Tapan Sen, a member of the Rajya Sabha from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has spent more than three decades as a trade unionist. He recounts his experience from the 1990s. Excerpts:
When the reforms were introduced, were trade unions prepared for the attack on labour?
Liberalisation started taking off in our country in the mid-1980s itself when Rajiv Gandhi came to power. If you notice, in that period the import content of Indian manufacturing went up. That was the departure from the basic policy of import substitution.
Our position was that it was an affront to Indian sovereignty. We anticipated the trend—the worker would be under tremendous pressure, real wages would go down, and workers as a whole would lose their rights. All this and more, we anticipated, would have an impact on the democratic set-up. Ultimately, the basic attack was on the manufacturing sector, with more importance given to the services sector. Now because of the global gloom, it is facing turmoil. The net result is that unemployment has gone up, real wages have gone down, and the capacity of the economy to assert its own priorities has gone down.
The protagonists of neoliberalism argued then, as they do now, that this would improve the quality of work and wages. But if you look at the homeland of neoliberalism, the average real wage of the American worker is more or less at the same level as it was five decades back. The situation is that the boom has collapsed and wages are at the old levels. But there is no possibility of a boom to come up as a natural process.
How were workers' rights impacted in this period?
The attacks on labour occurred earlier also. Pre-liberalisation, even in a capitalist system, labour administration was biased towards the ruling class. There was some kind of governance to ensure that anarchy did not step in. Post-liberalisation, even that camouflage has been lifted. In India they dared not talk about hire and fire; now they are doing it openly. In the 1990s, the argument to do away with labour market rigidity was made to ensure engagement of more labour. This was the logic. But the International Labour Organisation observed then that countries that had labour market flexibility could not generate employment. But the second generation reforms that began from the new millennium saw a focus on a change in labour laws to ensure that labour was pushed completely out of the purview of labour laws. A look at the proposed changes today shows that there is an attempt to push 90 per cent of workers out of labour laws by enhancing the threshold of employment. It is as if the corporate sector is dictating to the government. There is an employer-servant relationship between the two. They announced a package for the garment and textile sector calling it seasonal, offering fixed-term employment. That means employees can be thrown out without any obligation like compensation, etc. They are proposing to make P.F. optional there. Workers are highly exploited in this category. Labour in general is being pushed to the wall. That is one reason why there are many cases of spontaneous outbursts. Workers are reacting even where unions are not there. If the ruling classes do not draw any lessons, there will be so much anarchy that it will affect their operational efficiency.
How did unionisation and unions change?
The gradual change in labour laws was supplemented by the non-implementation of existing labour laws. Today, the non-implementation of labour laws is no more a failure of the labour machinery; it is being consciously pursued by the government. The randomised selection of inspections from the Shram Suvidha portal of the government ensures that most units will be out of the purview of inspection. This is to promote violation, not protection, of labour laws. Trade unions are under greater stress today.
One basic thing is that 25 years ago the consciousness of the trade union movement on policy matters was not as much as it is now. Since 1991 there have been 16 general strikes on policy-related issues. A sponsoring committee of trade unions was formed after the first strike, in November 1991. Initially, not all were together, but even those who were supporting liberalisation joined the united movement as things were different on ground. From 2009 onwards, there has been a more united show by the trade unions. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh today, despite being ideologically committed to the government, is finding it difficult to stand by the misdeeds committed against labour. But it is not only the large trade unions; smaller trade unions are responding to the calls of the central trade unions. Then there are the all-India State government employees and Central government employees’ organisations which are not affiliated to any central union but which are joining the common platform of action. Insurance, defence, banking employees and their federations are joining in. The nature of the crisis is different and there are no signs of recovery.