A series of strikes – mostly by bank and railway employees – speak poorly of India's labour laws that haven't kept pace with country's changing political economy
Trithesh Nandan | March 3, 2014
The straws wafting in the wind indicate that the second edition of the UPA government may well end its tenure besieged by strikes. If the trade unions and employee organisations play true to script, workers from railways, banks and universities putting down their tools and pens is a very real picture.
The first of these strikes took place on January 4, when members of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA) stood on their feet throughout the day at the university’s North Campus to show solidarity with the security guards who have been told to keep standing throughout their working hours.
Social scientists and historians say strikes are a symptom of a more deep-rooted malaise underlying India’s socio-economic system. The last 20-odd years have seen a massive ‘informalisation’ of labour in the organised sector – two-thirds of government employees work on contract. Exacerbating the crisis are the antiquated labour laws that haven’t kept pace with India’s changing political economy. Social scientists call this new class of contractual and casual workers ‘Precariat’, a conceptual derivative of a combination of proletariat and precarious. The travails of this burgeoning section of Indian society are attracting support from formally secure workers, as seen by the solidarity shown by teachers of Delhi University with the security guards.
“There is a rising trend of support from the formal sector for workers with practically no bargaining rights,” says Prabhu Mohapatra, an associate professor in Delhi University who has been studying the phenomenon of strikes for close to two decades. “The strike of contractual workers in Maruti’s Manesar (Haryana) plant in 2012, the Honda factory strike, the two-day all-India strike by all trade unions in February 2013 and an increasing number of public sector bank shutdowns clearly show that the formal sector is now demanding greater protection for contractual workers.”
He adds, “The unions are now demanding a minimum pay for contract employees.”
In the Maruti strike, for instance, both permanent and casual employees went on strike, demanding that workers whose contracts were terminated be taken back. In December 2013, leaders of 11 central trade unions met prime minister Manmohan Singh after a massive show of strength in New Delhi. In their charter of demands they wanted minimum wage to be fixed at '10,000 per month for all workers. And yes, this included the contractual and casual employees too.
In January, guest teachers and DTC workers went on strike demanding regularisation of their services. Both called off their strike after a positive response from the Delhi government. Early February, wholesale vegetable and fruits vendor went on a strike in Delhi but called it off within hours after assurances from the government.
Mohapatra says India could see a revival of strikes, which had seen a steady and sharp decline in the last two decades. The government depends heavily on nearly one million public sector bank staff and 1.3 million railway employees to keep its wheels moving. Evidently, both sections are getting increasingly restive.
While December 18 was a one-day strike by bank employees, the unions upped the ante and went on a 48-hour strike in February – from 6 am on February 10 till 6 am February 12. With February 9 being a Sunday, services such as cheque clearances and cash transactions at branches across the country were affected for three days. The strike impacted those who visit branches – to deposit cash and cheques and buy demand drafts, among others.
The United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), a conglomeration of all nine bank employees’ and officers’ unions representing one million staff, issued the strike call. They blamed the IBA and the government for this step.
In December, when bank employees went on a daylong strike, the IBA offered a 5-percent hike in wages. Pointing out the runaway inflation and price rise over the last three years, JP Sharma, vice-president of All-India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), says, “It was a meagre hike offered by IBA and was not acceptable to all unions.”
The unions had demanded a 30-percent salary hike. “In December, bank strike affected normal operations across the country. That was a warning to the government,” says BP Mamgain, general secretary, State Bank of India Staff Association.
Wages have been due for revision since November 1, 2012. In the last 14 months, eight rounds of bipartite discussions have taken place between bank unions and IBA, the management body, but to no avail. The government first offered a 5-percent hike and faced with the strike call revised it to 9.5 percent. And just before the February strike, the hike was re-revised to 10 percent.
“After negotiating for one year if you start with just 5 percent and then twice revise the offer to 10 percent, you (the government) are definitely not serious about employees’ demands,” says DD Rustogi of AIBEA. “Nobody wants a strike and cripple the economy but when the going gets tough you have to take tough measures against the government’s delaying tactics.”
A railway strike is not common in India. The last time railwaymen went on strike was in the summer of 1974 under the fiery leadership of George Fernandes. The strike lasted for 19 days before it was crushed by the Indira Gandhi government and thousands of railwaymen lost their jobs.
After almost 40 years, the discontent is brewing alarmingly close to an angry boil. In March, two railway unions might decide to go on strike. The first sign was seen when the All-India Federation of Railwaymen (AIRF), the largest railway union, went for vote on a strike in December – just the third in four decades. An overwhelming majority – 96.6 percent – of members voted in favour of an indefinite strike if their demands are not fulfilled.
“The fact that railway employees went for a strike ballot is significant,” says Mohapatra of Delhi University. He sees a historical connection: “High inflation is a big trigger for both railway and bank workers. 1973 and 1974 were beset with high inflation, and one can see a similar situation emerging in the last three years.”
For the proposed strike in March, AIRF general secretary Shiva Gopal Mishra says, “We are still consulting with our employees for appropriate dates.”
Formed in 1924 and touted as the oldest union that claims to have the largest membership base among railway workers, AIRF has a comprehensive list of 36 demands. It also has an illustrious pedigree with former president VV Giri having been its general secretary and George Fernandes its president. The AIRF is affiliated to Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) and formally independent of political leanings.
Another railway employees union, the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), also conducted a strike ballot on January 17 and 18. “The main purpose of it was to elicit views of employees and take a decision towards launching an indefinite strike. Our first priority, though, is a negotiated settlement with the government. The railwaymen are disappointed with the sixth pay commission,” says NFIR general secretary M Raghavaiah. Formed in 1951, NFIR is associated with the Congress-affiliated Indian Trade Union Congress (INTUC).
“The government has not agreed to the demands made in 2010, when the last bipartite negotiations with the railway board took place,” AIRF’s Mishra says.
A joint consultative committee was appointed by the railways ministry in 2011 to resolve employee problems. “The committee submitted its report to the railway board in 2012 but the recommendations are far from satisfactory,” he says.
The railway unions, their leaders say, are protesting against these anomalies since 2008. “Our issues are offshoots of the sixth pay commission,” Raghavaiah points out.
Both unions have blamed the finance ministry for not adhering to their demands. The then railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal had written to finance minister P Chidambaram to accept the proposals. “But the finance minister wrote back saying similar demands will come up from other ministries if the proposals are accepted,” says Raghavaiah.
The unions have opened a channel of communication with the government but at the same time they are preparing the ground for an all-India strike. “Strikes should be used as the last resort when all options are exhausted. Internationally, the best strike is considered one that is called off or settled one hour before it is due to start,” says Mahendra Sharma, regional secretary for the Asia Pacific region of International Transport Workers’ Federation.
(This article appeared in February 16-28 issue of the magazine.)
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