Trade Unions Stir Defining ‘inclusive growth’

By Shivaji Sarkar

Trade unions have risen like the Phoenix. In recent history never has an all-India strike been as successful as it was on February 28. Trade unions owing allegiance to various political parties, the Congress, the Left and the Sangh joined hands.
Eleven central trade unions — BMS, INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, AICCTU, UTUC, LPF, SEWA — backed the strike call, supported by 5000 trade union units, posing a major challenge to the Central government, which had asked the unionists to call off the show of strength.
“This is a historic occasion. For the first time all the big trade unions have come together to protest the anti-labour polices of the Government,” stated General Secretaries of the Bharaitya Mazdoor Sangh BN Roy and All India Trade Union Congress’s Gurudas Dasgupta.
Employees of all sectors banking, insurance, road transport, coal, defence, port & docks, steel and many State governments joined the strike. Spectacularly the casual workers of the unorganised sector participated even in rural areas including those in Aasha and Anaganwadis. Additionally, for the first time the strike was total in nothern easter States of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, which have remained away from the mainstream.
The successful strike, joined by millions across the nation testifies that the workers are once again uniting against an oppressive system and unresponsive regime. At the same time, Governments in many States unleashed repressive measures. Delhi’s Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit imposed provisions of ESMA to thwart the strike and also arrested 200 workers. The Haryana police arrested State Road Transport workers at Bhiwani. In Jammu and Kashmir, there were lathicharges and 2000 arrests. In Chhattisgarh, security men of a large private group beat up workers, whereas union activists were arrested in Pondicherry.
The unions’ demands include a national minimum wage, permanent jobs for 50 million contract labourers, end to contract labour, increase the gratuity payout and compulsory registration of trade unions within 45 days, more government efforts to rein in the rising cost of living, and an end to the sale of stakes in profitable public sector companies. The charter of demand called upon the Government and all political parties to take stock of the situation and not view the strike as retrograde. Unfortunately trade unionism, of late, is being viewed as anti-industry and anti-investment, which it clearly isn’t.
On its part, the industry has tried to project that thousands of crore of rupees were lost in the one-day strike, which is not the case. While industries have lost little, the workers have lost a day’s wages amounting to at least Rs 10,000 crore. Besides, the industrialist gained from the savings on various expenses including energy consumption.
However, the strike calls for introspection. Why should the workers willingly lose a day’s wages? They would not do so unless driven to the wall. Inflation, poor quality of jobs and the culture of hire and fire have forced them to strike. Sadly, inclusive growth has become a mere slogan of the Government. Corporate reserves and profits have grown manifold even as public sector bank deposits have become critical and workers marginalised. How can the nation progress if its 60 crore workforce is kept out of the growth process?
Indeed, this is the reality. If the nation’s growth is stunted losing pace every day, it is because the workers have become victims of high inflation, exploitation, low wages, insecurity and are being deprived of sheer purchasing power.
A nation that ignores its workers is destined to lose the growth steam. India has definitely lost that in all sectors, be it infrastructure, core sector, banking or now even the services. The deprived workers troubled by high inflation and low wages are not contributing to the country’s growth.
This apart, the obsession with foreign direct investment (FDI) does not add to growth unless there is consumption. And the workers need to be enabled to consume. This is not happening as the industrialists are smart. They are sitting quiet over their large deposits because they are aware of the fact that their gain is the nation’s loss! Saving on wages both by the Government and industry has led the nation to the most difficult situation. The recession in the West is only partially responsible for it. If a nation ignores its most important capital, people, then it is bound to get mired into a crisis against its wishes.
Take the case of implementation of minimum wages. This is a prerogative of the State governments, but many don’t even have it, forcing the workers in many cases to do without basic survival wages. Likewise, both the industry and the Government often call for labour reforms, but these boil down to further curtailment of their rights and comforts and a regime of hire and fire.
The employers virtually have usurped illegally the right to deny Provident Fund, Gratuity and wage dues. They lay off employees and declare lock outs at will without the requisite statutory permission. Worse, officials of Government ignore the industry lobbyists’ misdeeds and the labour department rarely implements the laws except when it can extort. Hence, trade unionists have rightly called the strike a wake-up call for the Government.
Since 1991, the era of liberalisation has seen massive job cuts, poor quality employment, large deprivation and workers’ families being reduced to below poverty level. It was hoped that after the 2007 Lehman bankruptcy, the Government would at least take drastic action to lead the corporates to follow the correct path. This hasn’t happened. Rather they were rewarded with sops that they didn’t need and only fattening their coffers further.
The February 28 strike is not the end but the beginning of a new era of vibrant trade unionism. European nations like Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, are today seeing a severe backlash from the working class. In the US this class is leading the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. These are loud signals for the Centre and it must act in favour of the working class. The nation needs reforms but not what was planned by Manmohan Singh when he was Finance Minister. Those reforms were neither pro-industry nor pro-worker but pro-corporate.
Today, Singh as Prime Minister expresses concern as the growth pace is slowing down. But if it is genuine then he needs to heed to the strike call and usher in programmes that would create jobs and ensure workers’ happiness. If he fails to listen, whatever growth so far would be a thing of the past and may even slide back to the historic Nehruvian Hindu rate of growth of two per cent! If Singh wants the nation to survive, he must as the first step, accept the demands of the 11 trade unions, it’s the basic minimum.
Growth without happiness is a misnomer. Workers have started uniting and this is the biggest hope. Indeed, they are the biggest stakeholders and could usher in the most necessary change. With their participation, growth could eventually become inclusive. Are the policy planners listening? INFA


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