People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
Unitedly Rally To Defeat Anti-Labour Policies
W R Varada Rajan
THE National Assembly of Workers Against Anti-labour Policies, held at the Talkatora indoor stadium, New Delhi on July 15, 2002, heralds yet another phase of decisive action by the working class of our country to defeat the anti-labour policies of the Vajpayee government at the centre.
With the submission of the retrograde report of the Second National Commission on Labour and the prime minister’s unilateral declaration that the government would vigorously pursue the labour reforms agenda, the working class is facing a serious challenge. In this backdrop, the unanimous declaration adopted at the July 15 convention has rightly underlined the gravity of the present situation and the ruthless offensive being launched by the ruling class and the central government. The present phase of the united trade union actions is a step in the right direction to take on the offensive.
With much fanfare the Report of the Second National Commission on Labour was presented to the prime minister on June 29. But what is in store for the crores of labourers in that report is not yet fully known, as the report has not yet been made public. The national print as well as electronic media had carried certain reports, which, though sketchy, reveal that the Commission had earnestly carried out the task mandated to it by the union finance minister in his budget speech in 2001, giving the employers the full liberty to hire and fire and indiscriminately allow contract work in all kinds of jobs.
The Economic Times issue dated July 3, 2002, claiming to have in its possession a copy of the 1470-odd page report of the Commission, gleefully carried a story captioned "Labour panel recommends hire & fire". It observed that the Commission has "given its thumbs up signal to contract labour, ‘hire and fire’ policy and closure of units, subject to safeguards." It further noted: "This endorsement of by the Second National Commission on Labour, albeit qualified, removes a major hurdle in the path of reform".
The Commission outlined measures towards easy closure of units, though bringing down the threshold limit for obtaining government clearance from 1000 workers - proposed in the last budget - to 300, but scaling down the compensation package to a meager 30 days wages per year of service in the case of units reporting ‘sick’. The Commission had liberalised outsourcing – read contracting out – of any job at will by the employers, showering a small ‘mercy’ in the process that retrenched workers be considered for such outsourcing. On the one hand the Commission prefers to exclude ‘highly paid employees’ from the definition of workmen, but on the other it also suggests ‘supervisory personnel, irrespective of wages, be taken out of the purview of labour laws’. It had called for repeal of the Sales Promotion Employees (Conditions of Service) Act and other specific acts in relation to wage fixation. It has also come down heavily on the number of holidays ‘enjoyed’ by government employees. It had also sought to redefine terms like organised sector, workmen and appropriate government, which would only result in dilution of even the extremely limited legal protections, which the labour would be entitled to under the new dispensation. The Commission has also outlined certain parameters for an umbrella legislation for the unorganised sector workers and suggested social security measures, which would be non-starters and at best a cosmetic relief.
The NDA government had made plain its intention to speed up its agenda of labour market reforms. The prime minister’s unilateral announcement just testifies it. Sahib Singh Verma, who assumed charge of the labour ministry in the immediate aftermath of the presentation of the Commission report claimed as early as on July 5 that he had got all the major labour unions round to the view of the government and there should not be much of a problem in getting the critical amendment through. Even after five weeks of the presentation of the report by the Commission, it had not yet been made public even. Yet, the minister boasted as if he had performed the final act expected of him on the subject!
The media has been at its usual job, drumming up support to the ‘labour reforms’. First it highlighted the PM’s promises ‘to juice up labour reforms’. Next, it made light of the dissent by the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour outfit of the sangh parivar, citing the decision of the BMS to pull out from the July 15 National Assembly of Workers as an indication of the softening of its stand on labour reforms. ‘The Economic Times’ (July 13) quoted the BMS president H B Dave as having stated: "things are different now as the government is going about the reforms issue the proper way", which signified ‘a break in the TU ranks’. The same daily the very next day published a story under the caption "INTUC gives in to reforms lobby" noting: "After Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Indian National Trade Union Congress has expressed its willingness to support labour reforms. The development augurs well for legislative support for reform laws in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling National Democratic Alliance has to depend on Opposition to get any law passed." The spokesman of the INTUC, Chandidas Sinha, was over enthusiastic to term the change in BMS stand as ‘smacks of immaturity’ and recalled his president Sanjeeva Reddy having told the prime minister on June 29 – the day the report was presented – that ‘the BMS was taking a grossly unrealistic position on reforms’.
From the other side of the spectrum, the employers’ forum ASSOCHAM had responded that the Labour Commission had not done enough! It complained: "the Second National Commission on Labour has not effectively and squarely dealt with the strategic areas that need labour reforms". It complained that the Commission had overlooked the realities of the competitive environment through which the industry was passing. Its main grouse was that the limit for exemption under the Industrial Disputes Act was not kept at 1000 as decided earlier by the Vajpayee cabinet. That would have freed the employer class from any obligation to seek government clearance in respect of over 96 per cent of the establishments in the country and confined whatever protective arm of the law that exists to less than 4 per cent of the workforce.
Prem Shankar Jha, writing in "The Hindu" (July 9) commented: "If … labour leaders continue to oppose freeing the labour market, it is because in the present state of the economy the short-term costs, far outweigh the long-term benefits. In a nutshell, when industrial growth has been halting for six years and has, to all intents and purposes, stopped during the past 16 months, and when corporate profits have dropped by over 40 per cent in six months, the slightest freeing of the labour market will see such an avalanche of retrenchment that it could easily sweep the political system away."
It is in this background that the entire trade union movement, barring the BMS, but including the INTUC and scores of unions and federations, which are not affiliated to the Central Trade Unions, came together on July 15. The very fact that such a unique representative forum put the government and the employer class on notice that their attempt to tinker with the labour laws to usher in hire and fire regime shall not be countenanced by the workers of the country is significant in itself.
The all round decline in the economy is causing serious concern to all. Overflowing godowns with foodgrains, side by side with starvation deaths in many parts of the country testify to the utter failure of the faulty economic policy. Privatisation is being carried on recklessly handing over the profit making and asset-rich PSUs to private hands virtually for a song. Every such deal has turned out to be stinking scam. Many public services in the field of education, health, electricity, municipal services etc are being privatised, resulting in higher burdens for the people and loss of jobs to millions of employees. Import has completely been liberalised, opening the floodgates for massive dumping of foreign products in all sectors, resulting in marginalisation of many domestic industries, including agriculture, agro-based units and traditional industries, aggravating sickness and closures. Unemployment is soaring in magnitude and the situation is getting further aggravated owing to pursuit of thoughtless downsizing of workforce across the sectors.
It is in such a grave situation, a virtual war is being mounted against labour. Even before ‘reforming’ the labour laws, the enforcement of existing labour laws is being deliberately cast aside through administrative directives, showing indulgence to the employers violating all labour laws related to wages, working hours, safety etc, at their will. If the frantic moves afoot to amend the labour laws to curb trade union rights, allow the employers to hire and fire at their will and contractorise the entire workforce, ignoring the opposition of the entire trade union movement are allowed to pass, labour in this country will be reduced to mere slaves. The hard earned rights of the workers have been targeted for attack, unmindful of the disastrous impact of the reforms policies on the livelihood of the working class and the poor masses throughout the country.
The working people have taken a timely decision to say an emphatic no to the affronts thrown at them. Now, it is for the trade unions cutting across affiliations to take the message to all the masses and rouse them to unitedly rally to defeat the impending offensives.