New Delhi: Throwing what could be a stiff challenge to the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance, trade unions on Monday said they will oppose the government’s economic reforms programme to liberalize labour laws, open up the railways to foreign direct investment (FDI) and raise the cap on FDI in insurance and defence.

All national trade unions including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which met at a convention, decided to mobilize their workforce and launch a country-wide movement against the planned reforms culminating in December.

“This government seems to have turned anti-labour. All of us have decided to fight it jointly," said B.N. Rai, president of the BMS.

“The convention calls upon all the trade unions, federations across the sector to widen and consolidate the unity at the grassroots level and prepare for a country-wide united movement to halt and resist the brazen anti-worker and anti-people policies of the government," the labour unions said in a joint statement at the close of the day-long convention in New Delhi.

Gurudas Dasgupta, a parliamentarian of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), said all of the new government’s economic reforms are aimed at benefiting industrial houses. “Our quarrel is not with the government but with the government policies," Dasgupta said. “This is the prelude to a bigger battle" with the government to protect workers.

Since taking power in May, the government led by Modi has launched a legislative programme to reform a slew of archaic labour laws considered a hindrance to growth, especially in manufacturing and job creation. Changes to three key labour laws—the Factories Act of 1948, the Apprentices Act of 1961 and the Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers By Certain Establishments) Act, 1988—have been introduced in Parliament.

Similarly, BJP-ruled Rajasthan has passed amendments to four labour laws—the Industrial Disputes Act, the Factories Act, the Contract Labour Act and the Apprentices Act.

“Our main concern is that in the name of reforms, they are becoming anti-worker. Many laws are not being followed by industries, yet government want to liberalize the compliance," said Harbhajan Singh Sidhu, general secretary of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha.

He said that in less than 100 days, the government has moved to amend several laws, increase FDI flow in some sectors and divest state-run companies. “In the name of FDI, labour reform, our own people will lose permanent jobs," said Sidhu.

The government has raised the cap on FDI in defence to 49% from 26% and proposed a similar move in insurance. It has also proposed to allow 100% FDI in railway infrastructure. In addition, on 10 September, the cabinet committee on economic affairs approved stake sales in state-owned Coal India Ltd, Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd (ONGC) and NHPC Ltd, seeking to raise money that could help narrow the country’s fiscal deficit and fund public works projects to lift economic growth.

The government proposes to sell a 5% stake in ONGC, the country’s biggest energy explorer, 10% in Coal India, the world’s biggest coal miner, and 11.36% in NHPC, the state-owned hydropower producer. At current market prices, the divestments would help raise a total of 43,800 crore, Mint reported on 10 September.

“The national convention also denounced the retrograde move of the government in hiking/allowing FDI in defence sector, insurance, railways and other sectors and also its aggressive move for divestment in PSUs (public sector units) including in financial sector which will be detrimental to the interest of the national economy, national security as well as mass of the common people," said the statement by more than 12 national trade unions and federations after their delegates met at the convention.

Sidhu, who is also president of the Northern Railway Men’s Union, said Indian Railways has more than 250,000 vacancies and that the government needs to fill these jobs before planning any reforms. FDI will only cut down the number of jobs, he argued.

Labour minister Narendra Singh Tomar had said on 8 September that the government does not regard trade unions as adversaries and that it intends to work with them and address their issues. A labour ministry official, who declined to be named, said that all national-level trade unions coming together “may not be a very good sign" but that the government is confident “all the issues will be resolved through dialogue".

“The government is not confrontational in nature; we want to take everybody along. Reform moves across sectors will only benefit the country in the long run and due diligence is being done for all these moves," said the official.

All the trade unions, however, decided they will hold joint state-level conventions through September and October, before observing 5 December as a national protest day “through massive joint administration in all state capitals. At Delhi, joint demonstration of workers from neighbouring states will be held".

“We want to take a strong delegation to the government and hope they don't continue with unilateral moves," said Rai.

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