Haunted by the same old problems

KR Shyam Sundar | Updated on: Apr 30, 2018
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As the issues labour faces today have a resonance with the past, it’s important to learn from history

April 27, 1918 was an historic day in the annals of the labour movement in India as the first trade union as is commonly understood was formed. After months of meetings, both private and public, the Madras Labour Union (MLU) was formed on that day. What is interesting and a little disturbing is that despite the passage of the Trade Unions Act, 1926 and a string of labour laws in the post-Independence period, workers and trade unions today are facing challenges similar to that of the colonial era. While the labour movement and the larger society should celebrate the historic occasion of the formation of the MLU, this should also serve as a moment for introspection for all those who believe in and cherish the values of democracy, pluralism, constitutional rights, and decent society.

The making of MLU

Veeraraghavan, in his book The Making of the Madras Working Class (Leftword, 2013), describes the terrible conditions of workers employed in the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills (which was closed in 1996).

A worker who was denied permission to answer an urgent call of nature defecated at the work spot itself. Lunch breaks were “few minutes for food” and scenes of workers swallowing a few morsels and running back to the shops lest the huge mill gates were shut were normal.

This was tough because workers worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tensions prevailed between workers and their European masters at the mill and in November 1918 some European officials were assaulted by workers in MLU. Ill-treatment of workers by management was very much the norm. European management used threats, suspensions, vindictive lockouts, police interventions to dissuade workers from joining unions and it also used the good offices of the Governor of Madras to moderate and even snuff out union and its activities.

The colonial response

The State used every ploy to weaken the union movement seeing it more as a “law and order” issue rather than genuine aspirations of the working class. Emergency laws and regulations like Defence of India Act were used to quell strikes and agitations.

Workers sought out the help of “public figures” so that their movement would gain significance. Humanitarians, political parties including Congress and the Justice party competed among themselves to organise workers.

The print media, with a few exceptions, did not take kindly to the workers’ movement.

Innovative methods of reaching out to workers through Sabhas (where religious and mythological discourses were made) were also used.

Hostility at the workplace led to these strategies which have huge relevance to modern day dilemmas of organising workers. Much of the energies of the working class were spent on “preserving” trade unions.

Conflicts between labour and capital those days were not mere shop floor scuffles, they had a larger political salience – as they were embedded in imperialism, class consciousness, and larger political goals. Labour historians such as Sukomal Sen, Veeraraghavan and leading advocates like Sanjay Singhvi have noted the influence of global forces in the formation of trade unions especially MLU — the Russian Revolution, British Labour Party’s influence, the establishment of International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Communist conclaves happening since mid-19th Century, etc.

As Sanjay Singhvi notes in his recent article, “Changes in Labour Laws: Lessons from History!”, the industrial dispute in B & C Mills in 1921, which lasted for six months, led to a civil suit in the Madras High Court against the leaders of MLU.

The Court in the absence of industrial law protecting trade union rights and heeding the charges by management of criminal conspiracy against the Mills awarded damages to the tune of ₹7 lakhs (which was not a small sum those days) or imprisonment of union leaders in lieu of it!

This shocked India and even the colonial Britain.

The changing scenario

Eventually the Trade Unions Act was passed in 1926 which among others legalised trade unions and provided immunity to trade union leaders and members from civil and criminal conspiracy in pursuit of legitimate trade union activities.

Post-Independence India has built an impressive array of labour rights via labour regulatory institutions as befitting a democratic and pluralistic society.

But globalisation has thrown up new challenges for the labour movement today, which have a resonance in history.

Under the ‘neo-liberal’ policies adopted by successive governments since 1991, which focus on attracting industrial investments both domestic and foreign, workers’ rights and trade unions have come under increasing pressure. Companies investing in India prefer a pliant work force and often take a dim view of trade unions.

The challenges today

There have been reports of companies adopting vindictive HR policies affecting workers’ rights.

There are also reports of tough work conditions including scant time for lunch and stringent control of wash room time, 9-10 hours of total shop-floor time, which have provoked strikes and on occasions even violence from the workers.

What these accounts firmly convey is that a labour regulation regime that seeks to placate capital often at the expense of labour rights will invite tremendous labour unrest which will not benefit any stakeholder, least of all the ruling classes.

It is a pity that potential HR managers in the B-Schools neither read nor are they taught history as lessons from history are vital for harmonious worker-management relations.

The writer is Professor, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur

Published on April 30, 2018

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