Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a five-article series named ‘The Tales of Toil’ that discusses and highlights the realities, needs and interests of the working class in India
When I recently told one of my friends that I am about to write an article on the representation and welfare of workers in India, particularly looking at trade unions and workers’ unions, the quick retort was ‘Lal Salaam!’. As much as the intricacies of communism and socialism fascinate any student or scholar of politics and political economy, I would like to reiterate what I told that friend: the welfare of workers is something no party or political formation must neglect. India is a socialist country, by its Constitution, and rightfully so, given the need for empowering and representing the needs and concerns of all sections of the demographics in the country. In this fourth article of the series ‘The Tales of Toil’, I will be looking more closely at the relations of workers with industries, the importance of trade and workers’ unions, and the nuances of civil society involvement in helping workers get their rights.
Maintenance of harmonious industrial relations remains an important objective of the Ministry of Labour & Employment of the Government of India. Due to constant endeavours of the Industrial Relations Machineries of both the Central Government and the States, the overall industrial relations climate has generally remained peaceful and cordial. Number of incidences of strikes and lockouts have exhibited a declining trend, with the number going from 318 in 2012 to around 95 in 2017. This was also seen in the number of man-days lost, with the number going from 1,29,40,000 in 2012 to around 13,80,000 in 2017. There was found to exist a wide spread variation among the states and union territories when it comes to the spatial distribution of the numbers of strikes and lockouts. There is also a wide variation in terms of industry-wise dispersion of these incidences. As per the Ministry of Labour & Employment, the major reasons for these strikes in 2017 were usually related to
The workers’ and trade unions in the country were found to be the major players responsible for mobilising workers for various causes and protests. Trade Unions in India are registered under the Trade Union Act (1926). As per the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation and the Labour Bureau of the Ministry of Labour & Employment, there were 11,556 registered Trade Unions in 2013, with only 21.9% submitting returns (this itself can be a subject of another article, but that is for later). There were around 32,31,000 worker-members in the workers’ unions in the same period, with a net expenditure of Rs 26,10,00,000 in the year. What is of interest is the complete extinction of employers’ unions with there being 56 in 2010 but none thereafter from 2011 onward to 2013, as per the data. Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Chhatisgarh, Goa and Chandigarh having the most workers’ Central Unions on the Government registers, as of 2013, with 676, 356, 89, 42 and 41 respectively. Among State Unions, Karnataka had the maximum numbers with 3,255 Unions registered, as of 2013, as per the Labour Bureau.
The Trade Union movement in India is divided along political lines and follows a pattern of overlapping interactions between unions and political parties. Today, some of the trade unions and there associated national parties are as follows:
The first properly registered trade-union is considered to be the Madras Labour Union, which was founded in 1918, while the first trade union federation to be set up was the All India Trade Union Congress in 1920. We have come a long way from when around 1000 strikes were organised between 1920 and 1924, and subsequently the Trade Union Act was passed in 1926. The period following the economic liberalisation spearheaded by Shri Manmohan Singh in 1991 was characterised by declining government intervention in the economy, followed by a decline in the creation of public sector employment and encouragement for the private sector to play a bigger role in employment generation. Efforts for unionisation in the private sectors were usually met with opposition and the wider withdrawal of State support for workers further lessened their bargaining power. These policies led to a brief stagnation in the number of unionised formal sector workers after the period of the economic liberalisation. However, from the late 1990s, with the focus on the informal sector, particularly the informal employees within the formal sector, the trade unions got a boost in numbers and morale.
The Trade Unions have been fairly active and vocal over the past year, and for good reason. While the the Central Government has tried its best to recognise and support Trade Unions, not all their measures have been holistic in their approach. Recently it proposed to grant statutory recognition to trade unions by amending Section 28-A of the Trade Unions Act (1926), so that all concerned ministries take them seriously. However, the move may fall short of addressing the principal grievance of various trade unions: statutory recognition of the unions by employers for collective bargaining purposes to represent the needs and interests of the workers. Some of the Central Trade Unions were also concerned with the scrapping of the 44 central Labour Acts and their reconstitution in the four Labour Codes, and also the introduction of fixed term employment by executive order. As per the Unions,
“Government has been continuing to arrogantly ignore the 12 point charter of demands on minimum wage, universal social security, workers’ status including pay and facilities for the scheme workers, besides going for privatization of public and government sector and mass scale hiring on contract”
The 12-point charter of the Central Trade Union that is mentioned here consists of the following points:
Urgent measures for containing price-rise through universalisation of public distribution system and banning speculative trade in commodity market
Containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation
Strict enforcement of all basic labour laws without any exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labour laws
Universal social security cover for all workers
Minimum wages of not less than Rs 15,000/- per month with provisions of indexation
Assured enhanced pension not less than Rs.3,000/- p.m. for the entire working population
Stoppage of disinvestment in Central/State PSUs
Stoppage of contractorisation in permanent perennial work and payment of same wage and benefits for contract workers as regular workers for same and similar work
Removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility of bonus, provident fund; increase the quantum of gratuity
Compulsory registration of trade unions within a period of 45 days from the date of submitting application; and immediate ratification of ILO Conventions C 87 and C 98
Stoppage of Pro-Employer Labour Law Amendments
Stoppage of FDI in Railways, Insurance and Defence
In addition to these the unions are also seeking the withdrawal of the Land Acquisition amendment bill/ordinance, which has led to a significant amount of discontent among those who feel this could be misused for land-grabbing and privatisation.
As discussed previously, India’s labour laws are under reform at a scale unforeseen since the ’70s. The two main Bills: the Wage Code Bill that has already been tabled in the Lok Sabha and awaits the winter Session, and The Industrial Relations Bill that is ready for tabling, have evoked widespread debate and discussion from various sectors. Press reports argue that the former may have greater powers to the Centre to set minimum wages across the board, while labour researchers feel that wage standards could be weakened. On the other hand, the latter will make the culture of flexible hire and fire, which was first introduced by a recent amendment to the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Central Rules, a norm across India. These two bills may significantly reduce the responsibility of the government and employers, and absolve them of their duty to deliver fairness and justice to the workers. The actions that can call for punitive action and the tools in the Bills thereof are significantly reduced than what it was previously. The aforementioned lessening of numbers of unions and the power of these unions, particularly in the eyes of employers, does not make it any easier for the workers.
Saajha Manch’s publicity poster
Given the lack of proper implementation of the enforcement of various provisions and laws for workers, it is good to see that alternate models of doing so have recently emerged. A new community media platform in the National Capital Region (NCR) provides a database of accounts by workers of the kinds of enforcement failures and violation of provisions for workers that may be encountered daily. and enforcement failure encountered daily. Not only that, Saajha Manch, which is powered by Gram Vaani, also provides workers with useful information on their rights and entitlements.