Labour Issues

Strike option

Print edition : March 22, 2013

Members of bank unions at a rally on February 21, the second day of the nationwide general strike, in Kolkata. The United Forum of Bank Unions, an apex body of nine banking associations, joined the strike. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

Policewomen grapple with protesters of Bihar Rajya Anganwadi Karamchari Union who had broken the security zone near the Legislative Assembly in Patna on February 21. Photo: PTI

At a usually busy junction in Kochi on February 21. Photo: H. Vibhu

THE two-day countrywide general strike called by 11 trade unions from February 20 was unprecedented in independent India. Never before had trade unions called for a 48-hour strike. The groundwork began at a national convention in September 2012, where the support was elicited of all independent all-India federations and unions of workers and employees in State and Central government departments, banks, insurance companies, defence, and telecom and other public sector enterprises. They were also joined by workers in the unorganised sector.

Interestingly, one of the basic demands of the trade unions was to contain the incessant rise in the prices of essential commodities. There was a 10-point charter of demands, which included a basic minimum wage of Rs.10,000, universal social security and the abolition of contract labour. All the trade unions, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which is affiliated to the Congress, were unanimous on some of the “fundamental demands” though the trade unions were spread across the political spectrum.

The participation of the unorganised sector in the strike was quite significant. Trade unions affiliated to regional parties supported the strike in the States. A trade union leader said that in Kerala nearly 18 trade unions, including those affiliated to the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress, supported the strike. So did trade union wings of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. “If one looks at the stories filed by reporters, the strike was successful; but most of the editorials by and large criticised us for causing inconvenience and a loss to the exchequer,” said a trade union leader.

Barring a few stray incidents, the strike was peaceful. In West Bengal, the INTUC leadership reportedly withdrew from the strike at the last minute, but workers and the trading community went ahead and struck work. Workers affiliated to the trade union wings of the Left parties were beaten up by ruling party supporters for having participated in the strike. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made intemperate remarks and warned traders of strict action for their support to the strike.

But not everywhere was the strike allowed to be peaceful. In Noida, Uttar Pradesh, which is home to a sprawling industrial area, organised and unorganised workers were brutally lathi-charged, leading to the death of one worker. In Haryana, a leader of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), affiliated to the Haryana Roadways Corporation Union, was killed.

The unity displayed by the 11 central trade unions has been visible over the last three years, but real momentum picked up from September 2010 when the INTUC joined in the 13th all-India general strike. But the government paid no attention. Soon, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which is affiliated to the Hindu Right and which had in the past kept its distance from left-of-centre trade unions, accepted the strike call. So did the Labour Progressive Federation (LPF), the trade union wing of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. It was pressure from their working class constituents that presumably moved the trade unions to mount a united front.

Yet it was as late as February 13 that Union Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge invited the unions for talks and made an appeal for the strike to be withdrawn. The belated attempt at rapprochement failed. The trade unions once again put up a united front, with INTUC president Sanjeeva Reddy delegated to make the representation on their behalf. This, in spite of the fact that all the trade unions, including the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), the AITUC and the BMS were represented at the meeting and even made individual representations. The government was told unequivocally that the demands of the trade unions and the working class had been pending for three years and that unless something concrete was done about them the trade unions would go ahead with the strike. Kharge told the unions about some initiatives being taken by the Labour Department on the amendment to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) Pension Scheme and some amendments to labour laws that had been pending with the Prime Minister’s Office and other Ministries.

On February 16, after the talks with the Labour Minister failed, the unions announced their intention to go ahead with the strike. The next day, late in the night, the Prime Minister also made an appeal for its withdrawal, but he did not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the demands. Indeed, the appeal seemed to have been prompted by the displeasure expressed by the corporate sector. The statement talked about the losses to the economy and declared that a committee would be set up to resolve the issues. The trade unions were aghast at this late assurance of a committee to look into their demands, particularly when the intention to observe the strike had been declared in September. “How can the central trade unions be treated so cavalierly?” wondered A.K. Padmanabhan, CITU president.

Corporate concerns

Estimating a loss of nearly Rs.20,000 crore to the economy, Rajkumar Dhoot, president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), said the national economy could ill afford this situation. The strike would further push up prices because of disruptions in the supply of essential commodities, he said.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) declared that the “demands raised by trade unions may be genuine, but these cannot be addressed through a strike. Some of the demands like improving the working conditions in the informal sector, better enforcement of labour laws, minimum wage, contract labour, social security, PF and bonus limit are already being looked into by the government through different mechanisms and should not be the subject matter of a strike.” The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) urged the trade unions to make a “concerted effort to work with the government”.

Half-hearted measure

The government, however, did not come up with any concrete measures or assurances. The Prime Minister’s promise of a committee was made good by constituting in haste a three-member committee comprising Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.

On February 18, the trade unions were informed about a meeting to be held with the committee. Several trade union leaders who were campaigning in various parts of the country had to rush to Delhi to attend the ostensibly high-level meeting, which the Finance Minister did not attend, citing ill health. The trade unions explained the background for the strike in great detail and told the committee that the first set of five demands was sent to the government on September 14, 2009, and the other five in September 2011. In between, there were two general strikes, two marches to Parliament, and countrywide courting of arrest. Yet no discussions were held until February 12, a week before the strike. “We want a settlement, not any assurance,” the unions told the committee.

Tapan Sen, general secretary of the CITU, also a Rajya Sabha member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told the committee that employees of the State Bank of India and the Reserve Bank of India had been warned of severe action if they joined the strike. This, trade union leaders said, was unprecedented. In a letter issued to individual officers reacting to the call to join the strike by the United Forum of Bank Employees, the SBI management said that “absence from duty unathorisedly as part of concerted action amounts to break in service. Although the bank has taken a lenient view and condoned such break in service in the past, such condoning need not be taken for granted and you would be liable for all the consequences.” The intimidating letter was shared with the committee members.

Sharad Pawar apparently assured the union leaders that the Prime Minister was averse to such threats. But he declined to accept the demand for a universal public distribution system and claimed that the Food Security Bill, once enacted, would help control prices. He said that the Union Cabinet would take up for discussion a National Employment Policy and a National Minimum Wage Policy, but he declined to elaborate.

The trade unions were not satisfied. Some of their long-standing demands, arrived at through forums such as the successive Indian Labour Conferences (ILCs), had not even been considered. One of these was the demand for minimum wage and a time-bound decision on implementing the “same wage for the same work” principle for those employed on contract. A trade union representative told Frontline that the Defence Minister admitted that discussion with the unions had been delayed and that he could understand the difficulties of the unions at the last minute. “But with no details being shared on either the proposed employment policy or the minimum wage policy, we were not in a position to accept anything blindly,” he said.

The 44th session of the ILC in February 2012 had listed three items for discussion, including one on minimum wages. The committee on minimum wages set up at the conference came to a consensus that the Minimum Wages Act should cover all forms of employment and facilitate India’s ratification of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 131. It was agreed that a National Minimum Wage should be applicable to any employment irrespective of the number of workers engaged. It was also agreed that this should be linked with inflation and the National Sample Survey Organisation’s Consumer Expenditure Surveys. Additionally, the conference declared that a National Employment Policy should be framed. More than a year has lapsed since the 44th ILC, and these recommendations are yet to be implemented.

The two-day strike was inevitable. The discussion with the high-level ministerial committee should have taken place earlier. As it transpired, the government seemed interested only in posturing. The government cannot afford to be contemptuous of the working class any longer.