Labour Issues

Elusive consensus

Print edition : August 21, 2015

Anganwadi workers at a protest rally in Bangalore on January 29, 2013. The government has still not accepted their long-pending demand to be regularised as workers instead of being treated as honorary workers. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Gurudas Dasgupta (right), general secretary of the AITUC and other trade union leaders at the session. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The 46th Indian Labour Conference, held after a delay of more than a year, was more about rhetoric than substance, with the recommendations of the previous conferences still not implemented by the government.

The two-day session of the 46th Indian Labour Conference (ILC), inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left trade unions deeply disappointed. It was expected that the conference would address the apprehensions and long-pending concerns of the working class, but it turned out to be an exercise in delivering homilies. While the overall preparations for the ILC itself left much to be desired, it was the tenor of the Prime Minister’s speech and the conclusions of the committees that made it evident that the government was not keen to play its role as the implementing agency of tripartite agreements arrived at such conferences. Instead, it was content with putting the onus on bipartite dialogue between the employer and employee representatives.

The 46th ILC was due last year, but for inexplicable reasons it was not held. But this did not deter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Rajasthan from introducing radical changes in its labour laws. The Central government too moved swiftly to propose amendments to some labour laws and, despite opposition from trade unions, passed some of them with amendments in Parliament. All the trade unions reacted jointly and strongly to the amendments both in Rajasthan and at the Centre. The Centre remained unresponsive to all these signals.

Whether the current overtures and the holding of the ILC were meant to placate the trade unions in view of the upcoming elections in some States is not clear. But what is eminently clear is that the government was keen to reach out to the trade unions, but not too much lest it should send the wrong signals to industry. It was not a coincidence that a few weeks before the ILC the government set up an inter-ministerial group of Ministers headed by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The group held its first meeting with the trade unions days before the ILC session on July 21 and 22. “We had nothing to add from our end. Our issues were already known to the government. We wanted to hear what the Finance Minister had to say and he seemed to be receptive,” said Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).

But more important was the meeting trade union leaders had with the Prime Minister, or the “chai pe charcha” as one trade union leader put it, at 12 Race Course Road two days before the ILC. This was unprecedented. The trade unions naturally expected the Prime Minister to make some announcement of meaningful intent for the workforce—organised and unorganised—at the ILC. But that did not happen.

In fact, the trade unions got to know only in the last week of June that the ILC was to take place when, at a conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya inadvertently and unofficially declared that the Prime Minister had finally confirmed his availability for the ILC. The trade unions were formally informed of the dates much later. The meeting for finalising the agenda of the ILC was called by the Standing Labour Committee (SLC) on July 10, 11 days before the actual event.

This naturally did not give the unions much time to prepare position papers and circulate their views at the conference. “Normally, the agenda is prepared after getting the drafts from the employer and employee representatives. It seemed that the government just wanted to show it was doing something. The agenda was very much the same as the one that was finalised by the SLC in January 2014, the year the 46th ILC should have been held,” said K. Hemalatha, national secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). She was present at the Prime Minister’s tea session with the unions, and she felt that no assurances for the working class came from the Prime Minister’s or the Finance Minister’s speech. In fact, some trade union representatives recalled that Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister had at least made some conciliatory noises at the 45th session of the ILC. “He at least admitted that the demands of the unions were genuine, even though that was after the two-day nationwide strike. This Prime Minister has asked the workers to make sacrifices so that their fellow workers can benefit,” quipped a trade union leader at the ILC.

The Prime Minister’s speech was not devoid of the usual rhetoric and exhortations. He hailed the tripartite body as the “Shram Sansad”, or parliament of labour, and lauded the 75-year-old tradition of tripartite-ism. He said the nectar churned out by industry, the government and labour (in that order) was the “sanjeevani” which was taking the country forward.

But no assurances were given to the representatives of the workers about the legitimacy of their demands, especially in the context of the 12-point charter of demands that had been pending since last year. Strangely, he said that the government was in constant dialogue with the unions, which was not true as this was the first time that the National Democratic Alliance government had relented to talk to the unions after one whole year of assuming office. One of his statements referring to the thin line between the welfare of industry and the industrialist, the nation’s welfare and the government’s welfare, and labour unions and workers did not go down well with the trade unions, which saw the reference as an attempt to drive a wedge between workers and their representatives. Interestingly, both BMS national president Baijnath Rai and the Prime Minster alluded to B.R. Ambedkar and how the Minimum Wages Act was enacted when he was the Labour Minister under the Viceroy between 1942 and 1946. Rai also pointed out that he was the first Labour Minister to appoint labour inspectors.

Some of the trade union representatives were heard criticising the Prime Minister’s speech. In fact, much of what he said appealed more to the representatives of employers. His emphasis on apprenticeship as an employment-generation mechanism was frowned upon by the trade unions. Drawing international comparisons, he said that while China had two crore apprentices, Japan had one crore and even a small nation like Germany had 30 lakh apprentices, India only had three lakh apprentices. He did not point out that labour laws were strictly implemented in all these countries, unlike in India where even the payment of minimum wages was not adhered to.

The Apprenticeship Amendment Act was passed by Parliament despite the unions having reservations about some of the clauses. Industry, on the other hand, had welcomed the changes to the Act. It was this lack of a spirit of tripartite consensus that the unions had objected to consistently the whole of last year when amendments to the Factories Act or the formation of a labour code with an umbrella social security legislation, or, for that matter, amendments to the Apprenticeship Act were made.

In fact, Baijnath Rai pointed out in his speech at the ILC how the government had “adopted wrong policies by taking actions that directly affected labour in particular and people in general”.

Some of these “wrong policies”, he said, were: not implementing the recommendations of the 43rd, 44th and 45th ILCs; reforming labour laws for the convenience of employers; unilateral enactment of the Apprenticeship Act and other laws; allowing the Rajasthan government to effect changes unilaterally in the Factories Act and other labour laws which motivated other States like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana (all ruled by the BJP and its allies) to follow the same line; removal of inspectors and allowing self-certification, which was a gross violation of the ILO’s conventions (which he said was taken up at the ILO’s 104th Session at Geneva); not ratifying four conventions of the ILO; not accepting the 12-point charter of demands of the trade unions; not fixing Rs.15,000 as the minimum wage or floor wages; imposing changes in social security laws; and allowing the Finance Ministry to change the provisions of some labour laws. He also demanded the withdrawal of the new Factories Act enacted by the Rajasthan government.

One of the sore points for the unions has been the non-implementation of the consensus recommendations of the agreements arrived at previous ILCs, notably the 43rd, 44th and 45th. The first item on the agenda of the current ILC concerned the implementation of the conclusions/recommendations of the last three ILCs, particularly on contract labour, minimum wages, scheme workers and tripartite mechanism. On the long-pending demand, and a consensus recommendation of the 45th ILC, that scheme-based workers be recognised as workers and not as honorary volunteers and that they should be entitled to all social security benefits, including the government’s new insurance schemes, the government in its action-taken report took the curious and untenable position that the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Department of School Education and Literacy and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had “informed that the AWW [anganwadi workers], Mid-Day Meal [MDM] Scheme cook cum helpers cannot be treated as workers”.

The logic was that AWW and ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers are honorary workers receiving a monthly honorarium and a performance-based incentive respectively. MDM workers have been engaged for limited hours to prepare and serve the midday meal. Hence, the departments concluded that they could not comply with the recommendations of the ILC. There could not have been a bigger irony as the government itself had decided to designate them as honorary workers and even though it could have changed the nomenclature of these scheme-based workers who were in charge of delivering the most important outcomes on health, education and nutrition, it was loath to do so. “What is the point of this tripartite exercise if it is not going to be implemented?” asked Hemalatha.

Issue of minimum wage

Similarly, the 15th ILC had, in 1957, provided a formula for calculating minimum wages and the 44th ILC had endorsed it. But the government, instead of accepting the formula, hit upon a floor-level wage of Rs.160 a day, which is much less than the demand of the trade unions that Rs.15,000 should be the minimum/floor-level wage. “What is the meaning of this Rs.160? It is less than one-third of what all the unions are asking. In fact, as per the 15th ILC’s criteria, it should be not less than Rs.20,000 a month going by current prices and inflation. Now there will be a basement wage as well,” said a trade union representative.

The unions have been justifiably cynical about the whole exercise. For instance, at the end of the two-day session, the committee on the implementation of the conclusions of the previous three ILCs (43rd, 44th and 45th) on contract labour, minimum wages, scheme workers and tripartite mechanism expressed its concern over the non-implementation of the conclusions in these areas. It unanimously recommended that “concrete measures be undertaken to expeditiously implement the recommendations in letter and spirit and periodic reviews to be taken up by the stakeholders”.

There was no consensus on the amendments to the Payment of Bonus Act, where the trade unions held the position that all ceilings under the Act, the eligibility ceiling, the calculation ceiling and the maximum per cent of bonus payable, needed to be removed while employer representatives did not agree to this, arguing that this would lead to a spurt in industrial relations issues. According to them, while making any changes to the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, the productivity of workers and paying capacity of the employers should be taken into account. They were not even in favour of the indexation of cost of living for the purpose of fixing the ceiling and calculation of bonus. They said that the term “employee” should be substituted with “workman” as defined under the Industrial Disputes Act (IDA).

The 46th ILC ended with limited consensus and the usual homilies. There was little assurance from the Union Labour Minister at the concluding session about the centrality of the role of the government in implementing the spirit of tripartite dialogue and decisions arrived at forums like the ILC.

“On the one hand, we can say that not much has been achieved by the joint trade union action over the last few years. But, at the same time, the government also should not think that nothing would come out of such joint action and that it can be business as usual for them. At the moment, all the trade unions stand united for the one-day national strike on September 2 and preparations are already on. Let us see how things go from here,” Virjesh Upadhyay told Frontline.

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