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Isn’t Unionising Workers a Political Project?

A “non-political” trade union cannot do anything for the beleaguered working class.


Trade unions in India are facing two kinds of challenges that perhaps are the worst in contemporary times. Apart from worsening employment and working conditions, they also have to face the government’s “labour reforms,” which are anything but worker-friendly. The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS)—the labour wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—has formed the Confederation of Central Trade Unions (CONCENT) by allying with the National Front of Indian Trade Unions, a breakaway faction of the Indian National Trade Union Congress which is affiliated to the Congress. Interestingly, the BMS has told the media that CONCENT is a “non-political” trade union front. However, this new formation raises important questions. First, is such an alliance the most needed one at this juncture? And second, can solutions to the present issues and dilemmas facing workers and their organisations be thought of as apart from the larger and graver political situation in the country? Ironically, the 10 other central trade unions, which are not part of the CONCENT, have strongly protested the centre’s proposal to amend the Trade Unions Act, 1926, terming it a politically motivated move that would allow the government to interfere in the recognition of a union. However, the BMS has not joined these unions in opposing the amendment. What lies beyond both the CONCENT and the proposed amendment are grim realities.

Barely 8% of the country’s workforce is in the formal sector. The working and living conditions of the remaining 92% in the informal sector cry out for attention from the unions as well as the government. Organising those in the informal sector is a task beset with hurdles. How will forming the CONCENT help? The labour composition itself has undergone rapid and near drastic changes. The expanding informal sector is dominated by youth and women, the information technology sector has thrown up unique employment issues, and the transport field has changed almost overnight with drivers of private taxis (Ola and Uber, particularly) grappling with problems that have not been witnessed in India before. Most of the public sector undertakings have had to contend with the political interference of successive governments, but the workers and unions are hardly ever consulted even on issues that involve them, such as revival packages. The “fixed-term employment” contract, which has now been extended to all sectors after it was allowed in the apparel manufacturing sector in 2016, is ostensibly meant to facilitate ease of doing business and offer “flexibility” to the employer. According to the fixed-term employment contract rules, regardless of the period for which the worker is contracted (from a week to the duration of a project), no termination notice is required. Trade unions have been grappling with the scourge of contract work since the late 1970s when companies, including multinationals, began contracting out entire departments.

When the very existence of current trade unions is threatened and their capacity to deal with newer crises is strained, how can these issues be dealt with as apart from the political situation in the country? In fact, the BMS itself has condemned the fixed-term employment contract and the government’s clubbing of various labour legislations into the Code on Wages Bill, 2017, and has stated that the government’s dependence on foreign direct investment demands a white paper to show how many jobs it has really created.

The BMS has earlier openly criticised the Narendra Modi government’s anti-labour policies, but often refused to ally with other unions during crucial nationwide protests beginning from September 2015 and in the years that followed. It has said that it does not participate in general strikes because it does not “believe in doing politics,” but only in fighting for workers’ welfare.

One of the challenges before the organised working class movement is to pressure the government to take the joint trade union platform (and, thus, the tripartite form of negotiation) seriously and hold meaningful dialogues. More than one union leader has pointed out that the National Democratic Alliance government simply refuses to hold a dialogue with trade unions.

Trade unions face a complex and gargantuan task in making the concerns of the working class a public concern by showing that the labour reforms are an assault on democratic rights apart from leading to closures and retrenchments. One of the ways of doing this would be to reach out to progressive political and social movements. Indian trade unions are facing a crisis of membership given the jobless growth. With 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. For this, they need to grapple with governance and political issues. Where does the CONCENT fit in then?

Updated On : 11th Jan, 2019


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