Agenda for the Jan 8-9 Bharat Bandh

KR Shyam Sundar | Updated on January 07, 2019 Published on January 07, 2019

A relentless curtailment of workers’ rights has acted as a trigger for the call

Ever since the onset of economic reforms comprising liberalisation and globalisation, employers and global financial institutions have been exerting pressure on the government to introduce organisational and labour law reforms. As result, since 1991, 16 national level work stoppages and several sectoral (like banks) strikes have taken place concerning policies of the government. Even the farmers’ rally held recently promoted industrial workers’ causes.

A few strikes since 2012 have been spectacular due to the involvement of all major central trade unions (CTUs) including the INTUC and BMS. However, of late BMS has been conducting its own protest programmes for various reasons. The proposed strike on January 8-9, 2019, is the third one during the current NDA rule. Some have dubbed this strike as politically motivated.

It is pertinent to note that during the post-reform period 10 strikes have occurred during the Congress party-led coalition rule for 14 years while seven strikes have taken place during BJP party-led coalition rule for 11 years. However, this strike assumes added significance as it occurs just before the general elections.

Major CTUs and their industry affiliates in banking, insurance, ports and docks and trade unions of self-employed women, street vendors, domestic workers and others in the unorganised sector will be participating in the strike. But unlike the earlier strikes where reportedly more than 100 million workers participated, this strike is unlikely to elicit such a grand participation because BMS, the RSS-affiliated trade union-led Confederation of Central Trade Unions (CONCENT, the so-called non-political union front) comprising break-away factions of TUCC and INTUC and NFITU will not be participating in the strike.

Why are they on strike?

Contrary to popular perception, strikes in the post-globalisation period have occurred in many parts of the world (India, Brazil, South Africa, Greece, Nigeria, France), thanks to the denial of basic labour rights like employment, decent minimum wage, and social security. Trade unions in India, irrespective of factions, are quite frustrated for six primary reasons.

First, anti-worker laws and measures are being taken by the governments in the name of ‘ease of doing business’.

Second, the government has not attempted serious and effective social dialogue — during the current NDA rule only one session of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC) has been held, in July 20-21, 2015, while during the two rounds of the UPA rule (2004-2014) six ILCs were held. In the days of economic planning trade unions were consulted by the Planning Commission, and there is nothing wrong with trade unions demanding representation in the NITI Aayog.

Third, their demands for some basic labour rights like trade union and collective bargaining, employment security, decent work, universal social security and minimum wages, among others, have not been met. The proposed Labour Codes potentially could address a few of these but are held up due to poor designing of the Codes and a non-functional Parliament. Even some good measures by the government like extended maternity benefits have not been received well by the firms.

Fourth, when there is enough flexibility in the recruitment system via contract workers, trainees, casual workers and via deep supply chain (informality grows as we move down it), the government resorts to the ordinance route (instead of legislating) to provide fixed term employment option to firms. This has incensed the workers.

Fifth, informality has been made more plausible thanks to systematic weakening of enforcement machinery in the name of reforming it.

Lastly, the economic policies like privatisation (of ports, coal, etc.) and consolidation of banks, which have potential adverse outcomes like unemployment and reduction in wages/benefits, cause tremendous concern to workers.

Some questions

However, one would have expected the working class to widen their struggle agenda to include issues of safety of workers (recent Meghalaya tragedy, for example), environmental concerns (green jobs), gender issues (wage and employment discrimination), social discrimination issues (important in a caste-ridden society), farmer’s issues, etc., while they mention public distribution system. Again, the factions-ridden trade union movement and trade unions (INTUC, for instance) is a huge source of concern.

The writer is professor, XLRI, Jamshedpur.

Published on January 07, 2019
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