Indian workers are lucky in the sense that they are not yet
under the sway of Maoists otherwise the authorities would have utilised the
notorious Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against them for resorting to legal strike. There are so many devices, some legal, some not-so legal, to curb labour militancy and yet they need more specific laws to bash labour. Perhaps they need an industrial culture of Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ in the 21st century to keep their growth engine going, albeit it is next to impossible for India’s satellite corporate tycoons who are tied to global players as junior partners in a number of ways, to bypass the fall-out of continuing downturn in world economy. No doubt the captains of industry are jubilant to see one of the most industrially advanced states—Maharashtra—banning strikes in government and semi-government establishments, hospitals, the transport industry and the corporate sector because they think these services are all essential in nature. The Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act (MESMA) 2011, that has got the statutory assent of the President, is aimed at terrorising workers and employees, even in big units, not to speak of medium-sized industrial ventures.
In truth defining—or redefining essential service is puzzling because any service can be declared as essential. The reason is simple : people depend on most government services directly or indirectly. The ESMA syndrome is back and it is a now a matter of time that other states and the Centre as well will take the cue from the state government of Maharashtra though Kerala and Rajasthan have already in their possession the stringent laws to ban strike.
Banning Bandh is one thing but banning strike, a universally recognised right of the workers is quite another. They want to perpetuate an emergency like situation, as if India is at war with one of its neighbours, to take back what organised labour movement has achieved over the years after so many sacrifices.
Not that labour in contemporary India is on the offensive. Nor is labour militancy that sometimes takes ugly turn as it happened recently in Maruti’s Manesar plant, a regular phenomenon. Gherao is a thing of the past. In all the industrially advanced states, employers are concerned about global recession, not labour unrest. Ever since the advent of neo-liberalism in the nineties de-unionisation, not unionisation, has been the major trend. If today Air India pilots are agitating for regular disbursement of salary and entitlement to statutory social benefits, it is because the crisis is so deep-rooted that even the high-salaried employees feel insecure, they are unsafe in the leaky growth boat of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government. But pilots and other employees in the civil aviation sector are victims of a grand conspiracy to cripple Air India deliberately. They have long been trying to dismantle the public carriers in collusion with the private operators. The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines in 2007 was a planned move to destroy this state sector bit by bit, beyond repair. In July 2009 the All India Airlines Retired Personnel Association accused the then Civil Aviation minister, ‘of having singlehandedly and systematically stripped the two national carriers—AI and IA—and brought them to the brink of bankruptcy by a series of well planned out manoeuvres’! And now their employees, including high salaried pilots are not getting their monthly wages.
How the civil aviation authorities withdrew from profitable routes while running flights on loss-making routes only, speaks volumes about what neo-liberalism means. The purpose is to pamper private investment at any cost, even at the cost of national interests. Employees in the aviation industry are paying the price for inefficiency of their employers, be it public or private. Now they are being shown the stick of ‘illegal strike’ in essential service.
Given the runaway inflation demand from organised sector workers irrespective of their union-affiliation, for higher wages and better social security net is quite logical. And in an extreme situation even the application of MESMA may be futile. MESMA is a precautionary measure to cultivate indigenous momentum for economic growth. They want to mitigate the wealth decline of the corporate club by providing stimulus policies and asking the wage-earners to tighten their belts. MESMA is aimed at keeping them on toes all the time and in a situation of agonising unemployment, it is likely to work.
For one thing the very wage pattern in India, with basic component always remaining low and variable dearness allowance being too inadequate to compensate the gradual erosion in real wages, deserves serious re-thinking. Ironically the representatives of labour always insist on increasing dearness allowance, not basic wages. Whenever there is any wage revision in any industry, they duel mostly on DA. Also, the method of computing price index based on a fixed food basket is so faulty that index does hardly reflect the market reality.
This MESMA is so harsh in nature that the state police now have the power to arrest, even the ‘outsiders’, not to speak of workers, of a strike. In other words union leaders from outside will have a tough time to carry out their party agenda in labour lines. Trade Union in general and left activists in particular finished their moral obligation by issuing business as usual statements condemning MESMA, without showing any inclication to fight it at the factory gates and in the streets. Everybody knows it is ‘anti-worker’ and ‘unconstitutional’ but that doesn’t make the toilers less panicky.
The ambit of MESMA is so widespread that it is simply impossible to go on legal strike by obeying the existing law of the land. This obnoxious act virtually makes other labour laws scripted against the backdrop of World War II, redundant. Maybe, the comprehensive labour law as planned by the Centre, will now copy MESMA as they think it will give them the much sought-after industrial discipline. Maybe, this is a game for an intelligent world! The wisemen of Mumbai are showing the way
Vol. 45, No. 6, Aug 19-25, 2012