New Delhi: Rebuffing requests by the central government, the country’s largest trade unions said they will launch a nationwide strike from Thursday demanding more jobs, better wages and pensions.
Central trade unions and their affiliates, representing millions of workers, will go on a three-day agitation outside Parliament and will continue their nationwide relay protest for the next four months to “highlight government inaction to create more jobs and protect the interest of the working class".
The move not only opens a new political front against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, but also puts the spotlight on the politically contentious issue of jobs, which has become the central issue voiced by the opposition in the campaign for the assemblies of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
A slowing economy and disruptions caused—particularly to the informal economy—by the back-to-back measures of demonetisation and the rollout of the goods and services tax (GST) has only emboldened the opposition.
“This move has two key focus areas—the short-term industrial-relations equation with the government and the long-term political opposition. While unions in the short term want the NDA to restart negotiations on reforms with them, the relay strike in an election season will highlight opposition unity and underline joblessness in the country," said K.R. Shyam Sundar, a labour economist and professor at XLRI Jamshedpur.
On Wednesday, a group of 10 central trade unions told reporters that their “anti-government" offensive will start with a three-day national “dharna" in Delhi on Thursday to highlight the plight of the 470-million-strong working community in India.
“The anti-people and anti-worker policies of the government at the centre are inflicting horrific miseries and hardships on the crores of common people from every walk of life. Unemployment is getting aggravated with every passing day," the joint platform of trade unions said in a statement.
The Joint Trade Union Platform represents workers and employees from all major sectors of industries.
“Till mid-February, you will see hundreds of protest marches, rallies, tool-down strikes across sectors, across states and across cities," said Amarjeet Kaur, national secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress. Their interaction with the labour ministry failed on Tuesday night as labour minister Santosh Gangwar “could not give any specific assurance" on their demands, said Kaur.
The group of ministers headed by finance minister Arun Jaitley, created to ease friction between workers and the government, had not met the trade unions for the last two years, she said.
“Where are jobs?" asked Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “The organized opposition by workers of different sectors over a sustained period of time will now force the government to take note of their plight," he said.
Though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) voices the same concern—the lack of job creation—it will not join the other unions. Instead, it has called for a strike on 17 November.
Last Friday, all central unions except BMS boycotted a meeting with the labour ministry after the latter failed to invite the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). They forced the ministry to relent and invite INTUC to the talks on Tuesday, which remained inconclusive.
Labour ministry officials claimed that the unions were not being reasonable. “On their demand for a Rs18,000 minimum wage for all workers, I don’t think there can be a quick consensus as industries are not in favour of it," one official said.