The 10 central trade unions (CTUs) and several independent federations have called for an all-India strike on January 8, to protest against the NDA government’s economic and labour policies.
Significantly, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Co-ordination Committee, an umbrella platform for over 100 farmers’ organisations, has called for a ‘Grameen Bandh’ (rural strike) on the same day. The Shiv Sena is also joining the strike, unlike in the past when the NDA was in power. However, the RSS-affiliated BMS conducted nationwide agitations on January 3. Seen together, these protests would involve a huge number of workers.
The strike is taking place under a grim political and economic context. It assumes a wider significance, beyond the narrow confines of traditional labour-oriented issues. Industrial protests could be seen as an articulation for an inclusive society in every sense — political, economic and the labour market.
KP Kannan and G Raveendran (2019) have shown that during 2012-18, the Indian economy witnessed a transition from “jobless” to “job-loss growth”, wherein the rural women workers, less educated and vulnerably-placed social groups like the Muslims and the OBCs bore the brunt of job loss.
They show that the job loss problem is largely prevalent in rural India. Owing to, and using the pretext of, the economic slowdown, many firms have reportedly laid off thousands of workers, especially contract and casual workers.
Even in these hard times, the government is actively considering privatising profit-making public sector enterprises like BPCL, corporatising ordinance factories from being a government department, expanding the automatic route in FDI to the coal sector and raising the cap on FDI in defence from the existing 49 per cent to 74 per cent, merger of banks, etc. All these could arguably have adverse implications for labour rights in general, and employment in particular. In fact, the government has asked the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) to examine the issue of job-reservations for SC/ST and OBCs post-disinvestment, as the stakeholders have complained of loss of jobs for these sections of workers in the post-disinvestment scene.
The CTUs have asked for measures to combat the economic crisis by creating jobs and reviving demand; these include increasing the number of work-days under the MGNREGA from 100 to 200. Similarly, their demand for a higher minimum wage of ₹21,000 and widespread and higher social security could again boost aggregate demand.
The Economic Survey 2018-19 spoke of the need for effective compliance of minimum wage to ‘improve the welfare’ of the workers at the lower rungs. In fact, the CTUs’ demand for strict implementation of labour laws is their fundamental issue. Even though workers’ safety has not figured in the agenda of any trade union, and regrettably so, the rather frequent incidence of fire and other workplace accidents exposes the absence of effective governance of industries.
Perhaps, they show the darker side of ease and cost of doing business, and erode the serious legitimacy of reforms arguments by a responsible segment of the industry.
The concern of the CTUs is not only about high and rising unemployment, but perverse employment practices as well. It has been reported that firms have been employing trainees in schemes like National Employability Enhancement Mission (NEEM) during both peaceful and strike periods to do regular work.
In fact, in September 2019, the AICTE had to caution the NEEM agents against the practice of re-routing existing employees as NEEM trainees to avoid statutory provident fund and medical insurance liabilities.
This is akin to the judiciary’s rebuke on the sham practice of engaging contract labour to deny social security and other benefits to workers. The proportion of contract workers in the total workers in the organised factor sector has increased from 13 per cent in 1993-94 to 36 per cent in 2016-17.
The application of minimum wages and other benefits, apart from ‘government employee’ status, has been a long-standing demand of ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) and other government employees.
In a pluralistic and democratic society such as ours, dissent and dialogue need to be accepted and respected. Being a signatory to ILO’s Convention, C144, Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976, the Centre will hopefully hold a meaningful and effective dialogue with the stakeholders at least post the strikes, to craft labour and economic policies that optimally cater to often conflicting interests of the social partners.
Trade unions need to appreciate the concerns of the industry for a genuine need for flexibility as much as the latter need to recognise that low-cost and indecent employment practices are unsustainable.
The writer is professor, XLRI, Xavier School of Management. Views are personal