The many challenges before trade unions

The agitations of trade unions against the Labour Codes have failed unlike the protests of the farmers

Updated - November 30, 2021 01:18 am IST

Published - November 30, 2021 12:15 am IST

NEW DELHI 30/09/2019 : Farmers, workers during National Open Mass Convention of Workers at Parliament Street against scraping the anti worker pro employer labour law amendments and code,Merger of Banks, Stop retrenchment and demanding to create Jobs, in New Delhi on Monday. Photo Sandeep Saxena

NEW DELHI 30/09/2019 : Farmers, workers during National Open Mass Convention of Workers at Parliament Street against scraping the anti worker pro employer labour law amendments and code,Merger of Banks, Stop retrenchment and demanding to create Jobs, in New Delhi on Monday. Photo Sandeep Saxena

The repeal of the three farm laws has set in motion expectations, if not talks, about the possible revival of other agitations, such as the one against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the repeal of the contentious Labour Codes passed in 2019-20. Trade unions have intensified their agitation against the Codes in the wake of the government’s decision to repeal the farm laws.

There were significant factors responsible for the farmers’ victory apart from the well-known political reasons for which the farm laws were repealed. In industrial or social conflicts, staying power, unflinching solidarity, political legitimacy, social visibility, and the capacity to inflict hurt to the opponents all matter in effecting favourable outcomes for the agitators. All these conditions characterised the farmers’ agitation. The protests enjoyed political legitimacy as the government had passed the three laws without consulting the farmers’ groups and had also not referred the laws to the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC). We need to assess the possible revival of the protests of the industrial workers for repeal of the Labour Codes while considering these aspects.

Problems with the Codes

The Central Trade Unions (CTUs) have criticised the Codes on three principal grounds. The Labour Codes were passed with little debate and discussion as the Opposition parties had staged a boycott in the Lok Sabha then. Trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), criticised the Central government for not holding adequate consultations with them on the Codes contrary to the government’s claims. The absence of effective dialogue contradicts the International Labour Organization treaty, the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention of 1976 (C.144), which India had ratified in February 1978. The Labour Codes contain many clauses that deprive labourers of hard-won labour rights.

The Codes merit repeal for other major reasons as well. The drafting is shoddy and incomplete. The Codes are an insult to the collective legal and industrial relations intelligence in the country. The government introduced changes in major contentious clauses (hire and fire, contract labour) which were not based on robust empirical evidence; diluted good clauses (standing orders and inspections); made matters unduly complex (industrial tribunal, minimum wages) and made promises that were not backed by credible systems (social security fund, universal minimum wages and social security). Liberalisation of thresholds relating to major legal aspects (contract labour, hire and fire, standing orders) and the act of retaining existing thresholds even after several decades (provident fund, medical insurance) would intensify informalisation of the workforce. The government has left many substantive and procedural clauses to the rule-making processes which result in considerable divergences as States frame different rules on the same subject. These will introduce chaos in the governance of industrial relations.

As opposed to the success of farmers’ protests, the failure of the trade unions’ agitations in achieving their demands present a conundrum. In fact, there exists an organised consultative framework due to the aforementioned ILO Convention. Trade unions have a long history and most of them have political affiliations. Though declining, trade unions still command a claimed membership of 90-100 million, which includes unorganised workers. The CTUs claimed that 150 to 250 million workers participated in the recent countrywide strikes. If that is the case, they should have shaken the government and had the Codes repealed, which did not happen. So, what ails the industrial working class’s cause?

Why strikes are unsuccessful

The CTUs are divided thanks to their political affiliations. Out of the 12 major CTUs, 10 have been jointly spearheading agitations calling for the repeal of all four Codes while the BMS has been conducting its own limited agitation: it is fine with the Wage and Social Security Codes but demands “review” of the Industrial Relations and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Codes. Again, thousands of enterprise-based unions lacking political consciousness do not always support the CTUs’ agitations. The claimed strikes resulted in symbolic acts of nominal consultations with the CTUs by the United Progressive Alliance or National Democratic Alliance governments. The reform mandate was always alive.

Second, though the CTUs for long succeeded in blocking labour law reforms at the national level, substantial reforms of laws and inspections have happened at the regional level. Further, with the sly support of the government, employers have been able to achieve labour flexibility (the rampant contractualisation of the workforce) denied to them by formal laws. Hence, the Labour Codes matter less even if they are repealed.

Third, though there are around 400 million unorganised and informal workers, they are scattered and not organised in a consolidated manner to mount significant political opposition and demand labour market securities. More informality thanks to labour reforms will further hurt unions’ agitational power.

Fourth, unlike farmers, the industrial workers cannot organise longer and larger strikes as they would lose their jobs and wages. The presence of the huge army of underemployed or unemployed and informal workers weakens their bargaining power. At best, they can organise short protests. In short, their strikes do not hurt either the economy or the government. The failures of the Railway strike of 1974 and the Bombay textile workers’ strike of 1982-83 haunt the labour movement.

Fifth, a larger labour reforms agenda comprising privatisation, flexible labour markets, etc. are supported and even pushed by global financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Many countries are witnessing labour reforms. Unions are fighting in essence against the neoliberal order for which they require intellectual sinews.

Sixth, the four Codes were scrutinised by the PSC. It is another matter that the Codes did not reflect several of the PSC’s recommendations or included clauses not mentioned in the draft Bills sent to the PSC. These procedural deficiencies may not be perceived as stark as those related to the farm laws. Finally, the ‘hurt’ government and the powerful reform-lobbying interest groups would ensure that there would not be more rollbacks, including of the Codes.

In the wake of these realities, unions must come up either with agitational strategies to hurt the electoral image and prospects of the government and economy and/or exploit the possibility of legally challenging the Codes as has been done in case of gig workers. The delay in implementing the Codes thanks to adverse economic conditions or possibly due to political factors can be a short-term consolation, if any.

K.R. Shyam Sundar is Professor, XLRI - Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur

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