Labour Issues

Striking at apathy

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Members of various trade unions taking out a rally as part of the one-day nationwide strike in Vijayawada on September 2. Photo: V. RAJU

The central trade unions organise a national strike to press for their charter of demands aimed at keeping workers in the protective ambit of labour laws after the Centre makes only a series of promises and not a single commitment.

IN a major setback to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, a countrywide strike called by 10 central trade unions on September 2 recorded a fair degree of success with the participation of almost 18 crore workers. Notice for the strike had been given months ago but the government did not invite the unions for talks. Instead, it decided to deal with one union that did not participate in the strike.

Conscious attempts have been made in the past two and a half years to show that the Narendra Modi government functioned with a sense of consensus among various stakeholders. The government was at pains, at the latest Indian Labour Conference (ILC) and repeatedly in Parliament, to assure the trade unions and the elected representatives that it would abide by the spirit of tripartism and consult trade unions before effecting any major changes in labour laws. But the government did not consult the trade unions through the specially constituted Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) of Ministers, and its formula for appeasement fell far short of the charter of demands presented by the trade unions. It was the manner in which the government obfuscated facts and presented issues as if they had been arrived at after discussions with the trade unions that triggered the strike. The 10 central trade unions that gave the call for the countrywide strike included the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), and the All India Coordination Committee of Trade Unions.

The IMG, headed by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, was constituted in 2015 to look into a 12-point charter of demands agreed upon by all central trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union affiliate of the Sangh Parivar. But, according to the central trade unions, the IMG never discussed the charter of demands with them.

One of the main demands of the unions has been the fixing of the minimum wage on the basis of a formula arrived at by the ILC of 1957. The Central government unions, led by the National Council of the Joint Consultative Machinery for Central government employees, had calculated the approximate minimum wage on the basis of the average prices in eight major metropolitan cities and arrived at the figure of Rs.26,000. This also approximated the formula the ILC had used in 1957. “The idea was to give a living wage indexed to inflation and including all basic essentials other than food,” Tapan Sen, CITU general secretary, told Frontline. Yet, the unions agreed to Rs.18,000 as the minimum wage as that was what the Seventh Pay Commission had recommended. The Delhi government recently revised the minimum wages and decreed that unskilled labour should be paid not less than Rs.14,000.

BMS’ volte-face

Other issues raised in the charter of demands included strict enforcement of labour laws, universal social security for all workers, assured enhanced pension of Rs.3.000 for the entire working population, cessation of contractual forms of employment in work of a permanent and perennial nature, payment of wages and benefits for contract workers on a par with regular workers for similar kind of work, removal of all ceilings on payment of and eligibility for bonus, provident fund and an increase in the quantum of gratuity. The other macro-level demands pertained to universalisation of the public distribution system to contain price rise, a halt to disinvestment in Central and State public sector units and a rollback of foreign direct investment in the railways, defence and insurance. All trade unions, including the BMS, were party to the charter of demands. But the BMS, which sent confusing signals until the very last minute, declared that it was satisfied with the government’s offer, which it called a “historic victory” for the working class. It also declared its intent not to join the strike and directed its cadre to organise “victory rallies and meetings”; this was promptly relayed by sections of the media. The other unions saw this as an attempt to sabotage the strike and viewed the government and the BMS as eager allies in the process. Sen said the BMS never intended to go on strike, so its claim that it had called it off was laughable. Ironically, the BMS had agreed to the 12-point charter of demands. This was the second time that it had withdrawn from a strike called by all unions at the last minute. “Its compulsions are understandable. After all it has to abide by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s directive,” said Harbhajan Singh Sidhu, general secretary of the HMS.

BMS general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay defended the union’s decision to stay away from the strike. He said the Pay Commission’s recommendations on minimum wages had never been adhered to, so he could not understand what was sacrosanct about the Seventh Pay Commission’s recommendations. “The quantum can never be satisfactory. We felt there was some progress and the rate had been revised after 11 years, but the other trade unions decided to go ahead with the strike. No government ever meets all the demands of trade unions. Agitations have become customary like Valentine’s Day. I have high regard for the trade union movement and we have not left our demands. The government consented to what was agreed to last year,” he told Frontline. He said he had given a revised charter of demands to the trade unions, but they had not agreed to it.

The government offered a 42 per cent hike in the minimum wages for non-agricultural unskilled workers falling in the “C” category of employment in the Central sphere, which came to Rs.9,100, at the rate of Rs.350 a day for 26 days of employment. But this amount was almost half of what had been settled in various tripartite forums.

On August 30, at a press briefing and in the subsequent press release, Jaitley announced this as a major sop. The government claimed that detailed discussions were held with trade unions on their charter of demands; the unions categorically denied this. The government further claimed that the minimum wage had been revised following deliberations with the unions at the Minimum Wage Advisory Board; the unions once again denied the claim. A CITU office-bearer representing Himachal Pradesh and a member of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board, Kashmir Thakur, wrote a letter to the Union Labour Minister saying that the matter of a minimum wage of Rs.350 had never come up for discussion either with the government or the union representatives. The meeting, he wrote, had been inconclusive and requested the Labour Minister to make the requisite clarification. Clearly, the unions were taken for a ride. Besides, the government was not interested in issuing any clarification. Essentially what was offered by the government on the basis of the IMG’s deliberations was a series of assurances and not a single commitment pertaining to the demands in the charter. Its claim that it had discussions with the unions was far from true as the IMG had met only BMS representatives, which Tapan Sen said was unprecedented in the history of tripartism. “The minimum wage enhancement would benefit only 70 lakh workers, which is not even 1 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce in the country. We had demanded a statutory fixation of minimum wages at Rs.18,000 for all workers in the country,” he said.

Other assurances by the government regarding sending advisories to States to register trade unions within 45 days and implement the labour laws relating to contract labour as well as its stated commitment to set up a committee that would come up with social security proposals for scheme-based workers did not cut any ice with the trade unions. Advisories were meaningless, they said. The proposed committee for social security for scheme-based workers was an assurance the government had made last year. Also, the government reiterated that scheme-based workers were not “workers” but volunteers, thus denying them the status of government employees.

Commemorating India’s 69th year of Independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke eloquently about the need to give dignity to labour. He bemoaned the fact that “our attitude towards labour was not good” and said that the slogan of his government “Shrameva Jayate” was all about an effort to change the way workers were looked at in India. Elsewhere, he referred to the complexity of laws and the confusion created by having a multiplicity of laws. Laws, he said, should be explicit, correct and not out of sync with the times. He lamented how it was a fashion in the country to make laws for everything and to keep the courts busy. He was not referring to laws in general but to labour laws. Predictably, he announced how his government was codifying 44 laws into a single code, a proposal the central trade unions opposed.

The government was not oblivious to the ferment in the working class but the manner in which it chose to address it was peculiar. On August 16, the BMS leadership was called for “discussions” with the IMG, ostensibly to find out what was happening on the ground. After all, the BMS, the largest union in terms of membership, had declared its intent to join the strike following a meeting of its national executive. A note sent by the BMS to mediapersons indicated that the government was going to discuss the contentious issues of labour reforms with it.

“It was funny that the unions that had given the call for the strike were not being called to discuss their charter of demands but the BMS is, which has been dithering on whether to join the strike or not,” observed a trade union leader. The BMS stayed away from a national convention called by the central trade unions in March where the decision to observe an all-India strike on September 2 was taken. However, that did not prevent some of its units in some States from participating with other unions, and the BMS found itself isolated in its defence of the government’s policies.

The union was called for “talks” again on August 22, which was later postponed to August 24 as the Finance Minister was not available.

Soon after the NDA assumed office, the Factories Amendment Bill, 2014, was drafted. The Bill envisaged the enhancement of the threshold for factories to be under the Factories Act. All factories with power employing up to 20 people and without power employing up to 40 people would be exempt from the Act. “At that time we calculated that more than 40 per cent of the manufacturing workforce would be exempted from the Factories Act,” Sen said. The Standing Committee on Labour chaired by Virendra Kumar, a BJP Member of Parliament from Madhya Pradesh, rejected the Bill. “We raised concerns about increasing the threshold level, increasing the overtime threshold from 50 hours per quarter to 125 hours per quarter and the spread over time [the maximum time that a worker could be retained at the workplace] from 10.5 hours to 12 hours. Another concern was employing women in the night shift. We did not object to this as in comparison with the proposal by the previous United Progressive Alliance [UPA] regime, the Amendment Bill had provisions for dropping women at their doorstep, not in their locality,” Sen said.

The Standing Committee on Labour said that the status quo should be maintained on the Factories Act threshold. On increasing overtime and spread over time, it felt it would lead to unemployment and harassment of workers. The 2014 Bill was still “alive”, not withdrawn when the government came forward with the Factories Amendment Bill, 2016, which focussed on enhancing overtime hours.

In its statement of objects and reasons, the Bill says “since consideration and passing of the aforesaid Bill may take some more time, with a view to boost the manufacturing sector and to facilitate ease of doing business so as to enhance employment opportunities, it has been decided to amend sections 64 and 65 of the Factories Act, 1948, urgently to extend the total number of hours of work on overtime… the need for increasing the total number of hours of work on overtime in a quarter is based on the demand from industries so that factories can carry out the work on an urgent basis.”

The new Bill raised the total number of overtime working hours from 50 to 100 in a quarter; if the factory had a higher workload, the overtime hours could be enhanced from 75 hours in a quarter to 115; and it permitted the State or Central government to increase the threshold from 115 to 125 hours on the grounds of public interest and excessive workload. The Standing Committee on Labour had rejected the proposals on enhancing overtime hours.

The Factories Amendment Bill, 2016, was passed by the Lok Sabha. “The government is introducing a Factories Amendment Bill while not withdrawing the previous Bill, which is alive for the next five years. Who knows what changes they will bring in a piecemeal fashion. We opposed the Bill, so did the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha,” Sen said.

While all the unions welcomed the enhancement of maternity benefit leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, it was felt that the two-child restriction to maternity benefit leave was a retrograde move. Sen said the implementation of the Act was limited to 30 per cent of the organised workforce. “Without a strong enforcement machinery, it is difficult to implement even in the organised private sector. Women workers hide their mangalsutras for fear of losing their jobs as employers do not prefer married women as they want to circumvent the possibility of giving maternity leave when the women get pregnant,” he said. Daily wage workers or workers in the unorganised sector were completely left out.

Hemalatha, general secretary of the All India Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Federation, told Frontline that the women health workers under the National Health Mission (the National Rural Health Mission and the National Urban Health Mission), entrusted with the task of institutional deliveries, were not entitled to maternity benefit. “Thirty-five lakh midday meal workers and accredited social health activists, or ASHAs, who literally deliver government-sponsored schemes do not get this benefit because the government does not recognise them as its employees. They do not even get three months of maternity benefit,” she said, adding that the original Act did not put a limit on the number of children as a condition for getting the benefit.

Sen said: “Also, where the employee-employer relationship is not clearly defined, who will give maternity benefit to whom? The irony is the government is bringing in laws to push out workers out of the coverage of all labour laws. When that takes place, the worker won’t be in a position even to ask for that benefit.”

At the moment, the central issue is that of labour law reforms and minimum wages, which the unions say lie at the heart of the 12-point charter of demands. Any welfare measure or legislation will be redundant if workers are taken out of the protective ambit of labour laws