Print edition : June 09, 2001

Given its Sangh Parivar loyalties, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) has always been a little wary of taking sides with the rest of the central trade unions, particularly those with Left-wing affiliations. However, the obvious anti-labour stance of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has emboldened BMS leaders to join other trade unions in their criticism of the government. At the 37th Indian Labour Conference (ILC), BMS general secretary Hasmukhbhai Dave lamented the lack of tripartite (between the government, the employers and the employees) consultations and expressed doubts about the government's integrity with regard to its disinvestment measures. On May 16, Dave lashed out at the government for allowing 26 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence production. He spoke to T.K. Rajalakshmi about some crucial issues concerning the working class and on the government's policies. Excerpts from the interview:

Do you think the NDA government's perception of issues related to workers and the economic reforms is different from those of its predecessors?

Yes. This government is different. It has gone a step further. We (the BMS) never thought the NDA government would do this. The earlier governments were never in such a hurry. The only difference is that this government is dealing with second-generation reforms. The BJP and its allies used to oppose the very same economic policies when they were in the Opposition. Now the government led by the BJP is pushing forward these policies. This has posed a major problem. Unemployment and closure of industries, two big issues, are staring us in the face. Within a year 84,767 factories have closed down. This record is there for everyone to see. And through the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS), thousands of employees are coming out of the workforce. This scheme is just another form of retrenchment. More than 60 per cent of the units of the 246 public sector units are running in loss. Of the 149 National Textile Corporation mills, already 71 have closed down; five are running on profit; and the rest are either loss-making ones or have been referred to the BIFR (Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction). Some 60,000 workers in the loss-making mills will lose their jobs if these mills are shut down in accordance with the government's policy. In the case of Modern Food Industries, it was stated that there would be no retrenchment. For the last one year it has run on loss and now it is learnt that the VRS will be introduced there. Even in the case of Balco (Bharat Aluminium Company), it was agreed that no worker would be retrenched. But now we hear that the VRS may be introduced there from July.

Workers are annoyed with this government. The amendments to the labour laws, especially the proposed changes in the Contract Labour (Abolition and Regulation) Act, will only strengthen 'hire and fire' tendencies. The government appears to be succumbing to pressure from the United States, the World Trade Organisation, and the employers, among others. The government had constituted a working group, the Economic Advisory Council, comprising mostly employers. These employers made seven recommendations, all of them anti-worker - implementation of the hire-and-fire policy, employment of contract labour and a slash in the interest rate on the Provident Fund. The government never took either the trade unions or the tripartite committee set up by the Labour Ministry into confidence. No discussions or negotiations were held with the unions before it was decided to amend the labour laws and the Contract Act and slash the Provident Fund interest rates. We are non-political organisation. We are fighting against the wrong policies of the government, and the current policy is not good for the workers, for the nation and even for industry. We also opposed FDI in the defence industry for reasons of national security. The other unions are supporting us in this.

Do you think the government does not understand the problems of workers or is it deliberately ignoring their voice?

The government is not even making an attempt to understand the problems of workers. On May 12, we told the Prime Minister that the government failed to hold a dialogue with the trade unions and that that was the reason for the misunderstanding. He agreed to start negotiations. Holding of regular tripartite consultations with social partners was on the agenda and a resolution was passed (at the ILC). It is up to the government to start negotiations with labour leaders. If the Prime Minister takes the initiative and calls the Ministers concerned, a solution can be arrived at. If the government tries, something will emerge. We are not for a confrontation but for industrial peace. We are agitating in the interest of the nation, the labour and industry.

The government does not appear to be in a mood to listen to the demands of the working class. No commitment was made at the ILC on the Labour Commission report. How does the BMS view this?

In the presence of the Prime Minister, the employers said that if the second National Labour Commission gave its report by the end of November, they would defer their pressure for labour reforms and amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act and the Contract Labour Act. But neither the government nor the Labour Ministry made a commitment. If the Prime Minister or the Labour Minister had taken the initiative, this anger against amending the labour laws would not have been so intense. It is not late, though. If a tripartite meeting is called and a dialogue on labour policy is started, a solution can be found. Had the government said that it would protect the rights of workers, it would have made a difference.

Do you think the NDA government is employer-friendly?

It appears that this government is more employer-friendly. We realised at the ILC that the government was trying to understand the employers rather than the workers. There should have been some workers' representative on the Economic Advisory Council. I would say that this government is definitely guided by the employer lobby.

Perhaps this is the first time that the BMS has come together with other trade unions.

The only difference is that the other unions had rallied round political parties. The BMS has always taken a stand irrespective of the government. This time we feel that the NDA government's policies are against the interests of the nation, industry and the working class. Job security is under threat and profit making undertakings are being attacked. The turning point came when we found other Ministries - Finance, Commerce, and Disinvestment - interfering in the workings of the Labour Ministry. Unemployment is a major issue. At the ILC, the Prime Minister openly took the side of the employers. He spoke only about his government's policies and favoured the employers totally. All the trade unions felt that they should put up a united fight. That is why the BMS has taken the lead. We are talking about employment generation whereas the government is talking about retrenchment.

There were some differences over the three resolutions passed at the ILC and the BMS even submitted a dissenting note.

This is the first time maybe in the history of the ILC that an item on the agenda was rejected outright by workers. On the resolution on globalisation, there was no unanimity. Everybody felt that the Prime Minister did not utter a word on globalisation, as if everything was all right in that area. We did not think it right to endorse the government's policy. How can we accept the WTO even if the government says it is inevitable. On the WTO and globalisation, we put in a dissenting note. Normally some recommendation or the other is made to the government. But for the first time there was complete disagreement on one item on the agenda. We supported the government in 1998 on Pokhran-II nuclear tests and promised full support in the matter of social sanctions. But the government has not been able to display the kind of courage it showed in 1998. The Prime Minister can take the initiative to form an alternative WTO to end the bullying by the U.S. and other nations. Non-resident Indians can help out with foreign investment, there is no shortage of money.

You are laying much emphasis on the report of the second National Labour Commission. What if its recommendations turn out to be anti-labour? Why is the report so important?

No commission should withdraw the social security benefits that the working class avail itself of. Any settlement can only be an improvement on the benefits already accrued. If the recommendations are not favourable to the working class, then the government should take it up. The government should wait for the report; instead it is moving head because of pressure and that is not good. Even if the government recommends amendments to the labour laws, the (labour) reforms will still come under the purview of the commission. But the workers' interest (job security and social security) should be protected. We also expect a piece of umbrella legislation for the unorganisd sector.

The trade unions will surely protest if the recommendations are anti-labour.

It is premature to say that.
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