‘What kind of nexus is this?’

Print edition : September 19, 2014
Interview with Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

THE decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government to push through amendments to key labour laws has not gone down well with the central trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union affiliated to the BJP. For the past few years, the BMS has been aligning itself with the trade unions affiliated to the Left and the Congress, adding a new dimension to the trade union movement in the country. Its continued support, despite the change of government at the Centre, has been welcomed by other trade unions. The contradictions are nevertheless glaring. Excerpts from an interview with Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the BMS:

The BJP was elected to power with a huge mandate and presumably the working class supported it in the hope of seeing a positive change in policies. But the proposals made by the BJP government in Rajasthan and the Centre with respect to labour laws indicate no such change.

Yes, both the governments have committed blunders. It is being propagated that trade unions are against labour reforms. That is not the case. If you recall the second National Commission of Labour, under the chairmanship of Ravindra Varma, where rationalisation of labour laws in the organised sector was on the agenda. Where all the labour laws were looked into, we agreed on several things and where we did not, especially on Chapter V-B of the Industrial Disputes Act [IDA], our representative Saji Narayanan gave a dissent note. We are saying that if labour reforms need to be done, they should be done in consultation with the unions.

Do you think the NDA’s intentions are not transparent, especially since it is only three months since it was elected to power and its government is already rushing through labour reforms?

That is what we are saying, that the intentions are not correct. The definition of workmen has to be reviewed. We would like it if industry and government are honest in their intentions. Why don’t they address the unanimous recommendations arrived at the Indian Labour Conferences?

The first thing they want to address is Chapter V-B of the IDA, which has to do with “hire and fire”. We are not opposed to labour reforms, but the way they are going about it is not correct. Today there is a global discussion on how to formalise the informal economy, but the way the Rajasthan government has chosen to proceed by exempting establishments employing up to 40 workers and 300 workers from labour law coverage is not correct. When we speak of the informal economy today, we refer to a single individual worker. With technological advancements, the size of factory units has become smaller. All manufacturing is not done under one single roof anymore.

I would like to add something on the non-performing assets. The banks today are in crisis because of the unpaid loans taken by industry. There is hardly any example of an industry which has put its own money in purchasing land. It is the money and the savings of people kept in banks that is loaned out to them. What kind of nexus is this? Between politics and businessmen. This is most unfortunate.

Did your organisation or anyone from your organisation have a discussion with the Union Labour Minister? Should not the introduction of the Bills have been preceded by a discussion with the unions?

There was a meeting on June 24. The Rajasthan amendments were on the agenda. We were assured that every step would be taken in consultation with us but unfortunately, he [Labour Minister] went ahead and introduced the Bills. There is an ILO [International Labour Organisation] convention [144] that lays down that all proposals for labour laws should be implemented in consultation with tripartite members. India has ratified that convention. The government is in violation of the convention it has ratified.

The Prime Minister has called himself “Mazdoor no. 1” (worker no 1). There seems to be some progressive features in the Bills that suggest measures for labour welfare.

There is a lot of difference between saying [something] and actually being it. The progressive measures are just to balance the document. Labour laws are hardly implemented; even now we struggle to get minimum wages implemented. Ninety-nine per cent of labour issues have to do with the non-implementation of labour laws. What happened in Rajasthan is a big setback for us. On July 25, all the unions held a big demonstration and 25,000 people came out on the streets. They lathi-charged us and one woman worker was hit by a policeman. There were no policewomen to handle the women workers. Then on July 30 and 31, all unions in the transport department struck work. You know the State government has announced privatisation of transport, water and electricity. We have decided to focus on Rajasthan because the Central government has taken it as a test case. So we have also decided to take it as a test case for protests.

How do you view the specific amendments pertaining to extension of working hours in the Factories Act?

It is an illegal practice. As it is employers were forcing workers to do overtime, now they have the legal sanction to do it. It is so funny— night shifts for women workers. The government should be aware of the social fabric of this country and the social responsibility that women bear. The atmosphere is not conducive for night work. Indian and European women are different. The liabilities that Indian women have are much more. One should not impose a model from outside. I do not know what model is motivating them. How can industry implement labour laws without our consent?

But the BJP received a huge electoral mandate. It seems confident in whatever it is doing.

It is mistaking the mandate it received. It got the mandate from the poor and the working class. People wanted relief. Unfortunately, the government is ignoring that. The expectation levels from people are so high. The reality is that no government can do everything, but on labour law reforms the government should have waited. The way it is going is a reversal of expectations. Labour reforms took place in France and Germany as well, involving all stakeholders.

There is a feeling that this government is another version of the UPA [ United Progressive Alliance] government.

Well, whatever amendments have been introduced, the draft is of the UPA government. The BJP government should wonder why the UPA could not introduce these Bills. It is trying to be extra smart. The Finance Bill appears to be industry-friendly. We have opposed foreign direct investment [FDI] and have asked the government for a white paper on the inflow and outflow of investment. The country is running only because of the public sector, banks and the Life Insurance Corporation of India. India could survive the recession because of the public sector.

Since 1991, the approach has been FDI as a solution to our problems. This government is continuing on the same lines. The BMS is free from politics. If a government is worker-friendly, we are friendly towards it; if it is anti-labour, then it will have to face our anger.

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