The ‘recognition’ question in trade union law

KR Shyam Sundar | Updated on: Sep 19, 2018
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Ensuring that trade unions are recognised by central and state ministries is all very well, but that should extend to employers

The trade union movement in India, for various reasons, has been characterised by a multiplicity of unions. Hence, a tripartite national body determines the membership criteria for designating trade union organisations as central trade union organisations (CTUOs). On the basis of this process, certain unions are deemed ‘recognised’.

Trade unions with a verified membership of five lakh spread over at least four States and four industries as on December 31, 2002 were given the status of CTUOs by the Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner (Central). As per the 2002 exercise, currently there are 13 CTUOs. A similar exercise on revised norms as on December 31, 2011 is currently under way.

Since this exercise is based on tripartite consensus and has no statutory backing as such, the Centre proposes to grant statutory recognition to TUs by amending the Trade Unions Act, 1926 (TU Act), so that other central and state ministries take them seriously. The proposed Section 28-A in the TU Act would require the Centre and the States to provide for statutory recognition of trade unions.

However, the move, while being fine in itself, needs to address the principal grievance of trade unions: they wish to be accorded recognition by the employers.

As far as the positives of the proposed move are concerned, the TU Act merely provides for voluntary registration of trade unions, and not for their statutory recognition by employers for collective bargaining purposes.

The latter becomes necessary as employers may not wish to negotiate with a trade union of workers’ choice. This has led to industrial unrest ( deaths of management officials in Pricol to disputes in Maruti Suzuki) and long-drawn legal battles. Despite demands by trade unions and employers, statutory recognition by employers does not exist in the Act.

This is perhaps the most needed reform for an orderly conduct of industrial relations in a firm. In the absence of statutory union recognition and bargaining obligation, any minority union can vitiate industrial relations in a firm either on its own or by connivance with employers.

In a pluralistic democracy such as ours, various pressure groups of workers and employers’ organisations co-exist. The government engages with them to determine policies and laws. As a member of the International Labour Organisation and having ratified Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 in 1978, the government is committed to social dialogue.

Issue galore

This proposed move to amend the TU Act itself raises several issues. Firstly, India having ratified the ILO Convention is bound to “recognise” representative trade unions, anyway (determined voluntarily or otherwise). Secondly, the mention of “other” ministries in the explanatory note to the proposed amendment seems tangential, if not absurd; it completely ignores the serious “allegations and complaints” made by various CTUOs that the Labour Ministry has been carrying out several labour reforms without consulting them. In such a case, why would any other ministry, such as the Ministry of Commerce and Industries take CTUOs seriously, even if they are legally backed?

Thirdly, in a pluralistic democracy good governance demands consultations with all stakeholders. Statutory recognition may not be crucial in itself if there is a consensus on the criteria and the method of recognising representative organisations.

Fourthly, the amendment provides that in the event of any dispute over recognition by the Central or the State governments, it will be decided by an authority, and by means provided by the appropriate government. This is a poor provision, as it leaves the crucial issues to “rules” made under it. Which authority’s adjudication will be acceptable to the erring ministries?

It is not clear as to whether the coverage of disputes will include those arising out of the very process of determining representativeness. For instance, should this be done by membership verification or secret ballot? We know from the past that the CTUOs’ determination process is ridden with conflict.

Fifthly, why is the government not talking about such a process for the employers’ organisations (which also have multiple bodies) who are also stakeholders in social dialogue? Finally, even if all governments decide to conduct secret ballot to determine the representativeness of trade unions the costs of such an exercise will be prohibitive.

Legal reforms to improve representative processes must be backed by genuine socio-economic intent.

The writer is Professor, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur

Published on September 19, 2018

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