‘The challenge is to safeguard labour laws’

Print edition : June 12, 2015

A.K. Padmanabhan, president, CITU. Photo: S. JAMES

A.K. PADMANABHAN, president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), spoke to Frontline on how the Narendra Modi government’s decision to amend, amalgamate and codify labour laws is anti-worker and anti-trade union. Excerpts:

How would you describe one year of the Modi government vis-a-vis its commitment to the working class?

This has been the worst period of attack on the working people. All the gains we had made on the legislative front are also under attack. The fact is that from 1991 onwards, the working class has been under attack. I recall the remark made by a Japanese delegation to India in the early 1990s that Indian labour laws are a hindrance. All that the successive governments have wanted to do is to downsize the labour force and change labour laws in favour of industry. In the past 24 years beginning November 1991, there have been 15 countrywide strikes against the government’s policies. There were no sector-wise demands. Three issues dominated—minimum wages, implementation of labour laws, and disinvestment. But a more critical situation developed in the past one year. Immediately after coming to power, the Modi government took up amendments to labour laws as a major agenda as it felt that labour laws were a hindrance to industrial growth. When the government says “make in India” or rolls out the red carpet for investors, it thinks labour laws are the only hindrance. There is a “reform cell” in the Labour Department now.

In the span of one year, the government has brought amendments to the Factories Act and the Apprentice Act and is planning to amend the Employees Provident Fund [EPF] and Employees State Insurance [ESI] Acts and create a new law for small industries. It is a “trishul” [three-edged weapon]: one, amending labour laws; two, asking State governments to follow the example of the Rajasthan government; and three, amalgamation of all laws into codes. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are emulating Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has sought 38 amendments in 17 Central laws and three State laws. It also wants to opt for the ordinance route but has to seek prior consent. The Central government plans to amalgamate 44 Central laws into five codes. A code on wages has already been drafted, and two meetings were held on that with trade unions. The second code on industrial relations will amalgamate three laws: the Industrial Disputes Act, the Trade Union Act and the Standing Order Act. The government is planning three more codes: social security, health and safety, and working conditions. Central trade unions are opposed to codification not because of the amalgamation but because of the dilution. The code on industrial relations makes it almost impossible to register a union. There is no clause for the mandatory recognition of a union; neither is a there a law for mandatory collective bargaining. On the other hand, layoff and retrenchment have been made easy.

Further, the EPF and the ESI are under attack. in his Budget speech, the Finance Minister proclaimed that the EPF and ESI Acts would be amended as workers were hostages [this is the term investors use to justify the release of these funds in the market]. He said that EPF beneficiaries would get an option to shift to the National Pension Scheme, which is only a savings scheme and pension is only in name. Whereas, the EPF is a pension scheme. Under the NPS, if a worker dies, only whatever he/she has invested will be returned. Another proposal is to appropriate the unclaimed money, Rs.6,000 crore in the EPF corpus, to form a senior citizens welfare fund. The government has no moral or legal right to take away that money.

Is this government any different from the previous dispensation as far as taking the trade unions’ views into consideration is concerned?

The proposals to amend employee benefits came from the Finance Ministry and not the Labour Ministry. The Labour Ministry has become subordinate to the Finance Ministry. In fact, all major decisions involving labour laws should be the outcome of tripartite consultations as per the conventions of the International Labour Organisation. The procedure is to draft a proposal, call trade unions for discussion and take their views into consideration. For the wage code, we had two meetings. By the time the second meeting was held, the views of the trade unions were brushed aside while many of the suggestions of employers were incorporated. When the industrial relations code was discussed, two diametrically opposed parties—that is, employers and trade unions—told the government not to act in haste. If an existing law is amended, reasons have to be given and the impact on workers laid bare.

Has the government looked into pending demands?

We have had a 10-point charter since 2009. One of our main demands has been the implementation of labour laws. Today, the challenge is to safeguard those very laws. All sections of workers, in the organised and unorganised sectors, are under attack.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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