Debate over trade unions rages in India

It has been 20 years since India adopted free-market policies and opened up its economy to the world.

Liberalised India reduced public investment and expenditure and encouraged foreign investment and private enterprise.

But what has all this meant for the working class? Some say reduced government control has led to fair competition and hence better wages and working conditions.

"Not really," says senior left-wing trade unionist Aparna. She points out that competition increases pressure on workers.

"The post-liberalisation era saw companies increasingly hiring contract labour in private as well as public enterprises causing loss of job security," she says.

"As workers were forced to deal with management individually, traditional structures like trade unions became increasingly weak and insignificant."

That's a sentiment echoed by workers across the automobile sector in the northern Indian states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Despite this, life now seems to have come full circle. Workers are again putting faith in the union structure, trying to forge unity between permanent and contractual labour for better negotiations with company managements.

But do modern-day trade unions have the same power as those of yesteryear? The workers don't have one correct answer to this, but point to a common thread in their unionising experience, that of the struggle to form a union.

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As workers were forced to deal with management individually, traditional structures like trade unions becoming increasingly weak and insignificant"

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Trade unionist

Worker rights

Indian labour laws guarantee workers the right to unionise. The Trade Unions Act, passed in 1926, allows workers to register unions with the Labour Department. These then have to be recognised by the company they work for.

But workers allege that privatisation has encouraged collusion between labour departments and company managements, making the process of registration of unions difficult - a charge vehemently denied by both.

Pradeep Fogaat, 30, is part of the 2,000-plus workforce at a plant run by India's leading carmaker, Maruti Suzuki.

He, along with all his co-workers, is on strike. Camping outside their factory in a makeshift tent, they are demanding their right to form a workers' union.

Maruti Suzuki is a joint venture partner of the Japanese company, Suzuki Motor Corporation, with almost 50% of India's booming car market.

But Pradeep alleges that the working conditions at the plant are bad. He says workers get very short breaks and lose their pay if they take even one day's leave.

Now they want to form a union to negotiate better conditions, but blame the management for scuttling their efforts by pressurising the workers through suspensions and lock-outs.

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We know we have to stay united, that's why we want our union"

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Pradeep Fogaat

Maruti Suzuki employee

But Maruti says that it already has a recognised union - and it accuses the workers of inefficiency and even sabotage at its plant.

Pradeep maintains that this is a management-supported puppet union, a popular route adopted by companies to complete the formality of having a workers' union.

"All of this started when we tried to get our union registered, we do not consider the existing union as our representative, the management is trying to divide the 40% permanent and 60% contract workers, but we know we have to stay united, that's why we want our union."

Maruti says it has lost more than $330m (£209m) in turnover because of these strikes, leading to production delays in its other big plant as well.

But the stand-off continues, as neither the management nor the workers are ready to budge from their positions.

'Constant threat'

This is the Maruti workers' third strike this year for the same demand. And Maruti is not the only case. Strikes demanding the right to form workers' unions have hit the automobile sector in northern India at frequent intervals.

Spare parts production company Rico faced a strike in 2009 which affected production in Ford and General Motors plants in Canada and the US.

Suzuki plants in different parts of India are seeing protests by workers Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India saw a strike in 2005 which was ended by violent police action.

While the Hero Honda agitation was successful and the company now has a robust workers' union, Rico workers had to bow down to their management.

Despite a chequered history, workers here seem to have faith in the organised trade union.

Radheyshyam (name changed on request) works with Munjal Shaw, a company that manufactures bike parts. He says that his company has never had a workers' union.

He has been working here for almost four years, but he is still on contract. In fact, 90% of his factory's labour force is on contract.

"Many of us have worked for many years at this factory and still are not regularised," he says.

"Since we are on contract, we are under the constant threat of being fired by our contractor and hence cannot raise our voice. Maybe if there was a union, things would change."


But Radheyshyam knows that it is a catch-22 situation. With a very small part of his factory's workforce as permanent, they cannot apply to register themselves as a union.

Most trade unions in India are aligned to parliamentary parties and of these, leftist parties have traditionally been at the forefront of voicing workers' demands.

But instead of lending strength to them, senior trade unionist Aparna says that since liberalisation, as leftist parties joined governments, they have also followed government policies.

"The blame of the weakening union scenario lies at the doorstep of the organised unions themselves, as they have either been aligned to parliamentary parties or governments," she says.

"Their priorities have changed and they have operated in a broad political consensus of new economic policies."

Despite this, she says that the workers' renewed faith in unions has a future, as it depends to a large extent on their strength and commitment. And that is on an upswing again.

BBC News/Delhi, Wed Oct 19 2011

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