Labour Issues

Show of strength

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Police personnel detain activists of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) during the nationwide strike in Kolkata on September 2. Photo: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS

Striking workers in Amritsar burn an effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Ten trade unions stage a nationwide strike and send a strong signal to the Centre, frustrated by the government’s evasive response to tripartite agreements and their demands on a range of issues, including labour reforms and regularisation of contract labourers.

IF the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has learnt one thing, it is that it should not take certain sections of the population, especially the working class, the peasantry and farmers, for granted. Soon after it was forced to take a U-turn on the amendments to the land Bill, the government tried hard to dissuade the 12 central trade unions (CTU)from going ahead with their September 2 national strike. With a crucial State Assembly election approaching and with general disenchantment developing among various sections of society for a multitude of reasons, including spiralling food prices, especially onion and pulse prices, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to ensure that at least its own trade union affiliate, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), kept out of the strike. While it managed to compel the BMS not to join the strike, it could not convince the other unions to do so. It also failed to drive a wedge between the participating trade unions. Last-minute efforts in that direction included pointing out factionalism within one of the trade unions.

The strike, according to the trade unions that led and participated in it, was a success though the government denied the claim as some unions had not taken part. The fact is that lakhs of industrial workers and blue-collar employees struck work in several States. Even industry representatives put the total loss at Rs.25,000 crore.

Ten central trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), went ahead with their call for a strike on the basis of the demands that they had been putting forth since the time of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and some new ones pertaining to labour law reforms that were introduced by the NDA government. The BMS, which had been a part of the joint trade union agitation since 2009, beat a retreat, ostensibly because of pressure from the BJP though the leadership of the union explained that the withdrawal was based on rational grounds.

Until the third week of July, when the 46th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) was held, the BMS was in agreement with the joint charter of demands. Its leaders spoke out vociferously from the ILC podium. The trade union representatives at the ILC, the apex-level tripartite consultative committee in the Ministry of Labour and Employment, had expressed strong reservations about the manner in which both the Central government and some State governments had proceeded unilaterally to amend labour laws and introduce new laws and codes that were fundamentally against working-class interests. They argued that this was being done in the name of simplifying labour laws in order to benefit industry.

The problem was that the government began the process of negotiations late. The very first meeting to discuss the charter of demands of the unions, which was pending from 2009, was only held on November 19, 2014. The next meeting was held on May 15, 2015. The Minister of State for Labour informed the media a day before the strike that “threadbare discussions were held” after which he had met the Prime Minister and apprised him of the demands of the trade unions. He further said that the trade unions wanted a committee of Ministers to be formed to look into the issues. The government, sensing the urgency, constituted an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), which was headed by the Finance Minister, the Labour Minister and other Union Ministers. The other members of the committee were Bandaru Dattatreya (Minister of State, Labour and Employment), Dharmendra Pradhan (Minister of State, Petroleum and Natural Gas), Jitendra Singh (Minister of State, Department of Personnel and Training) and Piyush Goyal (Minister of State, Power).

On July 19, the IMC met again. It also discussed the charter of demands with the CTUs on two consecutive days, on August 26 and 27. At this meeting, the committee told the trade union delegation that an appropriate piece of legislation for making formula-based minimum wages mandatory and applicable to all employees would be devised; for bonus calculations, wage eligibility and calculation ceiling would be revised; social security would be expanded; minimum wages would be guaranteed to contract workers; the minimum pension under the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) would be made Rs.1,000; advisories would be issued to States and Union Territories to adhere strictly to labour laws; and the government was committed to wage, employment and social security to all workers. As no concrete assurance was given by the government in response to the charter of demands, it was clear that the national strike was on the agenda.

In a letter addressed to the AITUC on September 1, which was more in the nature of a last-minute appeal to call off the strike, Bandaru Dattatreya reiterated the assurances given at the August 27 meeting. The letter pointed out that the government would carry out amendments to the Minimum Wages Act to give minimum wages to all workers; that the Centre would prescribe a national minimum wage for three different categories of States; and that it would be mandatory for the States to adhere to it. The note also explained that the national minimum wage as prescribed by the ILC and Supreme Court judgments would be taken into account and that accordingly, it would come to Rs.273 a day as opposed to the existing Rs.160 a day. As per this norm, the minimum wage was calculated at Rs. 7,000 a month. The unions categorically rejected this, demanding at least Rs.15,000, as agreed at the 44th ILC. On the issue of the ceiling on bonus, the unions have always been of the opinion that there should be no ceiling on bonus and gratuity.

On the assurance of guaranteeing minimum wages for contract workers, the unions averred that it was already a legal guarantee; what was not guaranteed was parity of wage for the same kind of work done by regular and contract workers. The government skirted this issue and pointed out that a “comprehensive review of the existing Act” was being considered, the main feature of which would be “deployment of contract labour through registered staffing agencies” to ensure social security coverage and same working conditions for contract workers and regular workers. However, the “issue of same wages to contract workers as that of regular workers for the same nature of work requires wider consultation and a committee will be constituted for this purpose”, explained Bandaru Dattatreya’s September 1 note. It may be pointed out here that this issue of wage parity has been one of the major reasons for the souring of industrial relations, resulting in labour-management conflicts in some leading automobile majors in the country. Even some industry representatives had expressed alarm at the growing contractualisation of work though many of them were not averse to it. On the matter of social security, all the unions had unanimously demanded regularisation of work, minimum wages and pension for “scheme” workers employed in anganwadi and midday meal centres. The government continued to call them “volunteers”. For organised workers, what the government offered was “initiatives like the Universal Account Number for portability of account for EPFO members and second generation health reform initiatives by the ESIC [Employees’ State Insurance Corporation]”. The unions were not convinced by the conciliatory package offered by the government.

Labour law reforms, the Labour Minister assured the unions, would be based on tripartite consultations, as stated by the Prime Minister. The States, he said, were being “advised to follow the tripartite process”. But this failed to address or reverse the changes in labour laws like the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, the Apprentices Act and the Contract Labour Act that had already come into effect in States like Rajasthan and were being contemplated in some others like Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra. It also failed to address amendments to some Central laws that had been passed by Parliament (the Apprentices Act, 1961, and Labour Laws —Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments—Act, 1988) recently. Neither did he say that the directive of the Prime Minister’s Office sent out to the States to follow Rajasthan’s example of changing the labour laws would be retracted. On employment generation, the Minister wrote that the government had taken many initiatives like Make in India, Skill India, Mudra Yojana and the National Career Service Portal, and highlighted the announcement made by the Prime Minister about the abolition of interviews for recruitments to junior-level jobs. He admitted that inflation was low, except for “onions and pulses”. It is interesting that despite this, the government had fixed Rs.7,000 as the minimum wage according to a formula that had been disputed and rejected by the unions. The Minister was also at pains to defend Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s position on foreign direct investment (FDI) in railways and defence. There was no assurance from the Minister on the disinvestment of PSUs, assured pension of not less than Rs.3,000, and ratification of ILO conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining), and 98 (Collective Bargaining).

Brijesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the BMS, told Frontline that the reason why the BMS withdrew from the strike was not any pressure but positive assurance from the government. “The minimum wage would be worked out as per the capacity of the States. The lowest would be Rs.7,000,” he said. The other unions wanted instant implementation, which was not possible, he said, adding that other demands in the charter related to broad economic policy issues such as disinvestment. “All these laws, including the changes to the Minimum Wages Act, need to be passed by Parliament. Every comma, full stop has to be accounted for. It can’t be done in a hurry,” he said, adding that if the government did not keep its commitment, the BMS would not hesitate to oppose it. “There are no permanent alliances nor hostilities. We have stayed away from united trade union action in the past as well. In 2011, it was a UPA government. We stayed away from the rest of the unions. We came together on some issues; we can come together again,” he said. On whether the BMS faced pressure from its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, he said that there was no question of such pressure as the “Sangh was in every corner of the country and knew the pulse of the people”. He said that the Labour Ministry was the only Ministry to have regular consultations. “This government is listening. There were issues with the proposed Industrial Relations Code. The unions objected to it. The government removed it,” he said. Brijesh Upadhyay also said that the economic policy of the government needed a direction change.

It was perhaps the BMS’ aggressive posturing along with the rest of the unions that forced the BJP-led government at the Centre to give it some importance. It was on the assurance of the BMS that the rest of the trade unions did not initiate any action in the past one and a half years though there were enough reasons to do so. “We cooperated for the sake of trade union unity. We asked the BMS whether the situation now was worse or better. On disinvestment of PSUs, the Finance Minister told us that policy differences will be there,” said Tapan Sen, Rajya Sabha member and general secretary of the CITU. There are several proposals in the pipeline that unions fear the government will push through without consultation and agreement. The operative word here is agreement as unions feel that in spite of a semblance of democratic consultation, the government did exactly what it set out to do, ignoring agreements arrived at through consensus.

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