverse the policies, but some decisions of the government have been put on hold. The privatisation of NALCO has been deferred; the Bill proposing the dilution of government stake in banks has been deferred; and the proposed Bill for the privatisation of the existing coal mines has also been stalled.

Your comments on the argument that "old style" trade unionism is no longer relevant.

There has to be a serious restructuring of our activities. The trade union movement has to be more politicised. It has to be a movement including the unorganised sector, involving everyone. The government has refused to make laws for agricultural workers. Trade unions have to take this up seriously. We cannot afford to be fragmented any more. Our struggles have to be on a national plane on the basis of the broadest and comprehensive understanding and unification.

What are the implications of the Supreme Court's observations on strike for the trade unions and the working class?

The judgment reflects the present economic policy of the government. It appears that more than the judiciary, the executive has had a role to play in it. There are no implications. This judgment is totally unacceptable.

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

The Industrial Disputes Act, in its present form, gives some benefits to the workers; but it is not foolproof. It does not provide protection against retrenchment and non-payment of dues. One has to approach a Tribunal, which may take time, years. There is no time limit for the settlement of disputes. It basically provides for some kind of conciliation.

By mobilising a significant portion of society, trade unions have been traditionally recognised as having played an important function by acting as a vehicle for popular participation in the democratic process. If the trade union movement has weakened during the last decade, what are the implications for Indian democracy?

Workers are important social partners in society. If they can build up their bargaining power, if they can stimulate and strengthen their organisation and striking force, it can be an effective deterrent against aberrations in society. Then a balance can be established in society. But if the trade union movement does not have that strength, it will be a one-sided game for the capitalists. That is why in a democratic set-up, the sense of collective bargaining should be so strong so that foul play does not go unchecked.

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