Trade Union Movement

Victims of the neoliberal order

Print edition : September 01, 2017

June 1948.: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaking to some of the workers at the Cordite Factory at Aravankadu, Tamil Nadu. Photo: The Hindu Archives

An armed guard perched atop a freight train as it pulls out of New Delhi on the third day of the railways strike of 1974. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Migrant workers sweating it out at a construction site in Kochi in July. Despite putting in longer hours, they are paid paid much less than their counterparts from Kerala affiliated to trade unions. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Maruti Suzuki’s temporary workers protesting at the company’s Manesar plant near Gurgaon in September 2005. Photo: PTI

Riot police and workers of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India clashed in Gurgaon in July 2005 as hundreds of workers came out on the streets seeking higher wages and re-employment of suspended employees. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

A national convention of 10 central trade unions at Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi on August 8. Their 12-point charter of demands included one for a pension of Rs.3,000 for the entire working population. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Trade unions across the board, even those ideologically affiliated to the ruling party, today know that supporting anti-worker policies is untenable for their own survival. If ever there has been a moment for greater trade union relevance, this is it.

“Whither trade unionism” and “whither trade unions” are among the most popular posers that trade unions and their leaderships face today. As India’s independence nears the completion of 70 years, there is a notion that trade unions and trade unionism are now passe and that new forms of mobilisation are required. Trade unions are thought to have failed to organise the unorganised sector and are in need of reinventing themselves; more significantly, trade unions and trade union activity are said to be disruptive in the agenda of development. This view has gained currency not only nationally but also internationally despite the fact that workers continue to organise themselves in myriad ways and raise fundamental questions of livelihood and basic survival. Their peaceful struggles and the issues they flag are mostly ignored in the mainstream media. Over the last few years, some State governments have actively collaborated with managements in breaking strikes, making registration of unions difficult and diluting demand notices.

In the United States, the unionisation of Disney World employees to seek increases in hourly wages is the most recent case of new forms of unionisation and worker mobilisation. With seven decades of Independence behind them, trade unions in India find themselves grappling with many fundamental issues, including that of getting the government to implement the minimum wage, and even graver challenges, this time not from a colonial entity but from Indian industry and the corporate sector that seem to enjoy the unbridled support of the government, which is driven with the agenda of “ease of doing business”.

On August 8, 10 central unions resolved at a national convention at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to intensify their joint and individual struggles against the “authoritarian character of the government”. They had a 12-point charter of demands, including a demand for a pension of Rs.3,000 for the entire working population. The charter demanded universal social security to all workers, a universal public distribution system and strict enforcement of labour laws and punitive measures for their violation. It called for an end to disinvestment and strategic sale in Central and State public sector undertakings (PSUs). It demanded that workers in permanent or perennial employment should not be put on the contractual system and that workers on contract should be paid wages on a par with regular workers for the same kind of work. It called for removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility for bonus and compulsory registration of trade unions within 45 days from the date of submission of the application and immediate ratification of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98. The convention ended with a call against all labour law amendments. A three-day protest will be held in November, which might get converted into an indefinite protest. “We have had to constantly reinvent ourselves. If we feel that a one-day protest isn’t enough, we take it forward and sometimes it can be an indefinite one, too,” explained Amarjit Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).

Trade unions in India today face a peculiar situation. They not only have to resist the dilution of labour laws and defend the gains made over the years for the organised sector, gains that accrued with the enactment of various labour laws, but have to organise sections of the precariat (the precarious proletariat especially in the unorganised sector), made vulnerable by the nature and terms of employment in present-day India. The overlying proof that Indian trade unionism is still active and relevant can be seen in the unionisation of “scheme workers”—a category of workers recruited to implement government programmes, who receive a paltry honorarium and no social or job security. “Twenty four hours” is the code word used to describe such workers employed in various such scheme-based programmes of the government like the Integrated Child Development Services or the Midday Meal scheme. It denotes that they are employed only for 24 hours and can be sacked any time.

In India, the period before Independence and post-Independence until 1991, was a phase when trade unions were respected and feared. Since 1991, trade unions have been ignored, tripartite dialogue has been sidestepped and tripartite decisions have been put on the back burner. Yet, the post-1991 period saw greater solidarity among central trade unions, cutting across political hues, and with individual trade union support sometimes contingent on the nature of the political party ruling at the Centre. The government today recognises 12 trade unions on the basis of their strength.

The organisation of the Indian working class into trade union activity predates Independence. It coincides with the industrial revolution in Britain and the spread of capitalism outside Britain and in the rest of Europe. Sukomal Sen’s Working Class of India: History of Emergence and Movement, 1830-1970 describes the political and economic backdrop that shaped the growth of trade unions and trade union activity before Independence and for five decades thereafter. Sen wrote about the “overpressure on the agrarian economy” and the growth of Indian industry that laid the context for the emergence of the Indian working class, its development and the “intricate problems connected with it”. Sen did not live to see the farmer suicides in the post-1991 period, continuing to date. The agrarian crisis continues in that sense. Rural-to-urban migration persists, with urban slums and industrial ghettos manifesting the nature and extent of the crisis.

“The Swadeshi movement considerably satisfied the urge of the Indian bourgeoisie for industrial entrepreneurship. But the swelling of the ranks of the Indian industrial proletariat in consequence of this phase of industrial entrepreneurship was of cardinal importance in the revolutionary history of India,” wrote Sen. The unified Swadeshi movement before Inndependence was anti-colonial in character unlike the individual one led by the present-day Sangh affiliate, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, whose calls for going “Swadeshi” are couched in nationalistic rhetoric without any road map for self-reliance. One such unique Swadeshi campaign that trade union leaders from the South are familiar with was led by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, also known as Kappalottiya Tamizhan or the Tamil Helmsman. He founded the Swadeshi Stream Navigation Company to break the monopoly that the British had over maritime trade in India.

First labour union

In 1918, the first labour union was formed with the founding of the Madras Labour Union by B.P. Wadia. It was, as Sen documents in his seminal work, the “first systematic attempt at forming modern trade union organisation in India”. But Wadia himself had a “reformist and constitutionalist” outlook. By 1920, there were already some 125 unions with a total membership of 2,50,000. But the first organisation of the Indian working class at a national level, which arose in the period following the First World War and the October Socialist Revolution, was the AITUC. “The founding session of the AITUC was held in a period when the beginning of the communist movement and the birth of a political party of the Indian working class were yet to take place,” wrote Sen. The AITUC was the fulcrum of all popular struggles.

In 1947, the Congress broke off from the AITUC, which was the united platform until then, and formed the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). The years following the formation of the AITUC, particularly from 1922 to 1926 and after 1928, were trying times for the working class. Indian industry was in recession, partly because of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms which aimed to “preserve the Indian market as an exclusive privileged zone” for the British government. There was a bitter struggle as wages were sought to be reduced, records Sen. According to the statistics brought out by the Royal Commission on Labour, there were strikes mainly on the issue of wages and bonus.

The Railway employees’ agitation for fair wages and bonus in 1974 was a landmark; it culminated in the National Campaign Committee of Railways for Struggle (NCCRS). The 20-day strike involving 17 lakh workers, led by George Fernandes as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, was phenomenal. It was put down mercilessly by the then Congress government and thousands were imprisoned. Eventually, the government conceded the demands.

Agitations by workers intensified in the years between 1968 and 1977. A United Council of Trade Unions was formed. In 1977-78, there were attempts to tinker with the Industrial Relations Bill. All trade unions opposed the Bill, recalls A.K. Padmanabhan, president, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). In 1980, a National Campaign Committee was formed, and this included the INTUC and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The next big joint action was a one-day strike on January 19, 1982, when for the first time trade unions put forth their demands along with those of the peasantry. The demands included remunerative prices for agricultural produce and separate legislation for agriculture to ensure a comprehensive minimum wage for labour that would take into account the cost of living and the calorific need of rural and urban workers. That has not yet materialised.

Trade union leaders such as A.K. Padmanabhan and J.S. Majumdar of the CITU and Amarjit Kaur of the AITUC feel that the impetus given to the public sector played a major role in spurring a strong trade union movement in the years after Independence. Several labour laws were enacted both before and after Independence in favour of workers, though some were problematic as they favoured industry rather than workers. Several pro-worker judgments were also passed in the subsequent years. Notable among them was Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board vs A. Rajappa (1978), in which a seven-judge bench (majority judgment delivered by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer) expanded the definition of industry under the Industrial Disputes Act. The Industrial Relations Bill, introduced in 1978, sought to integrate the Trade Union Act, 1926, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, and introduce a clause that would effectively make it easy for employers to retrench workers and shut down factories without the government’s approval. It could not be carried through as unions resisted it. There were court rulings that held that if minimum wages were not paid, the government had no right to exist. But over the years, there were rulings against holding protests, dharnas and strikes. There were legal restrictions on gate meetings.

Modern-day middleman

The conditions of the working class in the late 19th and early 20th century and the manner of recruitment in factories run by the Britishers were similar to the present-day form of recruitment. Sen writes: “The exploitation of the proletariat was distinguished by features which as a rule, were no longer to be found in the developed capitalist countries and which aggravated the problems of the workers. There was usually a middleman between the workers and employers, who did the recruiting and to some extent paid the workers. He was called by a variety of names: jobber, sirdar, mistri, mukaddam, choudhri, etc. according to the variance of dialect and language in different parts of the country. The undeveloped character of the labour market and the chaotic situation of the economy in general accounted largely for the existence of such middlemen.” Today, these middlemen who recruit the workforce for large sections of industry are commonly called thekedaars and the workers employed through them are called “contract workers” or theka mazdoor.

Despite a law seeking a ban on and regulation of contract labour and multiple judgments favouring workers, including the latest one on treating contract workers on a par with regular workers and applying the principle of equal pay for equal work, contractual labour is commonplace even in perennial forms of employment, including in government departments. For trade unions today, organising contract employees, a good percentage of whom belong to the public sector, is a major challenge. Not only are these workers denied a decent living and a minimum wage, but they are at their employers’mercy. In the aftermath of the November 2016 demonetisation, a large number of them found themselves unemployed, especially as the small- and medium-scale sector transacted mainly in cash.

The regulation of factory conditions in India had not arisen out of any empathy for workers’ conditions. As Sukomal Sen explains, the Indian Factories Act of 1881 was enacted largely in response to the textile magnates of Lancashire “who were faced with an embarrassing competition from their Indian counterparts who had the advantage of cheap labour and arbitrary exploitation of the labourers, whether male, female or child”. Sen writes that “in the background of exploitation on the Indian workers and the resistance they put up against it, the imperialist government was compelled to enact certain labour legislations”. The purpose of the legislation, he says, is to exercise control over the working hours and other conditions of service. But colonial India wanted labour laws to create a permanent workforce for the employers. There was still no regulation of hours, and workers were made to work for 15 to 18 hours at a stretch.

The number of industrial disputes increased between 1951 and 1962. During this period, several social security enactments were made—the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, the Bonus Act, the Employees State Insurance Act and the Minimum Wages Act. Trade union leaders recall how at the 15th Labour Conference, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was present for the entire duration of the conference. No Prime Minister or even Labour Minister would now do this, notwithstanding the pro-poor rhetoric.

The trade union movement suffered a setback in the first tenure of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when a Ministry for Disinvestment was created for the first time. In the second tenure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, foreign direct investment (FDI) was allowed in crucial sectors. Meanwhile, several pieces of welfare legislation were enacted for bidi workers, mine workers and brick kiln workers. Trade union leaders do not accept that the central trade unions ignored the unorganised sector. The closure of several traditional industries in textiles and engineering was not because of trade unions, as is commonly assumed, but because they could not modernise and keep up with the competition.

The issue of minimum wage

A formula for calculating the minimum wage was decided at the 15th session of the Indian Labour Conference. The formula, which took into account the calorific requirement of urban and rural India and family sizes, has not been implemented. All trade unions have agreed that Rs.18,000 should be the declared minimum wage with indexation, whereas the government has not agreed to this proposal. Bipartite dialogue between workers and employers is considered the best form of collective bargaining, but wage agreements are never complied with, necessitating tripartite discussions. But even decisions arrived at tripartite bodies and after consensus are not taken forward. Attacks on workers intensified after the 1990s. Televised protests, like that of Honda workers or Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) employees, at least drew some attention to the workers’ plight. Around 150 MSIL workers, all young men, were put behind bars for nearly one and a half years, without bail. More than the company, the government seemed keen to teach the workers and the trade unions a lesson.

Struggles to get labour laws enforced, including those for better wages, continued after Independence. The gradual devaluation of the public sector after the 1990s set the pace for a renewed phase of agitation. Until 1991, the public sector was a model employer. Self-sufficient public sector townships had once provided quality residence and affordable health care and education. Some of the best hospitals were found in these townships. Now, they are reduced to ghost towns.

The NDA government’s latest bid to codify 44 labour laws in four codes to simplify procedures and to facilitate ease of doing business seeks to undo all the gains made in the past. The code on industrial relations, it is learnt, is drafted in such a manner that it will make it impossible to hold strikes. It aims to subsume the Industrial Dispute Act (IDA) and the Trade Unions Act within it. The code on wages attempts to subsume the Payment of Wages Act, the Minimum Wages Act, the Payment of Bonus Act and the Equal Remuneration Act. The amendments to the Factories Act that were carried out in some States exclude the great majority of workers from its ambit by raising the threshold of exemption under the Act. Trade unions have little knowledge of the blueprint of these amalgamated codes. The worst, trade union leaders say, are the amendments to the Apprentices Act, which sets 14 as the minimum age for being engaged as an apprentice. Hours of leave or work shall be at the discretion of the employer. There is no ceiling regarding the number of apprentices an employer can keep and the penalty for violating the Act is a paltry Rs.500.

New challenges

The neoliberal economic policies that were adopted in the decade following 1991 made the unions see the need for a unified struggle. In 1992, owing to the events leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the relations of left-leaning trade unions with the BMS got affected. Barring the INTUC and the BMS, the other trade unions undertook joint action with 16 general strikes from the early 1990s until 2013. The INTUC, despite an initial reluctance, began speaking out during the second tenure of the UPA.

By 2009, there was total unity, which continued until the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. That was the turning point for trade unions, too. As long as there were coalition governments with no single party with a significant majority, the trade unions managed to stave off major changes in social security provisions and other labour laws. The mandate of 2014 changed all that; the government was not interested in listening to the trade unions anymore. Trade union formation had become difficult. Earlier, seven workers could form a union and apply for registration. Now if they attempted to do so, they risked losing their jobs. The entire machinery of the government, from a gentle tilt, had now completely leaned towards the management. The “level playing field” demanded by the Indian corporate sector in the 1990s vis-a-vis foreign companies was now being demanded by the latter so that they could enter crucial sectors like defence. The labour movement and trade unions had another challenge—how to keep the communal virus away from joint class struggles.

In 2015 and 2016, the BMS, which earlier was part of a few joint programmes, opted out of all joint struggles. Yet, the intensity and frequency of trade union actions has been on the rise; the next general strike is planned in 2018. Just as in the period preceding Independence, the industrial workforce was primarily rural in character, comprising artisans who were either landless or whose skills were made redundant by the industrial requirement in that period, the industrial workforce today is also largely rural in character. The trade union movement seems to have expanded from the traditional federations representing the public sector to newer areas including unorganised labour.

Broader solidarities

Trade union leaders opine that there is a concerted effort to weaken and attack the trade union movement. Yet, with more and more sections joining joint struggles, there is a realisation that the employment scenario is only going to get worse. In recent months IT workers in Bengaluru have come out onto the streets to voice their grievances. Stories of worker solidarities seldom make news—whether of students joining trade union protests or CITU workers from Tamil Nadu collecting Rs.5,00,000 for the families of the jailed MSIL workers, or even workers from Hyundai, South Korea, who came to express solidarity with their striking counterparts in India. Trade unions across the board, even those ideologically affiliated to the government, today know that supporting anti-worker policies are untenable for their own survival. The BMS on more than one occasion has been guardedly critical of the government and NITI Aayog on issues of disinvestment and mindless labour reforms. The compulsion has come from below.

A good section of the middle class has been made to believe that all its rights at the workplace have been given willingly by governments. Yet the simmering discontent in all classes, especially the middle and lower classes, cannot be ignored. And if ever there has been a moment for greater trade union relevance, this is it.