At the 37th Indian Labour Conference, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), alongwith the other central trade unions, rejected a major item relating to the impact of globalisation on industry, labour and employment, listed on the agenda. Significantly, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh also joined in denouncing the resolution on globalisation. M.K. Pandhe, general secretary of the CITU spoke to T. K. Rajalakshmi on the outcome of the labour conference, trade union unity and the challenges that lay ahead for the working class. Excerpts from the interview.
Did the trade unions expect the 37th ILC to come up with recommendations favourable to the working class?
For the first time in the 25-year history of the ILC, a unanimous recommendation could not be arrived at. The government wanted to sell the policy of liberalisation and globalisation. This was rejected outright. The Prime Minister's speech was criticised and the basic approach of the government's economic policy was rejected. For the first time the unions displayed complete unity. Now we are in a position to launch a countrywide agitation. The Prime Minister wanted the trade unions to accept globalisation saying it was a question of compulsion. The working class is under no such compulsion. The trade union movement is bound to oppose these policies as they are basically against the working class. There might have been minor differences among the unions but as a whole the entire movement has rejected the government's economic policy. This is one positive achievement of the ILC.
What is the reason for such a show of unity? Even the BMS has joined the programmes of action chalked out at the May 24 trade unions meeting.
In the last six months, the government took several steps that have affected workers of all political affiliations. Issues such as quantitative restrictions (QRs), privatisation, labour law amendments, unemployment and reluctance to introduce the Agricultural Workers Bill have all contributed to the growing resentment among the working class. All these have a direct consequence of the government's policies. Even the Shiv Sena ( a constituent of the ruling coalition at the Centre) has been opposing the government on these issues. Earlier Shiv Sena used to oppose our strikes but now its leadership has realised that unless it opposed these policies, its own workers would not support it. The leaders of trade unions have also had to adopt a firm stand on these issues. For example, the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat of George Fernandes participated with us in a strike on April 25 and the Shiv Sena joined in too. The BMS, although an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, has gone a step further: it has not only opposed the economic policies but called the Finance Minister a criminal.
Is the issue just one of amendments to Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, the Trade Union Act and other labour laws?
That is only one issue. Privatisation and liberalisation, the entry of multinationals and growing unemployment because of the downsizing of manpower are the other issues. The decision to reduce manpower in government institutions by 10 per cent in the next five years, and the reduction of interest rate on Provident Fund contributions are the other important issues. This has caused a lot of resentment among workers of all affiliations.
But was there unanimity on the other two resolutions, namely, those relating to the social security aspects of workers and regular consultation by the Centre with social partners on labour policies?
No, there was no complete unanimity. The BMS gave in a dissent note. We suggested amendments to all the resolutions, and have given the suggestions to the Labour Ministry. The trade unions as a whole have not accepted the resolutions.
What actually brought all the unions to together?
The flashpoint came with the government's refusal to hold any dialogue with the trade unions. After (A.B.) Vajpayee became Prime Minister, no dialogue has taken place with trade union representatives, save a brief meeting in August last year. He had promised to hold regular dialogue. Until May there has been no meeting. Important decisions affecting the workers and the trade unions have been taken without consulting them. Naturally there will be resentment. The trade unions are unable to justify any policy as they are not involved in formulating those polices. This lack of dialogue between the government and the trade unions has also contributed greatly in delaying matters. The BMS has accused the government of being anti-national and anti-working class. It has never used such language in the past. The BMS leader's speech only reflected the discontent among its ranks. It has also got to do with the devaluation of the Labour Ministry by other Ministries. Without consulting the Labour Ministry, an announcement regarding amendments to the labour laws was made. The Board of Trustee of the Provident Fund, the Chairman of which is the Labour Minister, recommends the rate of interest on PF as 12 per cent. This is overruled by another Cabinet Minister. How can the government decide the question of rate of interest on P.F. It is the employer's money and the employee's money, the government does not put in a paisa.
Are these issues sufficient to hold all the trade unions together?
We have come to an understanding on five major issues. On privatisation, labour laws, legislation on agricultural workers, QRs and unemployment. We plan to hold a one-day strike on July 10. Rallies would be organised prior to that. In the second phase of agitation, demonstrations would be held in front of Parliament House on the second day of the monsoon session.
Is it realistic to repose faith in the report of the second National Labour Commission, which is expected to be released at the end of the year?
The terms of reference of the Commission were not finalised in consultation with the trade unions. All trade unions opposed this - including the trade union members on the Commission. The outcome is not going to be very favourable to the working class, but even as the Commission's work is in progress the government is intending to effect changes in the labour laws. The BMS stated that an assurance was given by the Prime Minister that the amendments would be deferred. The Prime Minister's Office denied this. It makes no difference whether the amendments are made before or after the Commission's report is tabled. The government will still go ahead (with the changes). As far as the unions are concerned, opposition to the amendments is a major factor. The question of postponing the amendments does nor arise as the Labour Minister made no mention at the ILC about deferring the amendments. It is only a delaying tactic.
We are not against reforms. But reforms should be in the interest of the workers. We have been demanding reforms in the Bonus Act and the Minimum Wages Act. The Bonus Act has a ceiling of Rs.3,500 and no worker is covered under this, as in several industries the basic wage itself is higher than the ceiling. Then there is the question of amending the Minimum Wages Act in such a way that the minimum wage should not still keep the worker below the poverty line. Minimum wages should be an instrument to reduce poverty, but the government is not using that. The government's concept of changes in the labour laws is drastically different from the trade union's perception of reforms in labour laws.