At the 45th Indian Labour Conference in New Delhi, labour-related issues get more than the usual attention on account of the general elections next year. But the question is whether the government will take earnest action on its recommendations. By T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

THE 45th session of the Indian Labour Conference (ILC), held on May 17 and 18 in New Delhi, was a closely watched event. Like most issues relating to labour, this annual tripartite meeting, ignored by the mass media and treated trivially by the government, attracted a fair share of attention this time for the issues that were flagged in its agenda. The meeting was attended by State Labour Ministers and representatives of central trade union organisations, central organisations of employers, and government departments. While the government listed out its limited achievements in employment generation and pointed out the need for constructive dialogue, trade unions highlighted instances of violation of labour laws, tripartite agreements and promises made at previous ILCs, including the assurance to fix a national floor level minimum wage (NFLMW) and to amend the Contract Labour Act to bring the wages of contract workers on a par with that of permanent workers.

The trade unions were rather surprised at the open acknowledgement by none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the impact of the two-day all-India strike in February this year. But they were critical that the government did little to prevent the strike.

Inaugurating the conference, the Prime Minister said that the strike focussed on a number of issues relating to the welfare of the working class and also the people at large. “These include demands on which there can be no disagreement. For example, demands for concrete measures for containing inflation, for generation of employment opportunities, for strict implementation of labour laws, are unexceptionable. There can, however, be differences on the best ways of fulfilling these demands, and we are willing to engage constructively with the trade unions in this regard.” He added that the government had set up a Group of Senior Ministers to go into trade unions’ demands.

This cognisance of the strike, which had been criticised by most of the media, industry bodies and sections of the government for having caused a loss to the exchequer, indicated that the government had realised that labour-related issues could not be relegated to the back burner anymore. But there was no indication that the government intended to take up such issues seriously.

The trade unions were aware that it was their broad unity and joint actions, cutting across ideological lines, that had forced the scam-tainted United Progressive Alliance government to take cognisance of the tremendous resentment among the working class. The Prime Minister’s exhortation that labour laws be implemented strictly came with a caveat. While he said that the demands raised during the two-day strike were unexceptionable, he added that there could be differences on the best way to fulfil them.

Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) member of the Rajya Sabha, welcomed the remarks of the Prime Minister, but said strict implementation of labour laws could only happen if there was a shift in the style of governance. “The entire labour law administration and labour relations management has become a kind of public-private partnership [PPP] between the government machinery and corporate employers to promote violation and evasion of labour laws on aspects of minimum wage, working hours, social security, workplace safety, contract work,” Sen pointed out in his address. More than 200 workers and trade union activists of Noida in Uttar Pradesh were in jail since February 20 for having participated in the strike and they had been denied bail for over three months, he said.

In a similar situation, 185 workers of the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar in Haryana have been languishing in jail for over a year. As many as 500 regular workers and 1,200 contract workers were terminated without any inquiry. There were innumerable examples of suppression emanating from the nexus between governments and employers, he said. In this context of labour law violations, all talk of social partnership and social dialogue were meaningless, he emphasised.

The items on the agenda for discussion were equally interesting. Four key contemporary issues were flagged namely, (a) service conditions, wages and social security for various categories of workers employed in different Central and State government schemes; (b) social security with special reference to Assured Pension with indexation for all workers including those self-employed; (c) labour laws for the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector; and (d) measures to improve employment and employability. This was for the first time that the service conditions, wages and social security concerns of scheme-based workers were under discussion. It was no coincidence that it was listed on the agenda. Increased unionisation of and recent protests by such workers in various government schemes, who are mostly ill-paid, had literally compelled the Labour Ministry and the government to do so.

In fact, in a detailed critique of the agenda note, the CITU pointed out that the Labour Ministry was silent on the implementation of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, passed by Parliament in 2008. At least a status report on the implementation of the welfare schemes listed in the Schedule of the Act and the number of beneficiaries as a percentage of the total unorganised workforce should have been there, the note said.

Government position

On its part, the government pointed out through the Prime Minister’s speech that despite the global economic meltdown, 20 million additional job opportunities had been created and the unemployment rate had declined from 8.3 per cent to 6.6 per cent between 2004-05 and 2009-10. The delegates were told that total employment in the organised sector had registered a growth of more than 9 per cent and the number of women employed in the organised sector had registered a growth of about 19 per cent between 2005 and 2011, which was quite “heartening”. The Prime Minister said that the government was making serious efforts to implement the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Rural Livelihood Mission, the Swarnajayanti Shahri Rozgar Yojana and the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme. What perhaps went unmentioned was that all the various employment schemes were pegged at very low incomes in the majority of cases, providing the basic minimum wages to survive, and that they were not permanent. They were also bereft of benefits provided to regular employees of the government. The quality of employment was clearly not on the agenda of the government. Likewise, the Prime Minister’s speech was resoundingly silent on the quality of employment of the scheme-based workers, the majority of whom are women.

The proposals for setting up 5,000 Skill Development Centres and 27 Advanced Training Institutes to train five crore people in the 12th Five Year Plan period with the help of the private sector came in for criticism. Sen cautioned against the deployment of the PPP model in the Skill Development Initiative Scheme under the Modular Employable Skill programme, which he said had led to fake claims of training, which was being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation. He said that the private sector’s share in total domestic investment had actually shrunk since 2009 and yet the government was encouraging it to invest. He said that it was the same PPP model in governance that had led to the accumulation of direct tax arrears of Rs.4,82,000 crores.

The president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), C.K. Saji Narayanan, pointed out the blatant violation of labour laws in the country and the virtual collapse of tripartitism. “The long tripartite tradition of our country built up by stalwarts representing all the three partners has been shaken by what is happening in many parts of India. It is quite disturbing that both violations and violence are increasing around the national capital city of Delhi in areas like Noida, which is a shame. (The) Manesar model of discontentment is brewing in different parts of the country, which is a matter of concern for all. Blatant violation of labour laws has added fuel to violence and killings of managers in places like Allied Nippon factory, Precol in Coimbatore, Yanam in Puducherry, Assam plantations, etc. apart from Manesar. We are witnessing a breakdown of labour relations. This is quite unprecedented in the recent history of Indian industry,” he said in his address at the inaugural session.

He said that both the Ministry of Commerce and the MSME Ministry wanted exemption of labour laws in the National Manufacturing Industrial Zones and the small scale sector. The government has sought to misrepresent the case of the MSMEs which were among the largest employment generators in the country and has now been hit hard by the onslaught of globalisation. Unions were unanimous in their demand that very small enterprises run by a single person required simplification and codification of laws for easy handling. But the government had wrongly presented their case.

The MSME Ministry, Saji Narayanan said, wanted “exemption of labour laws”, replacement of the labour inspectorate with “self-compliance”, and the relaxation of the Contract Labour Act. The government, he said, needed to bring out a White Paper on two decades of economic reforms, especially in the light of the Economic Survey’s finding that India had been pushed to the third position in the list of the fastest growing nations, while Indonesia had risen to the second position.

The CITU, in its critique, held that on the issue of employment, 89.5 per cent of workers in MSMEs were working in unregistered entities, where practically no labour laws are implemented. It concurred with the BMS’ point of view and observed in its critique of the agenda note that “the broad views of the Ministry of MSME on labour laws as outlined suffer from such ridiculousness and warrants total rejection”.

Like his counterpart in the CITU, Saji Narayanan said that the ILC was discussing the conditions of service of about 25 lakh people, including ASHAs and persons working in anganwadis and various government schemes, such as the midday meal scheme, who are the lifeline of India’s development. It was ridiculous, he said, to treat people who work for their livelihood as “volunteers”. Employability should be about creating decent jobs as per the standards set by the ILO, he said. He remarked that it was a pity the government proposed to pay only Rs. 1,000 a month to midday meal workers. Anganwadi and other scheme workers, he said, should be recognised as government employees, which is what the Tamil Nadu and Puducherry governments had done. “The Union government has failed to pay sufficient pension to workers contributing to PF [Provident Fund] for decades together; many of them get as low as below Rs.100 a month instead of at least Rs.3,000. The government has also failed to ensure pension and other benefits to workers of the unorganised sector in spite of the passing of such a law [UOWSS Act, 2008] five years back. The Ministry of Labour was forced to moot NFLMW, which was less than minimum wages,” he said.

The 45th ILC was significant in that in a long time the voices of the trade unions were heard seriously and for once the employer lobbies remained on the back foot. As expected, the recommendations of the ILC have not been very satisfactory, with the Ministries concerned themselves objecting to some crucial recommendations, especially those dealing with the welfare of scheme-based workers.

The ILC could not arrive at any consensus regarding the service conditions, minimum wage requirements and social security requirements of the workers belonging to the anganwadi, midday meal, ASHA, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) and other schemes. The demand of the trade unions that they be treated as government employees rather than as volunteers and honorary workers was also not acceded to. The representatives from the Ministries concerned, including the Ministry of Women and Child Development, did not agree with the recommendations of the sub-committee, including one recommendation on pension and a one-time payment of gratuity to these workers.

The committee on social security with assured pension with indexation for workers, including those self-employed, made several bold recommendations such as reiterating the recommendations on social security made at the 44th session. Apart from universal social security coverage for the entire working population of the country, an old demand of trade unions, the committee also suggested that the current government spending on social security schemes as a percentage of GDP be enhanced as it was very low compared with that in other countries.

It remains to be seen whether the recommendations of the 45th session of the ILC and those of previous sessions will be taken forward in earnest by the government at least for electoral reasons if not for the welfare of the working class.