Print edition : April 01, 2000

Central trade unions object to the Union Government's move to amend the Indian Trade Union Act, on the grounds that the proposed changes will prove detrimental to labour interests.

A RECENT decision by the Union Cabinet to amend certain provisions of the Indian Trade Union Act, 1926 has evoked protests from most of the central trade unions. While the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) a nd the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) have been categorical in their criticism of the proposed amendments and the manner in which the announcement was made without due consultations, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which has a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party til t, and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) have been guarded in their reactions. A Bill incorporating the amendments is expected to be introduced in Parliament soon.

One of the amendments will seek to stipulate that a union must represent at least 10 per cent of the workforce for it to become eligible for registration. Under the existing Act, seven or more members can apply for such registration. The purpose of the p roposed amendment is apparently to reduce the number of registered unions and facilitate the recognition of representative unions by the management. Most of the central unions, especially the CITU, expressed the opinion that if multiplicity was the probl em, the secret ballot system being followed in some States could be employed to decide on which of the unions managements should recognise for negotiations and other purposes. This would also prevent any management from being arbitrary in the matter of r ecognising unions.

Under the alternative system suggested by the Left trade unions, when there is more than one union involved, elections would be held by secret ballot and the union that secures more than 50 per cent of the votes cast would be regarded the sole bargaining agent. This system of recognition is prevalent in West Bengal. If no union secures more than 50 per cent of the votes, a joint bargaining council will be constituted with the unions that secure not less than 10 per cent of votes in any class of industry - it will be 15 per cent in the case of an industrial unit - as members. The Government has apparently ignored the suggestion.

CITU general secretary M.K. Pandhe said that the existing Act was silent on the matter of recognition of unions and this lacuna was being misused by some managements.

Pandhe was also critical of the proposed stipulation that a union seeking registration must represent at least 10 per cent of the workforce. For instance, he said, in a big industrial unit employing 40,000 persons, 4,000 workers would be needed to get a union registered. Given the fact that some managements manoeuvre to dissuade workers from joining unions, it was often difficult to get even seven members, as stipulated under the present Act, to get a union registered. Pandhe said that the moment an app lication was filed for registration of a union, some managements would start harassing the signatories. He said that the proposed amendments only aimed to prevent the formation of new unions. In his view, the stipulation of seven persons in the Trade Uni on Act as the minimum requirement for the registration of a union had a logic behind it, as under the Factories Act a factory could be registered if it has a minimum workforce of 20 persons. One-third of this figure was seven - the minimum required for g etting a union registered. When one could register a factory with 20 workers, why should not a union be enabled to obtain registration with the aid of seven persons, Pandhe asked.

Another amendment proposes to restrict the number of outsiders that a union can have in it. Under the existing Act, up to 50 per cent of the members of the executive of a union can be outsiders. The amendment seeks to reduce this to one-third of the tota l posts in a union. Yet another amendment seeks to make auditing of annual accounts mandatory for unions.

Pandhe said that the proposal to reduce the percentage of outsiders was also discriminatory as eventually it would result in keeping out of unions any retired, retrenched and victimised workers who would not come under the category of regular workers. Th is would affect victimised workers who often joined unions. He said that unions needed lawyers as well as experts in different fields to be associated with them, to aid them in, for instance, productivity-related negotiations, and such persons were not normally part of the workforce of a factory. He said that workers should have the choice in the matter of deciding who their leaders should be, an outsider or an insider.

On auditing of accounts and holding of conferences being made statutory conditions for keeping unions' registration intact, Pandhe said that while these provisions would be acceptable in principle, making them a part of the statute could give a handle to the Registrar of unions to interfere in their functioning. He said it was possible that owing to genuine problems such as prolonged strikes and agitations unions would sometimes face difficulties in holding conferences at regular intervals. Pandhe said that the government seemed to be least concerned about ensuring or enhancing the trade unions' rights. Nor did it seem interested in strengthening the provisions of the Act, he said.

At a trade union protest. Trade union leaders feel that the Government's move to amend existing labour laws betrays its lack of concern about ensuring or enhancing trade union rights.-RAMESH SHARMA

K.L. Mahendra, AITUC general secretary, said that the draft of the proposed amendments was not shown to the trade unions at any stage. He said that a similar bill seeking to amend the Trade Union Act was mooted 18 months ago but it contained no drastic c hanges from the existing Act. Certain sectors employed huge workforces. In such cases, to stipulate that a minimum of 10 per cent membership was needed for a union to get itself registered would only place obstacles in the way of forming unions. For inst ance, in road transport, where around a lakh of workers were employed, it would be difficult to mobilise as many as 10,000 workers initially to form a union and get it registered.

Mahendra agreed with Pandhe on the point that introducing the secret ballot system could be the most efficient way of eliminating multiplicity of unions. For example, he said, Singareni Collieries in Andhra Pradesh, with a workforce of 1.2 lakh persons, had 72 trade unions. In a secret ballot only four of these unions could secure support from more than 10 per cent of the workers.

Some States had amended their labour laws on such lines, Mahendra pointed out, and said that he would want the provision for secret ballot incorporated in the Trade Union Act. He said that the Ramanujam Committee, set up five years ago, had as one of its terms of reference the question of amendment of labour laws. One of its suggestions was that for the purpose of registration, either 10 per cent of the workforce or 100 workers, whichever is less, with a minimum of seven persons would be sufficient for a union to secure registration. The options were quite flexible.

INTUC secretary Chandidas Sinha clarified that his union was not averse to accepting some of the proposals, especially those relating to regular auditing of accounts and holding of annual general body meetings. He, however, felt that the government shoul d not make these mandatory. As for the 10 per cent stipulation, he said that the smaller unions should also be given some leeway for obtaining recognition and registration. As for limiting the number of outsiders in a union, he said that the INTUC believ ed in developing leadership among workers themselves and as such welcomed the proposal.

BMS general secretary Hasubhai Dave said that the amendments would infuse professionalism among trade unions and also reduce multiplicity. There would be fewer and more genuine unions.

For the moment, the Left unions are worried that the government has come out with the amendment proposals without waiting for the recommendations of the second National Commission on Labour (NCL). Causing them more concern is the fact that one of the mai n objectives of the NCL was "to suggest rationalisation of the existing laws so as to make them more relevant and appropriate in the changing context of globalisation and the opening up of the Indian economy". Some of the proposed changes included amendm ents to, apart from the Trade Union Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, Contract Labour Act and Payment of Wages Act. (In January 1999, the second NCL was constituted without taking most of the unions into confidence.)

The latest move to amend the Trade Union Act is seen as the first step in the direction of effecting more legislative changes in the area of labour. Most of the trade unions have little doubt that such changes will prove detrimental to labour.

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