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Pushing Trade Unions to the Wall

The government is refusing to address labour issues by indefinitely postponing the Indian Labour Conference.


At short notice, without giving any reason, the 47th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) scheduled for 26–27 February was indefinitely postponed by the government. According to media reports, this was due to the threat by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) to boycott the conference and the government’s apprehension of potential embarrassment. However, not much attention has been focused on the two demands made by several major central unions (not including the BMS) that would have decided their participation in the ILC. They demanded that the government must invite the Congress party-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) to the conference and protested the notification draft rules to allow the “fixed term employment” across all sectors that they allege would encourage contractualisation. These unions have called for an all-India general strike on 15 March to protest against the government’s anti-labour policies in which the BMS will
not participate.

The cancellation of the conference is especially significant given that it was being held after 2015, a gap of two years, and at a time when the working class faces serious challenges. For instance, the fixed term employment move will allow all sectors (until now it was only applicable to the apparel sector) to hire workers for specific projects on contract. While the Ministry of Finance touts this as a measure to improve “ease of doing business,” central unions have pointed out that this could lead to vast sections of workers becoming contract employees. In addition, apart from amendments to labour laws by several state governments that have invariably led to job security being compromised, the Code on Wages Bill, 2017 was introduced in the Lok Sabha in mid-2017. Although its aim is to have a statutory national minimum wage, state governments have been permitted to arrive at a minimum wage separately. The bill also does not adhere to the formula for fixing the minimum wage recommended by two earlier ILCs. Interestingly, certain business and corporate quarters too have aired their misgivings about the bill. Despite labour protests against it, it has received cabinet approval. Apart from this, almost all major trade unions, including the BMS, have criticised the 2018–19 budget for giving nothing to the working class, being silent on corporate “tax theft,” doing precious little to generate employment and ignoring the demands on wages and working conditions of workers of central social welfare schemes. 

As for the BMS, while it surprised many by openly criticising the Narendra Modi government’s anti-labour policies, it has refused to ally with other unions during crucial protests. In September 2015 and again in November 2017, it did not join other major central unions in nationwide protests against the central government’s labour policies. Yet again, it has refused to participate in the 15 March general strike, as quoted by a news website because it does not “believe in doing politics” but only in fighting for workers’ welfare. How it expects to do so in an apolitical manner remains to be seen. The government has reportedly cited the leadership tussle within the INTUC (the issue is now before the Delhi High Court) as a reason to exclude it from meetings and the ILC and refused to relent even after the other major unions (excluding the BMS) wrote a letter of protest in this regard.

The first ILC was held in 1942 and was envisaged to bring workers’ and employers’ representatives together to help in the World War II allied efforts. While some union leaders see it today as a ritualistic exercise, it is the highest and most important tripartite body consisting of representatives of unions, employers and state and central governments. Routinely inaugurated by the incumbent Prime Minister, the ILC platform is used by both trade unionists and employers’ representatives to draw the government’s attention to issues of relevance. The agenda that was drawn up for the postponed ILC also covered critical issues of employment generation, labour law amendments (termed labour law reforms by the government) and universal social security cover for all workers. Then there are the other long pending issues regarding the ending of contractual employment in work of a perennial nature and divestment of public sector companies. It is possible that the government used the excuse of the BMS’ threat to boycott the ILC to escape the embarrassment it would have faced had all the other unions also boycotted it. On the other hand, it might have decided to do this to escape questioning before pushing through labour laws in Parliament. Whatever the real reason, it is evident that the government has no respect for trade unions and their leadership.

Indian trade unions are facing a crisis of membership given jobless growth, the bleak employment scene and the increase in jobs in the informal sector where there is no union representation. Given this and the government’s obduracy in refusing to debate or discuss its labour policies in Parliament or outside it, trade unions have no option but to take their cause to the people and once again reiterate the importance of collective bargaining.

Updated On : 7th Mar, 2018


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