Labour reforms: Proposals pile up as unions act tough

New Delhi, Dec 17: As a new year beckons, a huge pile-up of proposals to reform the years-old labour laws is waiting to be cleared with the trade unions warning of another strike in 2016 unless their demands are met to safeguard the workers' interest in the organised and unorganised sectors.

Read more: Flashback: 2014 saw slew of labour reforms

A number of proposals have come to the table this year with regard to labour reforms -- key to the Modi government's attempts to make India an easier place to do business -- but the economics and politics of labour have led to virtually none of them getting to see light of the day as yet.

Labour reforms: Proposals pile up

The government is now looking at the new year 2016 to push forward its several big-ticket labour reforms including the integration of as many as 44 existing central laws into four labour codes to usher in what Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya calls a "more friendly" atmosphere between the industry and the labourers.

The proposed four Codes -- Industrial Relations, Wages, Social Security and Safety Codes -- will improve ease of doing business, simplify laws and generate more employment, a top Labour Ministry official said. In one of the biggest overhauls of labour laws, the government is proposing to ease the strict hire-and-fire rules, make it tougher for workers to form unions and also increase by three times the severance package to protect the employee interest.

The year 2015 saw the government's attempts to reform labour laws facing stiff opposition from the trade unions, including the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh on some issues.

Some unions went on a nation-wide strike on September 2 opposing some of the amendments including norms related to retrenchment, lay offs and closure of units as well as those that deal with the forming of unions.

While warning of another strike in 2016 if their demands are not met, trade unions say that government's assurances of allaying their concerns have not been up to the mark and termed the tripartite consultations held in the past to end the deadlock as an "eye-wash".

Leaders from the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) said they are waiting for the government to come to the table to discuss the proposed amendments in labour laws, failing which they would be forced to give another strike call.

The Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) is however taking a relatively contrarion stand and expect the government to follow the policy of "responsive cooperation".

The Ministry has drafted a bill to integrate three laws -- Trade Unions Act, Industrial Disputes Act and Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act -- into a single Labour Code for Industrial Relations. Under the proposed Industrial Relations Code Bill 2015, the employers with up to 300 workers would not require government permission for retrenchment, lay off and closure.

The bill also makes it tougher to form trade unions in the country. It proposed that 10 per cent of total workers would be required as applicant to register a trade union. It is proposed that minimum number of applicants shall be 7 and maximum number of applicants shall be 100. At present 7 applicants are required to register a trade union.  

Some of these proposals, however, have generated Some of these proposals, however, have generated widespread protests by the trade unions, forcing the government to invite as many as 12 central trade unions to discuss their 10-point agenda about these amendments.

The 10-point agenda included demands for safeguarding the workers' interest from price rise and unemployment, providing universal social security cover for workers and stopping disinvestment of PSUs.

Trade unions later added two more demands to their charter -- scrapping the decision to allow foreign investment in railways and defence and assurance against any "unilateral" changes in labour laws. Unions have been opposing certain proposed labour law amendments saying these would encourage hire and fire, makes it tougher to make labour unions and dilute existing social security net available to the workers at different fora.

Unions are also opposed to Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, which proposes to keep units employing less than 40 workers out of the purview of 14 labour laws including Employees Provident Fund Act, Employees State Insurance Act and Industrial Dispute Act.

Besides, unions are also protesting against the move to give an option to Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) subscribers to choose between social security schemes run by the retirement fund body and the New Pension Scheme run by the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority of India. The union leaders say they are reviewing the situation and waiting for the government to get back to them.

AITUC Secretary D L Sachdev told PTI: "The tripartite consultations are an eyewash. It is just an excuse. We have not seen much change in the amendments over which we held discussions with the employers and government." There has been only one meeting of the unions with the high-level ministerial committee after the strike, he added.

Issues like the hire and fire, formation of unions in industrial factories and establishments are serious issues and the government is dilly-dallying over them, he said. "Trade unions are reviewing the situation and are scheduled to meet in the first week of January for review and to decide on how to intensify the protests if the government does not come back to talk to us," Sachdev said.

INTUC Vice President Ashok Singh said the trade unions are not against the efforts being made to amend laws as such and they have been asking government to ensure that laws and amendments need to balance the market as well as the human capital. "We have met the high-level ministerial committee only once after the September 2 strike.

They agreed with 5-6 of the unions' demands out of the total 12 made by us," he added. "Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that they will talk with us after the Bihar Elections, but that has not happened. Maybe they will talk after the Winter Session gets over, next week. If they do not meet us, the unions will meet in January and decide the future course of action," Singh added.

The rights of the workers needs to be ensured and if the government does not work on the assurances it has given, then unions will meet and decide if they have to again go on a strike, he further said. However, BMS General Secretary Virjesh Upadhyay said: "I can't say that the government is not trying. The process is stalling as Parliament is not able to function properly. We will wait for the draft of the bills to come out and then respond on it."

The government agreed to seven points out of the union's 12-point agenda and the Labour Minister assured that they will try to accommodate the demands made by unions, he added. "We believe in responsive cooperation and if government's labour reforms are pro-worker we will welcome it and if it is not, then we will oppose it," Upadhyay said.


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