The long tri-partite tradition of our country built up by stalwarts representing all the three partners has been shaken by what is happening in many parts of India. It is quite disturbing that both violations and violence are increasing around the national capital city of Delhi in areas like Noida, which is a shame upon the capital city. Manesar model of discontentment is brewing at different parts of the country, which is a matter of concern for all. Blatant violation of labour laws has added fuel to violence and killings of managers in places like Allied Nippon factory, Precol in Coimbatore, Yanam in Puducherry, Assam plantation, etc apart from Manesar. We are witnessing breakdown of labour relations. This is quite unprecedented in the recent history of Indian Industry.
What happened in Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki is a glaring example of how industrial relations can be butchered by discarding all the time tested values built up by our tri-partite tradition. In Manesar, management has been indulging in constant violation of labour laws, unfortunately with the assistance of Government. Contract Labour Law, Equal Remuneration Act, etc. were violated and tri-partite agreement was not implemented by the management. The attempt to form trade union has been thwarted by management and registration has been denied by labour administration. There is meagre number of permanent workers and large number of temporary and contract workers. They were compelled to work with low wages and poor working conditions. Workers were suffering from dictatorial and abusive behaviour of supervisory staff. Management even engaged outside goondas to manhandle protesting workers. Management arbitrarily altered the workload and work rules without consulting trade unions. There was de-recognition of unions and massive dismissal of workers. 500 workers were dismissed en masse without any enquiry. All these are not only violation of labour rights but human rights violations too. Japanese ethos were not followed by Japanese management personnel, once they are in India. Industrial Relations and Human Resources Development Systems were forgotten by the management. Police, labour administration and local administration acted at the command of employers. Even letters of management were served by the Police.
All these have led to the gradual breakdown of tri-partism and collapse of industrial relations in the area. Unrest was breeding among workers especially among the younger workers. Management, Government and Government machineries like Police and Labour administration are equally responsible for escalating workers unrest. The presence of Central trade unions has been marginal in the area. There is total absence of a Government machinery to settle disputes unlike as in other parts of the country. India started bleeding at Noida. Recently again the Government has provoked all the central trade unions by the arrest and detention of its representatives for no reason at Noida. So, is this not a pointer whether the tri-partite mechanism is in the edge of collapse? Are the three partners not serious fora collective effort to restore industrial peace and give a new direction to our tri-partite culture? The role of Government is all the more important. All those leaders still in custody should be released and cases against them be withdrawn forthwith.
But the Government is generally disinterested and lethargic to the concerns of the poor, labourers and peasants. After the reform process started in India in 1990s, the Government was withdrawing from social sectors, banking and other economic sectors (deregulation), Industrial relations, Public Sectors (disinvestment) etc. Government is relaxing controls in essential commodities to help capitalists, but tightens essential services against labour. Both Commerce Ministry and MSME Ministry want exemption of labour laws in NMIZ and small scale sector to provoke trade unions.
The Government has failed to pay sufficient pension to workers contributing to PF for decades together; many of them getting as low as below Rs.100 per month instead of paying at least Rs.3,000. Government also failed to ensure pension and other benefits to workers of the unorganised sector in spite of passing of such a legislation (UOWSS Act, 2008) five years back. Ministry of Labour was forced to moot NFLW (National Floor Level Wages) which is less than Minimum Wages, which denote a pitiable state of affairs of labour in the country. Below Minimum Wage means inhuman or slave wage. Even regarding strike in a small factory, there is mechanism to settle issues; but it is a pity that regarding the National strike held on February 20 and 21 this year, the Government was silent and did not move even a little finger to avoid strike; and only at the last moment when public pressure mounted, did it intervene. All these show the anti-worker attitude of the Government.
Government has shown least respect for the tri-partite decisions of the past ILCs. Many decisions of previous ILCs which are vital for the workers were not seriously followed up by the Government. Years back it was decided that contract workers will be given wages and all benefits on par with regular workers, which was also ratified by the meeting of the State Labour Ministers. Till today the Government has failed to bring a legislation to amend the Contract Labour Act to that end. It is to be remembered that the issue of increasing contractualisation is an explosive issue in the organised sector. Government is joining hands with Shylocks in the country in hunting upon the blood and flesh of contract labour. Our work places and industries have turned to ‘exploitation centres’ in the name of engaging contract labour. ‘Treat us as humans’, has been their request. Unless leaders of Industries and Government seriously intervene at this appropriate juncture, trade unions have no other choice except to launch a long battle against the blatant exploitation.
This time we are discussing the conditions of service of about 25 lakh Anganwadi, ASHA, Mid-day meal and similar workers working under various Government schemes who are the lifeline of India’s development. They are engaged in improving education and health of village India. It is ridiculous to treat them who work for their livelihood as “volunteers”. It is a pity that Government proposes to pay Mid-day meal workers a paltry amount of Rs.1,000 per month. All these scheme workers are mostly women, and by keeping them unrecognised and paying much less than minimum wages, the Government has become the largest exploiter of women in the country. Stop exploitation of Anganwadi and other scheme workers and recognise them as Government employees in line with the decision of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Governments. Sixth Pay Commission with variable DA should be made applicable to them. All benefits like PF, ESI, Gratuity, maternity benefits, retirement, pension, welfare schemes, bonus, holidays, leave and the like should be provided to them. When we discuss about employability, let the aim be to bring the concept of decent job to the world of work as propounded by ILO. Decent work should be our national goal to create quality jobs.
MSMEs are among the largest employment generators in the country, which has been hit hard by the onslaught of globalisation. It is a genuine demand that very small enterprises run many a times by a single person requires simplification and codification of laws for easy handling. But the Government has wrongly presented their case with a controversial start. MSME Ministry wants ‘exemption of labour laws’, labour inspectorate to be replaced ‘self-compliance’ and relaxation of Contract Labour Act, which are issues already in hot debate. What about guarding against rampant exploitation and violation of labour laws or labour rights in that sector? They are aspects which the Trade Unions cannot compromise and had to oppose tooth and nail. So this is a glaring example how, lack of vision will spoil any good attempt.
India has completed two decades of economic reforms and it is time for the Government to come out with a White Paper on its impact on our economy. This year’s Economic Survey has brought out two disturbing facts about India- 1. India has been pushed to third position in terms of the fastest growing countries when Indonesia rose to the second position. 2. The external trade deficit of India had become the highest since 1950. India’s growing economic concerns like high inflation, leaving prices including petroleum prices to market forces, slowing down of economy, farmer suicide, huge current account deficit, job losses, highest external trade deficit, declining exports and increasing imports, greater vulnerability to external shocks due to integration with international market, slow down of industrial and manufacturing sector, widening social and economic disparities, falling domestic savings, etc are due to the wrong economic policies. The corrective proposals are more dangerous which will make the situation worse. For example, FDI, FII and external borrowings are detrimental to our retail sector and India’s economic interests.
Reforms in order to feed the rich, have been burdening the poor villagers, peasants and workers. Present growth is essentially that of urban elites and not of village India. We are moving from Welfare State to Commercial State. Our experience with the previous Free Trade Agreements like that one with ASEAN has to be assessed before we proceed with FTA with European Union. Most of the present Indo-EU FTA clauses are WTO-plus agreements. India has been opposing many of the issues like the Singapore issues at the multilateral WTO; whereas they are being compromised at the bilateral FTAs. Hence the contents of the discussions have to be disclosed to the public before anything moved further.
The anomalous economic trajectory in the country is of converting agricultural lands into industrial land; and converting industrial lands to real estate business. Agriculture, Service, Industry and Manufacturing sectors including SSIs are the four pillars of our economic development. Destroying one for the other displays lack of vision as is explicit in the new law on land acquisition.
(Based on the speech delivered by the author at 45th Session of the Indian Labour Conference in New Delhi on May 17).