Ten central trade unions (CTUs) have called for a nation-wide strike on November 26, 2020 to condemn what they consider to be the anti-people, and anti-labour economic policies of the government. This follows strikes in the coal and defence sectors protesting privatisation and the corporatisation policies of the government. It is essential to understand as to why the central trade unions have decided to go on strike today.
Codes and flaws
With the introduction of economic reforms concretely since 1991, employers and the global financial institutions have been lobbying for labour market and structural reforms. The reform processes gained momentum since 2015 and the National Democratic Alliance government has enacted four Labour Codes in the last two years. The details of the labour law reforms have been described and critically analysed in the columns of this daily. The Codes are based on the fundamental unproven premise that labour laws and inspection system are obstacles in attracting investment, and, hence the government must promote a cheaper and flexible labour market.
The Codes do extend some labour rights such as universal minimum wage, statutory recognition of trade unions, formalisation of employment contracts, and social security to gig and platform economy workers. However, they also afford substantial flexibility to the employers in terms of easy hire and fire, freedom to hire contract labour and unregulated fixed-term-employment, etc. The Codes have also considerably redefined the concept and practice of labour inspection system by diluting it. The Codes and state retrenchment in the industrial sector and fiscal conservatism — especially in the context of higher levels of unemployment — along with stubborn inflation have created tremendous insecurity among workers. Migrant and informal workers underwent woeful experiences during the COVID-19 period, and trade unions as well as commentators perceive that the state has not provided adequate relief to workers.
Crisis and reforms
The central government and several State governments had chosen the COVID-19 crisis-ridden period as an “opportune time” to enact labour law reforms having far-reaching adverse consequences for labour rights and structural reforms. It is galling to note that the COVID-19 period has witnessed perhaps a maximum amount of legal and extra-legal measures issued by the state.
In such a context, trade unions have six options to confront or soften these measures — viz. social dialogue, political lobbying, political confrontation through Opposition parties, legal action by approaching the judiciary, seek the International Labour Organization’s intervention, and direct industrial action.
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The central government, as per trade unions, did not conduct an effective and sustaining social dialogue, though it held a few symbolic parleys with them. At the State level, social dialogue institutions are largely absent or weak. The last Indian Labour Conference, a tripartite social dialogue body , was held in 2015. The government has dismissed social dialogue as being ineffectual and even frustrating .
The Central trade unions, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, have made numerous representations to the government on their demands and suggestions not only relating to labour market reforms but also on tackling of COVID-19 crises. Who else is better suited to advise the government than the workers’ organisations on these issues? Trade unions contend that many of their suggestions have not been incorporated in the Codes and the COVID-19 relief measures.
The whole political exercise of the passage of the Farm Bills and the three Labour Codes during the COVID-19 period smacks of “un-democracy” as Parliament did not witness “healthy discussions”. The boycott by the Opposition parties ended up serving the cause of reforms, and they wittingly or otherwise became partners in the reform exercises. At any rate, the Opposition parties are waging their own battles of their relevance and incurably divided and pathetically irrelevant as a significant political force.
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The judiciary seems to be the only source of hope in these times of “institutional corrosion”, aided and abetted by right-wing politics. Though the Supreme Court of India did not respond quickly to provide relief to migrant workers, it has struck down the Gujarat government’s amendment of the Factories Act . Unions must shed their judicio-phobia and approach it provided they have strong legal grounds to challenge reforms introduced by Central or State governments.
Trade unions, out of their patriotic mindset, do not use extensively the complaints mechanism created by the International Labour Organization for fear of washing dirty linen in the global spaces; but they did seek ILO intervention recently. But the ILO’s intervention in May 2020 only provided a temporary respite to trade unions as the government did what it has been doing.
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So, trade unions are left with the only option — of demonstrative “industrial action” followed by sustained protest actions. It is in this context, that the central trade unions (except the BMS and its allies) have these demands : direct cash transfer of ₹7,500 per month for all non-income tax-paying families; 10 kg free ration per person per month to all the needy; expansion of MGNREGA to provide 200 days of work in a year in rural areas at enhanced wages; extension of employment guarantee to urban areas; withdrawal of all anti-farmer laws and anti-worker labour codes; a halt to privatisation; protection of government employment; restoration of old pension schemes, etc.
The demands reflect disappointment and even hurt and anger experienced by the working class not only during the time of COVID-19 but also for events of the last three decades.
The Codes are set to rule the industrial relations system for long unless the government changes. This strike, as an individual event alone, is a signal to the larger society of the concerns of workers. Hence, it is legitimate but such action alone will not change the Codes. Trade unions must explore other avenues such as seeking the ILO’s intervention, judicial action and social dialogue. There is no alternative to social dialogue in a pluralistic democracy which all the parties in the industrial relations system must make effective use of and make suitable amendments to the Codes to aid both ease of doing business and promote labour rights. This strike is a reminder of this potential, positive reconstruction of laws.
K.R. Shyam Sundar is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur