Labour Conference sans Labour

The Modi government has virtually destroyed yet another institution—Indian Labour Conference (ILC)—a tripartite mechanism developed over the years as per the guidelines of International Labour Organisation (ILO). The two-day ‘National Labour Conference’ inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in the last week of August in Tirupati, was organised by the Union Labour Ministry to discuss the four contentious labour codes with state labour ministers and officials but central trade unions representing workers and employees were not invited. According to ILO convention labour issues have to be discussed in tripartite forums involving employers, employees and the government. The labour ministry had been holding an event called Indian Labour Conference every year without any break till 2015. For the last seven years the Conference has not been held, for reasons best known to the persons in authority. For one thing the industrialists and employers never really implemented the recommendations of 2015 ILC. Nor did the Centre, even during the Congress rule, ever tried to force the employers to honour the ILC norms in any sector of industry. And now the out and out pro-corporate dispensation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is all set to kill the tripartite process in labour management while undermining the Constitution. They have been systematically crippling the Constitution to pave the way for authoritarianism. Their activities mock at the basics of democracy—they are ruining democratic institutions built through struggles in the yester years at a very rapid pace to make India a haven for the corporates.

All central trade unions opposed the Centre’s move to replace Indian Labour Conference with what they call ‘National Labour Conference’, bypassing labour, the main stakeholder in this all important exercise. Surprisingly, Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union wing of BJP vehemently criticised the government’s attempt to abolish ILC. The BMS said in a resolution that “the National Labour Conference attended by only the representatives of government of both Centre and states, is the first deviation in history of labour in India since Dr Ambedkar established the tripartite culture”. The CPM-controlled Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) said the much publicised Tirupati Conference could in no way be called a National Labour Conference as workers’ unions were not there. The Congress- led INTUC demanded that the Indian Labour Conference be immediately convened. The oldest central trade union—CPI-controlled All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)—said and quite justifiably that the four labour codes that they discussed at the meet would impose a new form of slavery on workers, particularly on the unorganised, contractual and out-sourced workers who constitute more than 90 percent of the Indian workforce.

The notorious labour codes have subsumed 29 labour laws in the country. The rules have not yet been notified. The participants in the conference actually deliberated on how to finalise the rules that would further curtail labour rights. The four labour codes—the wage code, the industrial relations code, the social security code, the occupational safety, health and working conditions code—are designed in a way to take away whatever minimum democratic space workers enjoy in industrial relations. Now it will be too difficult for trade union activists to unionise workers.

For the last several years, excluding the corona period, trade unions failed to combat the combined government-corporate onslaught. Automation, rather continuing up-gradation of technology has made industry less and less labour intensive. Machine is the main reason for dwindling job market. Even unionised workers in organised sector, not to speak of unionless unorganised sector, face a tough time to bargain with their employers. It was not really the situation in the ’50s and ’60s when labourers asserted themselves militantly. Labour power in those days really mattered a lot in national politics. It’s no more. After the 4th industrial revolution and massive digitisation of manufacturing process TU leadership in general, irrespective of colour and flag, is in a bind as they don’t know how to cope with the emerging industrial scenario. They still depend on old slogans; many of them have outlived themselves long ago. Workers are not rallying even behind left forces because they too are wandering in wilderness, busy to maintain the status quo.

Sporadic industrial strikes that erupt in the West are not that powerful enough as they were even a decade ago, to force the corporates and governments to come to honourable settlements. All are trying to save whatever jobs they get, even by accepting wage cut. For the employers labour is the only area to minimise production cost and maximise profits. A gloomy picture lies ahead for workers and their representatives as the government simply ignores them to decide their fate.

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Vol 55, No. 11, Sep 11 - 17, 2022