Plenty of Inane muscle-flexing

TVs should behave responsibly during global uncertainty

At a time when the global economic situation is looking a tad unhealthy – with the recent sneeze by China rattling the stock markets – and the recovery of the United States still being slow, the decision of some central trade unions, led by the Congress-affiliated INTUIT and the left outfits, to go on strike is unfortunate. The Indian economy, which is on a path to recovery, cannot afford such frequent interruptions. With dark clouds continuing to appear on the global economic horizon, the country needs to unite politically to tackle the challenges.

As representatives of the interests of the working classes, TUs should take a wider view of the situation. An economic slowdown is not going to help anybody. If factories close down or are hit by the slowdown, work­ers will be the first casualties. Thus, strikes amount to inane muscle-flexing.

The decision to go on strike was taken despite assurances by the government on some of the key demands raised by the TUs during a two-day meeting with a group of Union ministers, led by Arun Jaitley. Indeed, the inter-ministerial committee agreed to move a step forward on demands of the TUs by significantly increasing minimum wages, besides making them mandatory across the country, increasing the bonus ceiling and widening the coverage of provident fund and health insurance to include construction as well as workers in schemes such as aangan- wadis. In the last two months, the govern­ment has met TUs thrice in July and twice in August to discuss their 12-point charter of demands.

Efforts are afoot to find a solution to each of their demands. For instance, the labour ministry is set to move a Cabi­net note to make minimum wages depen­dent on a formula that will be mandatory for all states and across all categories of workers. Rough calculations by the labour ministry suggest that wages for unskilled workers could range from ?7,100 to ?10,000 per month across three categories of states, while that for skilled workers would range between ?14,200 and ?20,000, a signifi­cant jump from the existing national floor level wage of less than ?5,000 a month that was only advisory in nature. However, TUs
have been demanding a minimum wage of ?15,000 a month.

Another proposal finder consideration includes increasing the ceiling on bonuses from the current ?3,500 to ?10,000 and increasing the eligibility for such payments to workers earning up to ?20,000 a month as against ?10,000 now. The unions, however, have demanded removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility, provident fund and an increase in the quantum of gratuity.

But there are divisions within the trade union movement. The Rashtriya Swayamse- vak Sangh-backed Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which claims to have the second high­est union membership in the country, of 17.1 million, is wary of precipitate moves. It feels that the government should be given time to implement its assurance like increasing the bonus ceiling and the eligibility limit, a new formula to considerably increase minimum wages, expansion of coverage of the social security net and labour law reforms via a tripartite mechanism.

This is the second time that the BMS is not participating in a strike since all central TUs came together in one forum in 2009. Since 2009, the unions have jointly called a strike each in 2010, 2012 and 2013. The BMS had refused to participate in the 2010 strike due to some organisational campaign. The divi­sions stretch beyond the BMS – which has a soft corner for the Modi government. Hind Mazdoor Sangh also had some but wanted some steps to be taken to address their concerns. The striking unions, on the other hand, wanted the government to immediately agree to their demands, such as some changes to their new formula to cal­culate minimum wages or assurance that labour law reforms will happen only after a broad consensus.

A countrywide strike does not send out an encouraging signal to investors abroad. While dealing firmly with arm-twisting TUs, the government also needs to reassure work­ers that their interests are safe. One way of doing it is by creating conditions for fresh investments that will generate jobs. India currently has a labour force of 500 million with 12 million joining every year. So far, jobs are just not happening.                                         ♦