Labour conflicts in the time of reform

Heena Khan | Updated on November 14, 2017 Published on March 11, 2012

bl11 heena industrial.JPG

The labour unrest at Maruti's Manesar plant made headlines in 2011. Last month, the Yanam plant of Regency Ceramics was in the news for the same reason — a case of labour struggle turning bloody.

In the past few years, strikes and lockouts are back, grabbing space in the media. Does this mean that labour militancy is back to haunt India's industrial landscape?

The book, Industrial Conflicts in India: Is the Sleeping Giant Waking Up?, engages with and traces the gradual breakdown of collective bargaining as well as social dialogue, leading to the rise in labour struggles.

Post-liberalisation- privatisation- globalisation, the risks and failures arising out of the restructuring process have shifted to workers in various forms, be it unemployment, income inequality, declining real wages and so on. These provide a fertile ground for agitations.

The book details the incidence, character and magnitude of industrial conflict in the post-reform period in general and in recent times in particular.

Tracing the institutional framework, laws and regulations, theories of strikes from economic to political to management theories, it is comprehensive, critical and objective.


The labour market, unlike other markets, has unique features that do not lend itself to mechanical manipulation of labour as a factor of production.

Many trade unions say they have lost faith in the so-called Constitutional path of following laws, institutions and rule books. They cite instances wherein managements have openly flouted rules, regulations, Government orders, even judicial orders and International Labour Organisation conventions.

The State, too, has acted in support of capital, either by its inaction, non-action or harsh action against labour, says Shyam Sundar, author.

On the role of politics, the book notes that most labour struggles in India are conducted by Left trade unions, which have been opposed to economic reforms.

“In a highly politicised setup such as ours, it is inevitable that struggles and agitations have a political agenda,” he says.

In Haryana, many strikes have taken place around election time. The employers' contention is that political parties use labour agitations to get publicity. It is notable that strikes in the State occurred in companies where wages had been high, compared with other firms. Thus, it was political factors than economic discontent that led to strikes in this area.

Most often, the bone of contention has been trade union rights, not wage rise. There are cases where denial of union recognition has led to insecurity among the workers, as was seen in Rico, Sunbeam, Hyundai, MRF and Jet Airways.

The book does a case-by-case analysis of key struggles, contextualising the business conditions and substantiating with examples, chronicling different degrees of intensity of struggles, from the Maruti conflict of 2000 to the unrest in Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India.

The author has a keen eye for the dynamics of labour struggles — the conventional actions of the State, police deployment, arrest of union members etc — as also for the changing stance of Left parties in States such as West Bengal.

In India, the number of workers in the informal economy has been growing. Their welfare, therefore, has assumed importance both in the academic and policy arenas. The book captures the changing dynamics between regular and contract workers.

The weakening of employment security due to aggressive labour separation policies of employers and the increasing substitution of regular workers by the flexible categories have led to a kind of solidarity between both these sections. In this sense, the labour struggles are in the process of becoming an all-encompassing movement, says the author.


The book goes beyond simple macro statistics. Quantitative statistics on industrial conflict often fail to reveal the dynamics, the intensity and the dramatics of industrial conflict.

Official statistics, most often, report what the employers feed the Labour Department. If the unions were the reporting agencies to the Government, work stoppage statistics would be radically different – workers involved would be inflated and issues involved would be different.

The book recognises that individual forms of conflict can take many forms, namely, noisy dragging of chairs in front of bosses, late-coming, absenteeism, sabotage, abuses and so on, which are not reported in official statistics. In this sense, the book is a ready encyclopaedia for aspiring labour economists and political scientists.

Author discusses the labour market in a macro sense and shopfloor relations in a micro sense.

He stresses the need for restructuring this space in the face of globalisation. Trade unions, too, need to shift their agenda from regularisation of work to regulation of work conditions.


Overall, the industrial relations landscape is witnessing changes from within and without. It is truly in tension and transition. The Human Resource Management system is ill-equipped to deal with collective institutions of labour and conflict, says the author.

The unitary world view held by HR managers, in which there is no place for unions and conflict is abhorred, has not helped in dealing with real world shopfloor issues.

The HR system focuses more on talent management, not human relations. Managing workers' dissatisfaction will indeed be the next leadership challenge globally.

Published on March 11, 2012
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor