New Delhi: Trade union activity seems set to accelerate in the run-up to the general election due by May, although the government succeeded in breaking a strike by executives of state-owned oil companies that had cut off retail supplies of petroleum products for three days nationwide.
The oil industry strike, which ended last Friday after the government refused to concede demands for a pay increase, followed a ratcheting-up of labour activism in public sector services such as banking, airlines, ports and mining in the past six months.
A strike by truckers, who are demanding a Rs10 cut in diesel prices, waiver of tolls they have to pay on highways and abolition of the service tax, meanwhile, entered the seventh day on Sunday after causing prices of staples to increase by up to 15%. The Centre has called a meeting of all state transport ministers on Monday to discuss ways to end the strike.
Growing in numbers: Trucks parked at a terminal in Mumbai during the nationwide transport strike that entered the seventh day on Sunday. The government has called a meeting of state transport ministers today. Punit Paranjpe / Reuters
Unions are expected to become more assertive as elections approach and the government begins discussions ahead of a wage revision for employees of the 240-odd public sector undertakings later this month.
“Protests will rise before the summer of 2009. This is the right time for unions to go on strike,” said C.S. Venkat Ratnam, director of the New Delhi-based International Management Institute and an authority on industrial protests. “Essentially, strikes take place in the organized sector because the bureaucracy is not willing to concede the benefits the workers should get.”
Employees have been pressing for long-pending wage revisions. In August last year, about 100,000 bank officers called a strike to protest a proposed bank merger plan. Another strike call was made by 500,000 coal miners in December.
Provisional data from the Shimla-based Labour Bureau, which is part of the labour ministry, show that the number of strikes in the first 10 months ended October were only a little less than double that recorded in 2007. Between January and October of 2008, there were 910,276 strikes throughout the country compared with 534,640 over the same period in 2007.
According to a senior labour ministry official, who did not want to be identified, the number of strikes has risen, but serious fallouts were averted through settlements between the labour organizations and the managements. The official cited the example of how the coal miners’ strike in December was averted after a settlement was reached. Most of the cases have been rising “due to promises that have been made and expectations that have been built around it”, the same official said.
Chief labour commissioner S.K. Mukhopadhyay reiterated this point: “We get about 650-700 complaints a year. About 90% of them are averted.”
On account of lockouts and strikes across the country, the loss of man-days, which refers to the amount of work a person can do in a day, showed a decline between January and October last year compared with a year earlier. A total loss of 2.5 million man-days was reported in 2008 against 23 million in 2007. Lost man-days in 2006 stood at 17 million.
Workers’ welfare in government-controlled industries such as oil and telecom is the responsibility of the labour ministry. While the number of strikes and lockouts declined in Central public sector undertakings from 1,305 in 1997 to 420 in 2006, man-days lost due to labour unrest rose from 16.97 million to 20.27 million in the same period.
Some experts claim that more man-days were lost due to industrial lockouts and strikes during the term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). According to Venkat Ratnam, this was partly due to coalition politics, wherein the government had to lean on the Left parties for support and hence be more tolerant towards trade unions. The Left parties offered the crucial outside support to the ruling coalition for over four years till they pulled out over their opposition to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in July last year.
Others say the extent of the problem may be understated due to poor data records. They say labour unrest has actually risen in the so-called unorganized sector, which employs 94% of the workforce, but the labour ministry does not keep track of such statistics.
Public protests in the organized sector, they say, have fallen partly because a large number of workers are taken on a contract basis and fear losing their jobs if they take part in strikes.
Data provided by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, which falls under the ministry of small-scale industries, show that the number of persons employed in the informal sector has risen from 341 million in 1999-2000 to 393 million in 2002-2005. During the same period, workers in the organized sector only grew from 20 million to 29 million.
“Most of the problems of the unorganized sector do not come under the statistics,” said H. Mahadevan, deputy secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, or AITUC, which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India, or CPI. “The government has no idea of the real problems of the workers in this sector, who do not even get their minimum wages.”
Under the Industrial Disputes Act, every state is bound to report layoffs, closures and lockouts. But without any penalties on non-submission, states are slow in filing returns. “Nearly half the states do not submit returns to the central government, so old information is carried forward,” says Venkat Ratnam.
However, many believe that labour union militancy is itself losing its bite as the economy expands and more workers are absorbed in the unorganized sector, which has very little wherewithal to unionize and press demands collectively.
“The government,” said J. John, executive director of non-profit organization Centre for Education and Communication, has moved away from being a pro-labour welfare supporter. “The overall atmosphere is where the right of the investors is given more prominence than the right of workers,” he said.