Pitfalls in contract labour
It is argued that when the government has permitted fixed-term contract work, then why regularise
Is it possible to overturn the seven-decade-old regime of industrial relations in a democracy like India by stealth? Without much debate and by making the existing labour laws irrelevant without passing any new law? Unbelievable but true! This is precisely what the government did on March 20, 2018 when it extended fixed-term employment to all sectors.
In October 2016, the government amended the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Central Rules, 1946 through an executive order to allow companies in the textile and apparel industries to hire fixed-term contract workers. On March 20, 2018, in a less noticed and less publicised move, this was extended this to all sectors of the economy. Through this, the government enabled employers to sidestep even the minimum protection—though not full-fledged job security—offered by the Factories Act 1948, Industrial Disputes Act 1947, and Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970.
Similarly, the government notified a scheme NEEM (National Employment Enhancement Mission) for employing apprentices and trainees bypassing even some minimum facilities offered by the Apprenticeship Act 1961. But these new controversial policies of Modi government have backfired by triggering a virtual mini-strike wave now in Oragadam-Sriperumpudur industrial belt in Chennai.
Muthukumar, one of the Secretaries of Tamil Nadu CITU and a key leader of the Yamaha workers' union, says that their struggle was against these new policies. According to him, the proximate causes in each case might be different, like non-recognition of trade unions and not inviting the union for collective bargaining talks for wage increase etc. For instance, in Yamaha, there are 814 permanent workers but there are 2,000 temps working as contract workers and apprentices. While the permanent workers are earning up to Rs.30,000, the temps are paid a maximum of Rs.9,000 for the same work. When they formed the CITU union to fight against this wage discrimination and for regularising the temps, two office-bearers were dismissed and goons were sent to the houses of 8 others to threaten them to withdraw from the union. So they went on a flash strike.
The argument of the management is that when the government has permitted fixed-term contract work, why they should regularise. Out of 6,000 striking workers of Royal Enfield, which has now been taken over by Eicher Motors, now in partnership with Volvo Motors of Sweden and Polaris of USA, 1,000 workers are NEEM trainees and the management is threatening to dismiss them. When 150 trainees in Myoung Shin were terminated during a wage demand, the workers went on a strike and instead of regularising the trainees and bringing up their salaries at par with permanent workers the management wants them to become NEEM workers."So upon closer scrutiny we find that temp employment, now justified by fixed-term employment and NEEM policy, is at the root of the workers' rebellion", Muthukumar added.
Professor Babu Mathew of National Law School of India University, Bangalore, says, "Though the labour laws do not prohibit fixed-term employment, the courts time and again have checked their misuse and allowed it only in seasonal activities and even the Supreme Court has ruled that a fixed-term contract worker who had worked for 7 years should be regularised. The trade unions should have challenged the 2016 amendment itself allowing generalised fixed-term employment in textiles in the court and now the Oragadam struggles offer them a good opportunity to challenge the 2018 decision to extend it to all industries. Especially so in Tamil Nadu where unlike in other states the Tamil Nadu Industrial Establishments (Conferment of Permanent Status to Workmen) Act, 1981 clearly says that a worker who has completed 480 days of work over two successive years should be made permanent."
Likewise, the legality of NEEM is also in question. In PMP Textiles case the Madras High Court ruled that the status of a worker should be decided on the basis of the work he/she is actually doing and not by formal designations and in a recent PIL on June 30, 2018, sent notice to the Tamil Nadu government to frame policies on apprentices and limited the share of apprentices to 20 per cent of the total workforce. In another case, where the entire workforce comprised only apprentices, the Supreme Court itself ruled that it was an unfair labour practice.
Even before a legal challenge could be mounted to scrap these anti-worker policies, the workers have mounted a challenge on the battlefield. Muthukumar says "Madras Oragadam workers have shown the way by starting the resistance against Modi's policies and the voice of Oragadam workers would soon reverberate in all the industrial belts in the country".
India might have turned into the fifth largest producer of automobiles in the world with almost all major auto MNCs operating here but they actually resemble sweatshops. If we closely examine the struggles of Honda Motors workers in 2005, which was brutally attacked, and the gory violence in Maruti-Suzuki in 2012 in Gurgaon-Manesar, the militant outburst by Toyota workers in Bidadi near Bangalore in 2001, the repeated struggles of Hyundai workers in 2012 and 2016 in Sriperumpudur, the Mahindra & Mahindra struggle in 2009 and the struggles of Bajaj Auto workers in 2017, of the 6,000 workers of Renault-Nissan in the same Oragadam in 2016, the Chennai Ford Motors struggle in 2012, the General Motors struggle in 2017 in Halol, Gujarat, and the struggles of Tata Motors workers in Jamshedpur in 2017, in Dharwad, Karnataka and in Sanad, Gujarat in 2016 and the struggles in several auto component units like Graziano, Pricol, Pico Auto and Bosch in recent years, we find common issues of non-recognition of trade unions, illegal employment of temps far outnumbering regular workers and paying them very low wages. The struggles of Yamaha-Enfield-Myoung Shin workers constitute a new chapter in this unending saga of stiff resistance against MNC venality.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)