K R Shyam Sundar

Constitute an advisory board comprising CTUOs’ representatives, legal minds, academics, and political leaders. Chalk out a detailed plan of clauses to be removed or amended, to serve both industrial and labor interests. Prepare a detailed memorandum and call an all-party meeting involving all the trade unions.

THIS is another May Day occurring in unusual circumstances as the threat of COVID-19, though weakened, prevails. The outbreak of the pandemic in China with such virulence and spread demonstrates the possibility of its re-occurrence in the near future in India. Apart from this, India is witnessing stubbornly higher unemployment, even as the economic activity, including that concerning the urban informal sector, has been fast normalizing.

It only shows the supply side and demand side bottlenecks which the government has not been able to identify and address. Even the curative form of the temporary National Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, demanded widely by all cutting across the ideological spectrums, has not been granted by the government.

The government has successfully sold Air India on easy terms, according to some sources, to the Tatas. The government has announced an initial public offering [IPO] of 3.5 per cent of the LIC’s holdings, which is touted to be the grandmother of all IPOs that India has ever witnessed, even though analysts agree that even now is not a propitious time for the launch of the IPO. The government is keen to demonstrate its pro-reform image and also to garner such resources as it can to salvage its fiscal status, as the proposed disinvestments did not clinch during 2021-22 fiscal year.

The government is simply not listening to the demands of the CTUOs, and trade unions’ voices are not powerful enough to cause even a marginal change in the last several years.

To sum it up, May Day 2022 is occurring in a difficult period and unhelpful context for labour. The working class of India, and the trade unions and workers’ organisations in India are not in any envious position.

On the other hand, the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] government at the Centre, and several state governments belonging to multiple parties have carried out critical labor law reforms.

But what can they do, given these realities are going to persist, and perhaps even strengthen, during the neoliberal times such as those we are helplessly witnessing today?

Table: Demands of the Central Trade Union Organisations [CTUOs]

SerialNos.DemandsHow old or new?Remarks
1Scrap the four Labour Codes and the Essential Defence Services Act [EDSA].Semi-oldLabour law reforms have been the central demand, and EDSA is the new version of old demand.
2Accept the six-point charter of demands of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha.NewSolidarity demand.
3Abandon all privatisation, and scrap the National Monetisation Pipeline [NMP].Old/NewNMP is new.
4Provide income support of Rs.7,500 per month to all non-income tax-paying families.Direct Benefit Transfer [DBT] is new.Involves the political class.
5Increase allocation for MGNREGA and extend employment guarantee programme to urban areas.NewInvolves the political class.
6Provide universal social security for all informal sector workersOldGet the Codes reworked.
7Provide statutory minimum wages and social security cover for Anganwadi, ASHA, mid-day meal and other scheme workers.OldDirect action, social dialogue and political action.
8Provide full protection and insurance cover for frontline workers serving the people in the midst of the pandemic.OutmodedMust be removed as the government and the judiciary are doing their bit and COVID is weakening; better demands suiting the working class must be substituted.
9Increase public investment in agriculture, education, health and other crucial public services by raising resources from higher taxation of the rich in order to revive and revamp the economy.OldInvolves the political class.
10Substantially reduce central excise duty on petroleum products and take concrete steps to arrest price rise.NewInvolves the political class.
11Regularise all contract workers and scheme workers, and ensure equal pay for equal work for all.OldWorks at the firm level.
12Cancel the New Pension Scheme and restore the old scheme; increase minimum pension under the Employees’ Pension Scheme.OldSome state governments like Madhya Pradesh are issuing the old pension scheme.

Need for critical review of the demands

My first point of contention is to review the demands critically. As we can see from the table above, several have been continuing for decades. They reflect two aspects: the government is simply not listening to the demands of the CTUOs, and trade unions’ voices are not powerful enough to cause even a marginal change in the last several years.

I must hasten to add a note here: due to the prevalence of labor-sympathetic in the government and the power of the trade unions’ voices in the initial stages of globalization, the Union Government kept several of its reform programs in abeyance. For instance, disinvestment was born as a way out of the struggles against privatization. The union government, including the NDA in its first avatar, did not carry out the key labor law reforms for a long time. The first NDA government sought to create intellectual and policy legitimacy by forming several bodies, including the Second National Commission on Labour in 1999. Having said that, the political economy of reforms needs to be understood.

Symbolic agitations are utterly useless and even counter-productive. They may provide reasons for chest-thumping exercises for trade unions, but nothing more.

The key argument of the organized sector workforce and mainstream trade unions is that they excluded the vast majority of the unorganized workers – figures of 90-93 per cent did the rounds – and the government should reallocate its resources, including legal, to these workers, and provide the much-needed flexibility to the employers, which would also weaken the bargaining power of the trade unions.

The Constitution provided the way out as Labor is on the Concurrent List, which means the state governments and the Centre can make laws on the same subject. The regional governments initially carried out the reforms of the labor inspection system and then carried out the key labor law reforms such as the amendment of Chapter VB of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947  to change the threshold from 100 to 300 to afford flexibility to a larger proportion of firms and workers covered by them, changing the threshold of the Factories Act, 1948 from 10 to 20 (with power) and 20 to 40 (without power), and changing the threshold of the Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 from 20 to 50.

The Union Labor Ministers simply parroted that it is the prerogative of the state governments to carry out the reforms that they want, given the Constitutional nature of labor laws. The CTUOs, despite crucial reminders from academics of the potentially dangerous nature of these kinds of strategies, concentrated on the national laws.

The argument here is that the CTUOs patted themselves, though wrongly, as we have seen above, their struggles strident, though they have been outsmarted by the political and the bureaucratic class. Let us take the demand for repeal of labor codes. Are the trade unions and the working class movements serious about the achievability of this demand? It is common knowledge that when the trade unions make their demands, they often are caught up between idealism and pragmatism, and settle for pragmatism as a negotiation strategy. Did they really seriously hope to have the Labor Codes repealed by their one-day or two-day strikes? Then they are sadly and even tragically mistaken.

The farmers waged a sustained struggle for months and employed various struggle tactics, including securing social legitimacy, and got the farm laws repealed. One is unsure what prevents the NDA government from re-legislating them after 2024 if they came back to power with equal or even a slightly less mandate than they have now? I think is it is a temporary political truce, and the farm reforms are not out of the reform basket of the NDA government.

Before the trade union movement, what were the strategies to have the four labour codes repealed? Direct action for a longer time to hurt the government, social dialogue, political action, legal action and international action. Social dialogue is ruled out as we all know that this or the earlier governments did not and do not resort to meaningful and effective social dialogue.

I have my own doubts whether some of the CTUOs closed the doors of dialogue by their total blockage of any kind of reforms. Social dialogue, like collective bargaining, is done in good faith, that is, the parties go to the dialogue table with a serious and sincere view or stance to secure some kind of agreement – this means give and take. I have reason to believe that some CTUOs, or all of them, probably did not send the right kind of signals.

International action is ruled out as many unions do not want to “wash the national linen in global contexts” – understandable patriotism. To be sure, India is one of the countries which sparsely used the complaint mechanisms of the International Labor Organization.

Direct action of the kind that the farmers waged is not possible by the industrial working class. Of course, a careful study of history and various militant movements like syndicalism would give the trade unions some way out of this direct action impasse. Symbolic agitations are utterly useless and even counter-productive. They may provide reasons for chest-thumping exercises for trade unions, but nothing more.

Then what are we left with? Political action. This is the deficit of the trade union movement. Several of the issues like direct benefit transfer, urban employment scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or investment in education, and so on, demand that the opposition political class willingly participates. There is a mutually reinforcing synergy between the two institutions which needs to be exploited. Why should trade unions ride these horses solely? To be sure, it shows the encompassing nature of the labor movement. But better results can be won by alliances with the political movement. Keep these issues out of pure industrial actions like those waged then and now.

Trade unions still are smarting from the wounds of the Supreme Court’s SAIL judgment of 2001 and the Umadevi judgement of 2006, and have adopted a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ attitude towards the judiciary. Now let us make simple objective analyses. The CTUOs contend that if the judiciary gives a judgment which is against the working class interests, then the position is immutable. Agreed. Now let us take the position of the Codes. What is there for the CTUOs to lose? The Labor Codes have been enacted constitutionally by the Parliament. The Bills were referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee [PSC]; it is another matter that the government ignored the PSC’s recommendations.

There are two serious issues here. The Wage Code and the Industrial Relations Code contained clauses which were not included in the original bills referred to the PSC for scrutiny, and for stakeholders to make their submissions. This is possibly a serious violation of Parliamentary law-making procedure, which could have been exploited by the CTUOs. Another is that why did the government ignore many of the invaluable suggestions/recommendations made by the PSC? Is this an empty formality to be complied with?

Finally, the CTUOs have not exploited the possibility of challenging the four labor codes in court. They could argue that if the judiciary throws their petition out or rules that they are constitutionally fine, nothing can be done. In any case, these are laws, right? So what is the loss in waging a legal battle? There are brilliant legal minds and academics that they could have availed of in their struggles. The point is that the trade unions wish to ride their horses in isolation. If there are views which are favorable to them, pat the writers and or else lambast them. So, legal action is cost-neutral.

Workplace safety has not even entered the lexicon of working classes’ struggles, despite rampant industrial accidents.

There is one more possibility of a political action. Constitute an advisory board comprising CTUOs’ representatives, legal minds, academics, and political leaders. Chalk out a detailed plan of clauses to be removed or amended, to serve both industrial and labor interests. Prepare a detailed memorandum and call an all-party meeting involving all the trade unions, including the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh [BMS]. If the BMS wishes to convey to its rank and file, and the society at large that it is first and foremost a working-class organization before serving its political masters, then it has to be on the board.

Even the employers are not happy with some of the provisions of the Codes, like the definition of wages in the Wage Code. So they would be keen to have the Codes redrafted.

In the forthcoming Parliamentary sessions, let the political class move amendments, and let there be a political consensus and slugfest. At least the ensuing drafts Codes will be better off than what we have now.

Need for a brisk, brief and legitimate struggle agenda: unachieved labour market dreams

As I argued above, many of the demands can be dealt with differently. The 12-point demands outlined in the table surely make the trade union movement socially sensitive and inclusive. But in terms of achieving immediate goals, they are all over the place.

There are four labour market dreams that remain unachieved even after 75 years of political independence. They are:

  • Universal and achievable effective minimum wages for all workers.
  • Universal and effective rights-based social security (including unemployment allowance).
  • A safe working place, and right to livelihood.
  • Effective implementation of labour laws.

There would be no two views on the above remaining largely unfulfilled. In fact, workplace safety (occupational safety and health [OSH]) has not even entered the lexicon of working classes’ struggles, despite rampant industrial accidents. Safe-in-India, an organization focusing on OSH in factories across India, has brought out three reports called CRUSHED since 2019, which paint a dismal picture of OSH in the auto sector. We don’t even have adequate statistics on all industrial accidents.

Any genuinely placed profit-maximising firm would automatically grant these four demands as they would be building blocks for critical thinking, minimum efficiency-enhancing businesses.

Let the trade union movement wage a multi-pronged and sustained battle to secure these four basic demands which remain as labor market dreams. I challenge that no one in the press in their right mind would ever rebut the validity of these demands. In fact, the neo-classical theory or the neoliberal perspective would say that these do not even need government action. Any genuinely placed profit-maximizing firm would automatically grant them as they would be building blocks for critical thinking, minimum efficiency-enhancing businesses (along with efficiency wages).

Let any government go on the floor and say that these have been attained in India!

The point is the trade unions need to think out of the box – to use the B-School phrase. Anyway, we are living in a neoliberal world, and it does no harm to borrow from capitalists to hang them, as Russian revolutionary Lenin said. To be sure, this is an extreme version of the point that social partnership and labor militancy can co-exist in a neoliberal world. Back to basics, comrades and friends and others!

First published in The Leaflet ‘In pursuit of labor market dreams: Need for new and pragmatic thinking’ on May 1,2022.

About the author

KR Shyamsundar

Prof K R Shyam Sundar, Visiting Professor, HRM Area, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur and Visiting Professor at IMPRI.