Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Toothless trade unions have meant helpless workers

The inability of India’s trade union movement to evolve over the years is partly responsible for the tragic migrant crisis we saw being played out across cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune last fortnight. Left alone to fend for themselves with no support or guidance, these workers were the tragic outcome of what happens when a key peg of the business eco-system, worker unions, goes missing. Most of those who began their long and arduous journeys home, on foot or makeshift vehicles, are not even registered with the relevant labour offices and thus don’t get covered by statutes related to minimum wages, and accident and social security benefits.

In its India Wage Report released in August 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) flagged unfair terms of service, low remuneration and wage inequality for such casual workers. Using data from the government’s National Sample Survey Office’s employment and unemployment surveys, it estimated that 62% (121 million) of India’s employed population comprised casual workers, a count that included those on contract.

With no one around to champion their cause and their political relevance diluted by their ambiguous residential status, these workers, taxi drivers, fruit and vegetable sellers, shop assistants and casual factory hands, have little bargaining power. No wonder their plight became a hot potato between the Centre and the states.

Given these troubled times, what they needed was someone to take care of their immediate needs of food, shelter and healthcare, negotiate with their employers for a fair severance, offer them some reassurance about their future, and provide education on covid-19 and the coronavirus. Eventually they would also need reskilling to get ready for changes in their workplaces, whenever they return. That’s the role that a union is expected to play, except that the existing unions don’t seem to be doing so. In any case, most of these workers aren’t even members of any union.

The trade union movement has been in decline over the past three decades, ever since liberalization modified some of the rules of doing business in India. This, in turn, overturned the decades-long socialist bias for worker rights but, in the process, ended up veering too much to the side of capital. Not that this was surprising. The excesses of trade unions through the 1960s and 1970s that led to the industrial emasculation of states like West Bengal led to a serious pushback, with companies in newly emerging sectors insisting from the start that their employees don’t join existing unions or set up new ones.

The results are visible in the form of both falling union numbers as well as their waning influence. The ILO has calculated that the trade union (TU) density in India among wage workers, both casual and regular/salaried, has fallen since 1993-94, by 3 percentage points to 13.4%. The ILO cites instances of victimization, even dismissal of union members by companies in an effort to break union unity or dissuade workers from joining them. One consequence of this has been rising inequality between the wage levels of salaried employees and other workers, casual or contracted.

The blame for an apparent failure to protect workers’ rights must ultimately rest with trade unions, which have failed to adapt to the changing nature of work. They were powerful once, but could never really wrap their heads around changing patterns of employment, catalysed especially by the rise of the services sector, which accounts for almost half of India’s economy and over 40% of its workforce today. Having missed that massive upheaval brought on by a shift from agriculture to services, unions still have nothing meaningful by way of help to offer the vast number of people moving into the growing gig economy, where the prevailing employer-employee construct seems in certain need of revision.

Instead of that, there is constant tension between workers and companies, which took its ugliest form during the bloody clashes at Maruti’s Manesar plant in 2012, resulting in the death of one of the company’s managers. Such face-offs have continued to plague the industrial environment in the country, be it clashes between the police and workers in Neemrana’s Japanese zone last January or the strike by Uber and Ola drivers in 2018.

In all of these, the unions have been found to be toothless, unable to negotiate successfully on behalf of their members. This may partly be because their own leaders don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the requirements of newer industries. Healthcare workers not being given adequate personal protective equipment, for example, is a current worry. Expecting them to work without it is like asking firemen to go into burning buildings without protective gear.

What is needed is a new institutional structure that is modelled on the unions of old but configured to operate in an entirely new context. Perhaps the time has come to replace the earlier political unionism with one which is more relevant to the new economy, and is short on ideology but long on real benefits for workers. The ILO report cited earlier puts it succinctly in stressing the need for “service-based unionism", better suited to “the new working environment shaped by changing employment patterns and industrial relations dynamics and for meeting the interests of the workers, especially in the informal economy"

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Updated: 08 Apr 2020, 10:23 PM IST
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