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Millennium Post

Why the world has its eyes trained on India

Never in the past did the International Labour Organisation do what it is doing now — paying special attention to the two-day strike of 470 million blue and white-collar workers in India on 20 and 21 February. Among the reasons are participation of all central trade unions such as the Indian National Trade Union Congress, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, All India Trade Union Congress, Hind Mazdoor Sabha and Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the five largest TU centres and the worrisome state of industrial relations that aggravated the plight of the toiling masses.

The ILO asked Professor Sharit K Bhowmik, Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Labour Studies, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to write a preview on the ensuing national strike, scheduled to be carried in ILO’s global column.

A distinguished labour sociologist, Dr Bhowmik, highlighted the precarious working conditions of unorganised workers or working people under the category of informal workers who account for 93 per cent of .470 million workers.

‘Over the years there has been a rapid increase in informal employment the pace of which increased after 1991. The trade unions operate mainly among formal sector workers. The informal workers are largely unorganised. There are very few unions that want to unionise these workers. A major exception is the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) the largest union of informal workers.

By the strength of its membership and it spread in different states of the country it has been recognised as a trade union centre. Other trade unions have realised the importance of organising informal labour’.

The TISS academic succinctly observed the refreshing shift in the industrial relations towards an all-out unity of all the central TUs, especially the gravitation of two largest central TUs- INTUC and BMS.

‘In fact, INTUC was the largest trade union at the time when structural adjustment policies were introduced but it remained silent. Similarly when the Bharatiya Janata Party led government was in power, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which became the largest trade union at that time refused to question the policies of the government. There have been a perceptible change during the last few years as INTUC and BMS have decided to join the common front,’ he quipped.

The perspective of the note on the ensuing strike is in sync with the global watchdog on industrial relations on the distress of informal sector, categorically the casual and contract labour, especially in the large corporate sector. Even Unionisation of these workers is tough and they are denied of ‘security of employment and retirement benefits.’

 In an introductory to the preponderance and proliferation of unorganised labour, Dr Bhowmik wrote, ‘Contract labour is not directly employed through the company. They are employees of labour contractors who are appointed by these companies. These workers work alongside the permanent workers are doing exactly the same type of work, but they are paid one-third or less wages paid to permanent workers. Hence it is quite common to find that permanent workers constitute only 30 per cent of the workforce in companies while the rest is through contract labour. Most of the automobile manufacturing companies function in this manner. Offices too have contractors employing security guards and even white collar employees.’

He tells the labour economists and sociologists through the Geneva-based international apex of toilers that wages ‘in the informal sector are not regulated and are very low. And that prepares the rationale for the demand of central TUs for a floor wage of Rs 10,000 , ‘to uplift the conditions of these workers.’ Even this wage level is ‘quite low for urban areas.’

The two-day protestation has assumed a new dimension with the expression of solidarity by the New Trade Union Initiative, the largest TU centre of unorganised workers, especially the fish workers along the entire coastal India. Not attached as a mass front of any political party unlike the unions that gave the call, NTUI made a poignant observation and a blistering criticism of increasing exploitation under the neo-liberal penumbra.

‘At the root of this violent attack lies the principal crisis of sustaining capital’s profitability. Unionised workers mean an increase in union power which, when sustained militantly, translates not just into winning rights to protected jobs and higher wages and benefits but better and safer working conditions, which to an employer only means – cost. It is this cost that capital is unwilling to bear and hence these rights that capital is unwilling to concede.

The violence thus today is increasingly directed at the principal democratic right of workers to form and join unions of their choice. This violence unleashed by capital is with the collusive support of government. Government has conceded capital the ‘right’ to define the economy and has subordinated both existing statute and the government machinery to meet capital’s needs. The government’s concession to capital have been in the form of tax relief, capital subsidy, opening up of public utilities and natural monopolies to the private sector, and the transfer of vast tracts of land for the exploitation of natural resources.

This has opened new areas for corruption, which too has increased to unprecedented levels. But it has done more and much worse. It has undermined the livelihoods of the rural working people, in particular the most marginalised amongst them, the dalits, the adivasis, the religious minorities and of course women.’

Dr Bhowmik, patiently observing the growth and pattern of NTUI, makes a critical remark on the schism and its fall-out of working people. The central TUs that decided to go in for two-day strike in September 2012, were compelled to come together ‘at a time of a major economic crisis to protect the interests of labour. This has not happened now. The irony is that all 11 national centres have increased their membership by three to five times since 2002, but this has not increased the effectiveness of the movement. Invisibility of labour today is mainly because of the infighting among trade unionists. The government and the employers know that such a movement is incapable of challenging its policies on a sustained basis.’

Will the unions convert the togetherness into a determination to stay together and forge an understanding with the NTUI in defence of 470 million oppressed? That’s a trillion dollar question. (IPA)
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