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Trade Unions And Industrial Relations: On Representation And Welfare Of Workers

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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

  • Wage and allowances
  • Bonus
  • Personnel welfare and concerns
  • Indiscipline, violence and disciplinary actions
  • Retrenchment

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:

  1. All India Trade Union Congress, with the Communist Party of India
  2. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and by extension the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
  3. Centre of Indian Trade Unions, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
  4. Indian National Trade Union Congress, with the Indian National Congress (INC)
  5. Labour Progressive Federation, with the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK)

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.

Source: Praveen Bajpai/Getty

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:

  1. Urgent measures for containing price-rise through universalisation of public distribution system and banning speculative trade in commodity market

  2. Containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation

  3. Strict enforcement of all basic labour laws without any exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labour laws

  4. Universal social security cover for all workers

  5. Minimum wages of not less than Rs 15,000/- per month with provisions of indexation

  6. Assured enhanced pension not less than Rs.3,000/- p.m. for the entire working population

  7. Stoppage of disinvestment in Central/State PSUs

  8. 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

  9. Removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility of bonus, provident fund; increase the quantum of gratuity

  10. 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

  11. Stoppage of Pro-Employer Labour Law Amendments

  12. 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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