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Print edition : Oct 25, 2002 T+T-

A lack of consensus on several important issues and attempts at steamrollering several anti-labour recommendations through, mark the 38th session of the Indian Labour Conference.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

The Communist Manifesto

There was a time when some people advocated an irreconcilable class conflict in this relationship. History has proved them wrong.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, at the 38th Indian Labour Conference, referring to the relationship between labour and capital.

THE 38th session of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC), an important tripartite forum that brought together representatives of workers, employers and the government, once again brought to the fore the conflicts and contradictions arising out of class interests. If anything, the deliberations at the much-awaited annual event, which took place on September 28 and 29, were more acrimonious than last year. There was no consensus on several issues, such as the impact of globalisation on employment, disinvestments, and the problems of small-scale industries. While some progress was made in the matter of social safety nets, issues relating to the long-term interests of the organised and the unorganised sectors were largely ignored. The various unions that participated in the conference stressed the importance of tripartitism and reminded the government of the need to abide by this spirit. Representatives of several State governments warned against the harmful effects of globalisation and industrial deceleration.

This time too, much of the heat at the conference was generated by more or less the same issues as earlier. However, the last-minute inclusion of a discussion on the controversial report of the Second National Commission on Labour (NCL) drew flak from almost all central trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union affiliate of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The dissenting note sent by the BMS was appended to the NCL report. Intially, the report was not on the conference agenda; the unions were apprehensive that its inclusion would be used by the government to force a consensus (most of the employers' associations had found it acceptable); which in turn would have been detrimental to workers' interests.

In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to wish away the contradictions between labour and capital and emphasised correctly that the creation of the latter depended very much on the former. He appealed to the unions to cooperate in the speedy implementation of the Second NCL report. Notwithstanding pressures to forge a consensus on the report, which contains adverse recommendations especially with regard to hire-and-fire policies, the trade unions held their ground and insisted that a separate tripartite meeting be called to discuss exclusively the contents of the voluminous report.

The agenda before the Labour Conference comprised four issues: the impact of globalisation on the economy, especially employment, and the challenges thereof, and the need for a social safety net; the government's disinvestment policy; problems faced by small-scale industries and suitable remedies; and the NCL report. The inclusion of the report drew objection from almost all central trade unions barring the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS). While the HMS did not reject the report entirely stating that it believed in "dialogue", it exhorted the government to stick to tripartite principles. But trade unions such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the United Trade Union Congress (UTUC) and the UTUC (Lenin Sarani), said that the report was not acceptable to them as they had not been consulted when the terms of reference of the NCL were drawn up.

The terms of reference of the NCL included rationalisation of existing laws relating to labour in the organised sector and the formulation of a piece of umbrella legislation in order to ensure a certain minimum protection to workers in the unorganised sector. The unions contended that the Standing Labour Committee, which had decided the agenda for the ILC meet, did not include the NCL report as a matter to be considered. The BMS, while preferring to remain silent over the controversial inclusion of the NCL report on the agenda of the Labour Conference, cautioned the government against implementing the anti-labour recommendations of the report.

This time round there was serious introspection on the impact of globalisation, with the unions taking the lead in the debate. It was acknowledged that while employment had decelerated from 2.23 per cent in the pre-reform era to less than 1 per cent in the post-reform period, causalisation or informalisation over the same period had in fact increased. This was also pointed out in the NCL report. Therefore, this time there was a lot of emphasis on the need for a social security cover for people who had been laid off or rendered unemployed. But, there was no consensus or even a discussion on who would take the financial responsibility for such a scheme. It was resolved that a national policy on social security would be put in place, a `national social security authority' would be set up, and the government would allocate 1 to 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) towards public expenditure on social security and ratify the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) conventions on the subject.

Apart from the inclusion of the NCL report, the agenda's reliance on two Planning Commission expert committees, namely the Task Force on Employment Opportunities and the Special Group for creating gainful employment for one crore people a year, did not go down well with the trade unions. AITUC general secretary and Rajya Sabha member, Gurudas Das Gupta, drew attention to the fact that the Labour Conference had placed no action taken report pertaining to the 37th Indian Labour Conference, held in February, 2001.

There were serious differences between trade union and employer association representatives who were on the ILC committee that discussed the impact of globalisation. While some members felt that globalisation had ushered in high GDP growth, made enterprises more competitive and quality conscious and stabilised the country's foreign exchange reserves, the trade unions felt that it had brought jobless growth in the organised sector, created a situation in which multinationals were buying up other enterprises but were not setting up new ones, and it had not helped the Indian economy because the opening up of the Indian market had led to the availability of imported goods at comparatively low prices.

The committee suggested an in-depth review of the impact of globalisation and its effectiveness. There were suggestions about the need for broader consultations within the country prior to the signing of major international agreements. Another suggestion was that India should take the lead in bringing developing countries together in order to protect their interests in international fora. It was felt that any growth-oriented policy that had no employment content should not be pursued.

THERE was a sharp divergence of opinion within the committee that discussed the disinvestment policy. The trade unions felt that the policy had to be reviewed. According to them the disinvestment policy did not serve the national interest; they stressed that there should be no disinvestment in profit-making public sector undertakings. On the other hand, the employers favoured the disinvestment policy as it enhanced efficiency and competitiveness of the enterprises. However, they suggested that public sector units in the strategic sector be exempted from disinvestment.

The committee on social safety recognised that 92 per cent of the workers in the country were outside any form of social security coverage. It recommended the formulation of one comprehensive social security law that would consolidate all labour legislation relating to the subject. The trade unions, especially the CITU and the AITUC, resisted all attempts to dilute the role of the government in providing social security to all workers. It was stressed that all the social needs of workers, such as health care, unemployment benefits, old age benefits, accident compensation and skill development, should be addressed. Although an insurance scheme for workers who lose employment was suggested, it did not take any concrete shape.

The recommendations of the committee on the challenges before the small-scale sector drew strong reactions from both trade unions and employers' representatives. While the latter felt that the trade unions had no idea of the problems faced by owners of small-scale industries, the trade unions were opposed to any move that diluted the rights of workers in these units. It was suggested that labour laws be simplified and rationalised in units employing less than 100 workers. The unions turned down this proposal and demanded that the entire section be deleted from the recommendations. The unions felt that the committee on small-scale units had reflected the concerns of only employers. Meanwhile, the employer associations accused the unions of trying to promote 19th century ideas in the 21st century. Some of them blamed unemployed people and the growing population for all the ills of the country. This drew sharp responses from the unions, which felt that the ills of the nation could not be attributed to the working class and the poorer sections.

There was no consensus in the discussion on the NCL report. It was clear that the report was weighed in favour of the interests of the employers, who seemed only too keen to implement the report. Labour Ministers from several States supported the report but not before highlighting the dismal state of unemployment and the widespread nature of industrial closures in their States. The response from the Labour Ministers or the Labour Commissioners was not overwhelming. Delegates from some States mentioned that some of the recommendations that were anti-labour had to be discussed at length. The representatives of employers were supportive of all the recommendations pertaining to retrenchment, closures and layoffs.

The Labour Conference could have been more meaningful had the government taken the trade unions into confidence before setting the agenda. The surreptitious inclusion of the NCL report in the agenda belied the government's sincerity in the matter of ensuring tripartitism.

The fact that the government and the employers' associations seemed to be speaking in more or less one voice left little doubt in anyone's mind about the impartiality of the leading social partner, the government. In the coming months, postures are expected to harden if further attempts are made to steamroller anti-labour recommendations.