Raising the 'Labour Question' in a Deliberative Democracy

Today, in India, “deliberative democracy” is failing to translate into social, economic and political justice for its citizens, especially the 450 million workers in the unorganised sector. This is because of the growing gap between the elected representatives and the electors themselves, particularly a deep disconnect between the policies and politics of the state and the needs and demands of the working Indian masses (Yadav 2010). This deep disconnect has come to the fore more vividly amidst the pandemic. The question is: What option do the millions of excluded, overlooked and invisibilised Indian labourers have? Do they quietly accept their sad destiny because it has been served to them by their chosen representatives? 

Concept of ‘Deliberative Democracy’ Offers an Antidote

At this juncture, the legislators need a firm reminder about the concept of “deliberative democracy” that forms an inextricable part of our culture, constitutional ethos and political engagement, which has been so conveniently forgotten today. We have known since time immemorial, that the best and most appropriate way to conduct political business and take policy decisions in a democracy is through public deliberation. “Argument,” “reason,” “open criticism,” “absence of fear,” and “demands of justice” are the key tenets of deliberation that help in arriving at critical decisions in a democracy (Young 2001).

Coupled with these ideals, the legislature in a democracy must foster sites and processes of deliberation among diverse and disagreeing members of the polity. In essence, the theory of “deliberative democracy” lays down a set of normative standards on the basis of which political engagement and citizens’ virtues in a polity are measured and evaluated. These ideal standards act as a cushion and safeguard against the tendency of the political and corporate elites to accumulate and sustain greater power and further their collective interests to the detriment of the working masses. However, in a system which is deficient in the ideals of deliberative democracy, the powerful are able to achieve their goals uninhibited by excluding all others from the realm of decision-making or by simply making decisions for everyone. This is the reality experienced by the poor Indian labourer in the unorganised sector today.

The purpose of this piece is two-fold. First, to cast a critical eye on the divorce between the theory of deliberative democracy and its actual practice in India with respect to the prevailing labour crisis. Academicians, economists and civil society participants have presented sharp statistics, empirical and sociological facts to raise the “labour question” through their writings in newspapers, editorials, open letters to public functionaries and even social media posts. The intent has always been to prick the policymakers into realising what they are doing but, more importantly, about what they are not doing to alleviate the ongoing problem. Simply put, how does one raise the labour question with the state in order to deflate its flawed conceptualisation and handling of the labour crisis? 

Second, to cast the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) as an exemplary organisation or even a “phenomenon” that has acted as a trailblazer in Tunisian politics by consistently as well as vociferously raising the labour question for more than 70 years in order to promote social, economic and political justice for the working classes. No wonder, the current wage rate in Tunisia is one of the highest in the world. UGTT, as part of the National Dialogue Quartet, contributed in strengthening deliberative democracy in Tunisia as well as the Arab world for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. UGTT’s experience is worth imbibing because it presents a model of deliberative democracy in which the state should be willing to always engage discursively with interest groups and social segments especially labour collectives and not just depend on standard political structures and processes to make and implement law and policy (Omri 2015).

Deliberating the Labour Question

While raising the “labour question,” one must be extremely conscious of the unique social, economic and political settings within which Indian labour exists and survives. In order to frame the labour question appropriately and draft a comprehensive post-pandemic labour policy, the state must draw from a variety of perspectives rather than a purely economic one. A top-down economic model, which is exclusively driven by the powerful state and employer, is outdated as well as untenable today. The concept of labour cannot be viewed myopically as a mere factor of production whose market value is determined by the invisible hands of demand and supply. Alternatively, what should matter is that the law neither factors-in nor provides protection to more than 90% of the labour force in India, simply because it is in the unorganised sector. Further, it should also factor in the harsh reality that the balance of power and interests always tilt in favour of the employer who can hire and fire labourers at will.

The labour discourse must reflect the indeterminacies and the unequal power relations implicit in the concept of labour. For example, the labour discourse in India is always written in the image of a typical worker from the organised sector, which employs up to 10% of the labour force in the country. The remaining 90% are conveniently excluded from the labour discourse. Consequently, the unorganised labour force has been deprived of the bundle of rights, safeguards and protections extended by the state and the employers even amidst the pandemic. Is it simply an inconvenience or outright apathy and indifference towards the excluded lot? The flawed understanding and handling of the labour crisis makes us wonder: Is India’s democratic set-up “deliberative” only in “form” and not in “practice”?   

To that effect, the “labour question” cannot be raised and deliberated upon within a closed setting—both structured and formal like the Parliament of India or committee meetings, which are far removed from the social, economic and political realities facing the Indian labour (Achary 2016). Moreover, the pandemic situation has exposed the sad state of deliberative democracy in India—exclusions and inequalities in supposed fair structures and processes of law-making and implementation; the hegemonic terms of the labour discourse and the environment of everyday practice, which make deliberation usually biased towards the state and the corporate actors (Young 2001).

The state’s labour policy must be framed keeping in mind empirical and sociological facts and everyday patterns of the existence of the Indian labour, namely how employers hire and pay the casual workers, contribute to their social security, guard them against injury, settle their grievances and lay them off overnight. These issues are extremely important, given the hard fact that nine out of 10 workers in India come from the unorganised sector. It was only during the pandemic that the problems got magnified due to the chaotic and cruel treatment of Indian labour when more than 50 million migrant workers became jobless overnight. As such, “diverse human interactions and specific connections to space and place” are necessary elements to devise a comprehensive solution for the prevailing labour problem in India.

The Convention on Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards), 1976 (No 144) to which India is a signatory has laid down as utmost “priority”: the bringing together of governments, employers and workers through “tripartite social dialogue” in order to develop, implement and promote international labour standards governing all aspects of the world of work. In essence, the convention seeks to promote a culture of dialogue and trust among the tripartite actors. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has time and again emphasised on the following:

“Social dialogue and tri-partism constitute the ILO’s governance paradigm for promoting social justice, fair and peaceful workplace relations and decent work. Social dialogue is a means to achieve social and economic progress. The process of social dialogue in itself embodies the basic democratic principle that people affected by decisions should have a voice in the decision-making process. Social dialogue has many forms and collective bargaining is at its heart. Consultations, exchanges of information and other forms of dialogue between social partners and with governments are also important. Social Dialogue is based on respect for freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining….These rights cover all workers in all sectors, with all types of employment relationships, including in the public sector, the informal economy, the rural economy, export processing zones, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and domestic and migrant workers” (Grimshaw et al 2017).

Moreover, the ILO has observed that social and labour policies that are based on effective tripartite consultation with representatives of government, employers’ and workers’ organisations help ensure informed decisions and result in increased commitment and ownership by all stakeholders involved. Most importantly, ILO research has shown that countries with well established and effective national social dialogue institutions fare better in times of economic, social and political crises (Grimshaw et al 2017, p 36).

Stir Up Like Samant and Kerala

Dattatray Samant was a self-styled workers’ leader in Maharashtra between 1977 and 1997. He is well known for negotiating the maximum number of wage and retrenchment compensation settlements than any other labour leader in India. He not only fought for workers’ rights and welfare with the big corporates but also brokered settlements in the small-scale sector like karkhanas and workshops that employed casual labour. An extremely personalised, empathetic and dynamic approach was the key feature that distinguished him from the other labour leaders. Although he distanced himself from all party affiliations and active politics, he was able to keep alive and thriving the working-class movement in Maharashtra. Promoting labour rights and workers’ welfare in India in complete isolation from politics and politicians is quite a rarity in India. 

Industrialists during this time bore testimony to the fact that the establishment’s productivity and profits increased after they accommodated for the workers’ welfare and interests. Samant had also widely stated that labour welfare and workers’ rights and the establishments’ productivity and profits cannot be pitted as opposing and contradictory concepts. Rather, welfare and productivity go hand in hand only if there is a real willingness on the part of the state, employer and workers to have a dialogue with each other and compromise on their respective positions. Whenever the workers got a wage hike from their employers due to Samant’s initiative, he used to tell them, “Now that you have got your money you have to do your share.” To the employers’ utter surprise, it was seen that the worker did actually give at least 5%–10% extra productivity after the wage hike.

Further, if labour collectives and groups would be less interested in politics and more concerned about promoting workers’ causes, it would really help drive the labour movement in India. The Indian working masses would no longer experience a void in terms of capable and concerned leadership like it is today when they are time and again approaching the ILO and making repeated representations before the international body on the failure of the Government of India to comply with its obligations under the Tripartite Consultation Convention.  As Samant proclaimed, “You must understand that there are no economic changes which come through the Parliament or by talking alone. You have to organise and fight these injustices which exist.”

Moreover, media coverage of workers’ causes and lives should be more substantial and real in order to awaken the policymakers and employers from their deep slumber. Although the media has covered the magnitude of the trauma experienced by the migrant workers amidst the pandemic, it has entirely missed exposing the close connection between the state’s flawed labour policies and the resultant labour suffering and even death. 

Kerala’s experience in providing social security through welfare funds for the workers in the informal sector was a direct result of social dialogue between labour unions and employers mediated by the state, which strongly believes in the idea that informal sector workers need not necessarily be insecure workers. The factors that helped create a congenial environment for the state to initiate the social dialogue process and set up organisational structures to address the demands for social security were: “first, literacy of the labouring poor combined with a high degree of social and political consciousness with regard to their rights; second, the readiness of political parties to take up the legitimate demands of workers in the informal sector as part of their political agenda; and third, the early mobilization and organization of workers spanning a number of informal sector activities, both in rural and urban areas” (Kannan 2003).

UGTT Sowed Seeds of Deliberative Democracy in Tunisia

In the words of Houcine Abassi, General Secretary of UGTT:

“[…] Dialogue can play an important role when it comes to solving national problems. It shows that unions, our union and other civil associations, can, by guiding through dialogue, find solutions to problems. This Nobel Prize shows that humankind can reach solutions through dialogue.”

To expect a typical ‘“labour union,” which promotes labours’ rights and welfare, to mediate peace post a revolution and deliberate upon the country’s new constitution sitting along with other powerful stakeholders seems utopian. But UGTT did just that and much more. It is a unique organisation that has played a significant role in both Tunisian and Arab politics. UGTT adopts a realistic stance that takes into account the critical issues at stake; the individuals or groups who it is interacting with or confronting and what it sees as possibilities for action and achievement (Omri 2015).

For example, post the Jasmine revolution in January 2011, UGTT strived relentlessly to strike a peace deal among political parties in Tunisia that refused to budge from their parochial demands. In order for the whole process to be democratic as well as legitimate, the UGTT made sure that there was utmost transparency in the negotiations, and so it widely broadcasted the “road map” signing ceremony, which set to strengthen the will and gain the consent of the warring political supremos to establish democratic ideals in Tunisia. Further, commenting on the consequential role played by Abassi, during any negotiation, an onlooker said, “he had no problem asking the same question again and again for six hours.”    

At this point, it is important to understand how UGTT came to acquire such an enviable position, even worthy of being awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, post the uprising. UGTT has since its inception experienced attempts at dissolution and persecution from the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. However, having survived such severe onslaughts, UGTT seldom backed down, thus sending out a clear message to the ruling governments: “workers” form the backbone of the country. The uprising in Tunisia was a reiteration of this truth. The unemployed and disenchanted youth of the country embittered by the vulgar kleptocratic government revolted and won independence for their country (Honwana 2013).

UGTT represented this sentiment of discontent among the working masses and stood for the same in the peace negotiations and constitution drafting. The UGTT negotiated and agreed for nothing less than a constitutional guarantee of a ‘“right to decent work.” After all, as has been laid down by the Committee on International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment No 18: “The right to work is essential for realizing other human rights and forms an inseparable and inherent part human dignity. Every individual has the right to be able to work, allowing him/ her to live in dignity. The right to work contributes at the same time to the survival of the individual and to that of his/her family […]” 

It is worth noting that while spearheading the peace negotiations in Tunisia, UGTT adeptly carried out its core duties co-worker’s wages. UGTT bargained on behalf of the labour. It stayed true to the aims enlisted in its charter, “[…]calling for fair distribution of national wealth in a way which guarantees the aspirations of all workers and lower sections of society[…]” UGTT has an office in every governorate and district of the country signifying a remarkable geographical outreach that enables it to represent demands not just from the urban mainland but also from the remotest hinterland. If we go by popular estimates, UGTT represents 5% of the total population of Tunisia. In the past, it has rallied support to the casual workers and helped secure permanent contracts for workers in the textile industry as well as teachers. The cause for an increase in the minimum wages of agricultural workers was also taken up for discussion by UGTT. UGTT was essentially playing a dual role, one that of an activist and that of a mediator. Such a position although precarious, helped unlock demands and wishes of the suffering populace.

In order to appropriately raise the labour question in India, the following lessons must be learnt from the UGTT in Tunisia: setting a common goal which adequately enriches the ensuing agenda; the constant need to move beyond petty partisan skirmishes and looking at the larger picture; undeterred ability to ask difficult questions amid negotiations; ensuring information symmetry and transparency in all the processes; repeated interventions and dialogues among the workers as well as with the ruling administration. 

Part IV of the Constitution of India, the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), contains an important provision on the right to work, humane conditions of work and a living wage that were enunciated primarily to ensure “welfare” and “security” of labourers in India. Although the DPSP are unenforceable, they are fundamental in the governance of the country and it is the government’s duty to apply these principles in making laws. 

Recently, the Government of India decided to compile and consolidate 44 labour laws in the country into four codes: wages, industrial relations, social security and occupational health and safety. It seems like a rather painstaking process. However, when one looks closely at these bare structural reforms, it becomes quite clear that the government seeks to reduce the protections and rights of the Indian labour as well as intends to dilute the collective bargaining power of the workers.  By timing the passage of the four codes during the Monsoon Session of Parliament when the migrant labour crisis amidst the pandemic is mounting, the government seeks to win some brownie points by coming across as a pro-workers’ government.

Fundamentally, it must be remembered that the term “labour” means a “social agent” and not merely an “economic good” that is typically viewed from the prism of fixed economic principles, doctrines and justifications. The current worker problem is as much a “social” phenomenon as it is an economic one. The labour crisis in India is not a consequence of force majeure but a man-made one. Mere issuance of identity cards and registration does not save the millions of workers in the unorganised sector from drifting into poverty.

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