The fact that the recent one-day strike called by 10 labour unions took place nearly a year after labour reforms had been set into motion by the central government makes the point clear that the labour movement in India is on the backfoot. Nevertheless, when 150 million workers went on strike on Wednesday, their move met with some success.
The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which claims to have the second-highest number of workers as members, withdrew from the strike, although it was opposed to the labour reform announcements last year. However, this did not have much of an impact anywhere, not even in the transport sector, where the union is said to have substantial support.
Elsewhere too, at the Mumbai port, for instance, the strike was almost total, proving that despite its shrinking space in the overall socio-political discourse, the labour movement has not entirely lost its original domain.
The main criticism of unions in India has been that they have stood in the way of greater reforms and, therefore, job creation through their insistence on opposing amendments to restrictive laws. Part of this may well be valid. For example, in some industries whose production is seasonal in nature, it makes much sense to hire people on contract. However, our laws prohibit contract hiring in them and it is this that labour unions do not want changed.
Unions would not like any hiring under contract labour laws where work is ‘perennial’ in nature. But this is just one side of the picture. On a closer reading it can be stressed that labour laws need to exist for small-scale units though this has not happened so far.
For example, last year it had been notified that units hiring up to 40 workers were exempt from laws such as the Industrial Disputes Act and the Factories Act. It is workers in these units who are most vulnerable.
Then, a study by a Mumbai-based publication has revealed that labour inspections have drastically diminished over the past 25 years and so has the number of labour inspectors. Hence industry’s lingering fear of the ‘inspector raj’ is somewhat unfounded.
The most dangerous thing in the history of India’s labour movement is the streak of militancy in it. This is been amply demonstrated in the past, the killing of a Maruti executive in 2012 being just one of the recent examples. And the obverse of this heinous incident is the tragedy of nearly 150 people languishing in jail just on suspicion that they were involved in the crime.
Labour must understand industry’s requirements, while managements should realise that keeping labour welfare intact makes economic sense in the long run.