Inconveniencing the public

THE GENERAL STRIKE called by some of the central trade unions to protest the privatisation and labour policies of the Centre — and some State Governments too — has become an annual affair. As usual, the nationwide strike evoked partial response in most States and was `near total' in West Bengal and Kerala. The banking and financial sectors were virtually crippled as five of the major unions controlling the bank employees joined the stir. The transport and essential services were, by and large, spared, though buses and lorries in West Bengal and Kerala did not ply. Whether the trade unions that called for the strike achieve their goals or not, they have succeeded in inconveniencing the public yet again. There was a general strike last year on the same issues and a repeat this year, if only to remind the Union Government that the labour unions have not lost track of the issues they have raised. What is more, there is the threat held out of an indefinite strike if the Centre does not respond to the charter of demands, quite oblivious to the sufferings of the public. What is significant is that the central trade union affiliated to the Congress did not join hands with the others, though it has taken the same stand on reforms and privatisation. The strike had very little impact in most of the States, except for the Central Government undertakings.

None of the issues that the trade unions have raised for this strike — privatisation of profit-making public sector undertakings, interest rates for provident fund or labour law reforms, besides the ills of globalisation and liberalisation — is new; nor will the debate end. With a general election due in 2004, it is doubtful that the BJP-led NDA regime at the Centre will push ahead with reforms in the next 12 months. Even disinvestment decisions taken by the Union Cabinet have been reviewed time and again, though the impression that the Ministers give is that they have been deferred, not abandoned. Except for a few inevitable decisions on disinvestment, the Government has yet to deal with the critical public sector units. On labour reforms, precious little has been done and the Centre is unlikely to pursue this track in the run-up to the elections. It is perhaps only after the next general election that any Government at the Centre can take up the next instalment of critical reforms in the financial and labour sectors, which will be the most sensitive, and also imperative to prepare the country and the economy for the competitive and globalised regime that lies ahead.

It may be a legitimate demand for the labour unions to protect their interests and jobs. Some of the labour reforms in the pipeline may be more beneficial to the employers and industries than the employees. The trade unions have been expecting this package of reforms for some time now and stepping up their campaign against measures that could render them jobless or arm the employers with special powers of retrenchment. Given the fiscal constraints of Governments — both at the Centre and in the States — it is inevitable that most of the State undertakings will have to be privatised or corporatised through a process of disinvestment. Some of them may have to be closed. It is in this context that the unions are seeking protection and a halt to the reforms process. But they must realise that the process must go on, sooner or later. The Centre, for its part, will do well to initiate a dialogue with the central trade unions not only to take them into confidence, but also to make the process less painful for employees. It is unfortunate that Governments do not believe in consultations and consensus, especially in such sensitive areas. It is only such an approach that can ensure a smooth reforms process, which is stable and acceptable to all the players.

Recommended for you