Declaration adopted by the Diamond Jubilee Convention of HMS

Marking the Diamond Jubilee of the foundation of Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS), the 32nd Triennial Convention of HMS, held in New Delhi from ­­­­11-13 September 2009, reviewed the politica,l economic and labour situation of India and passed the following declaration:

The founding of HMS in December 1948 represented the emergence of a new force in Indian trade union movement - that of unionists who believed in free, independent and democratic trade unionism. It represented the thinking that role of trade unions is not only to oppose anti-labour policies of the government and employers but also to play a positive role in the development of the country to share gains from growth, improve workers living standards and of preparing the workers to discharge their responsibilities as citizens. The period from 1948 to 2009 has been a period of many struggles and achievements and of sacrifices of many trade union colleagues and workers. While acknowledging the contributions of these comrades, the Convention recognizes that HMS as an organization faces many challenges today and the struggle for defense of workers rights is far from over.

Reviewing the current situation, the delegates note that India is undergoing significant socio-political and economic changes, led by the forces of economic liberalization and globalisation. The role of State in India is undergoing a change as the state policy encourages privatization of the economy, de-regulation of even public utilities and essential services, leaving vast majority of the poor and workers to the mercies of the ‘free markets’. These changes are posing serious challenges to the trade union movement in a situation where the vast majority of the workforce in the country remains unorganized, working in low paid jobs in dismal working conditions with little or no social security and effective response by the labour movement is hindered because the trade union movement is divided along political party lines. The time has come to sift from experience and draw from it lessons for the future. As we move ahead, we need to pause and think - how do we build upon what we have? How do we face the challenges ahead?

Political Situation:
The general elections in April-May 2009 for the 15th Lok Sabha have seen Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) getting re-elected with significant gains even though it fell short of absolute majority. While electorate has certainly expressed its preference for UPA government nationally, it should not be taken by the government to mean blanket endorsement of its policies, especially of its economic policies. Analysis of the results of 2009 general elections indicate that overall vote share of Congress has not increased in any significant manner nationally, even though it has managed to win more seats. UPA win in the 2009 elections owes itself to a number of state level factors and the fact that electorate did not support negative campaign and politics of exclusion and extremism that BJP-led NDA signified just as voters rejected the non-viable CPI (M) led Third front electoral alliance which comprised of parties with very little in common except anti-congressism and anti-BJPism. The Left, especially CPI (M), stands discredited among the people and it lost heavily due to its anti-people industrialization policies. Unfortunately for workers, despite many political parties, there is not much choice. Mere change of government has not led to any significant change in economic policies. Since 1991, successive governments have been pushing forward the agenda of economic liberalization, globalization and privatization which has adversely affected workers jobs, incomes and living standards.

The HMS Convention, while recognizing that UPA government did take steps to curb mismanagement of official funds and promote employment through enactment of Right to Information (RTI) and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) during its last tenure, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that expected benefits of NREGA are achieved. This will include ensuring proper implementation of the scheme, enhancement of wages paid, increasing the number of days of guaranteed work, and universalizing its coverage including urban unemployed too.

Today the major issues agitating the minds of the workers are – Government’s anti-labour economic policies, privatization/disinvestments of profitable PSEs and its proposals to dilute labour laws. The unions are also greatly concerned at the growing unemployment, non enforcement of labour laws, lack of social security in the unorganized sectors, declining purchasing powers as rising prices of food, rents and petrol prices eat away the stagnant incomes of the workers. Failure of the UPA Government to address the problems facing workers has led to nationwide strikes of the workers during the last few years, eliciting a wide spread response from different parts of the country and in major industrial centers.

A wide array of problems faces the country currently. HMS convention hopes that UPA government will take steps to address the economic recession, poverty,  unemployment, poor infrastructure, environmental problems, and terrorism that is afflicting India’s social-economic horizon.

Economic and Social situation :
Till the global economic crisis hit India in 2008, Indian economy had been growing at an appreciable 7-8% per year. But this growth rate hides under it a number of weaknesses of Indian economy, including the growing inequalities between different sections of the society as also the economic sectors. Rising growth rates have not been accompanied by redistribution of wealth. Even as per the official poverty estimates, about 1/3rd of the population lives below the poorly defined poverty line. What is also of concern is the ‘job-less’ nature of this economic growth. It is not enough to bask in the glory of technology sector which employs only 1.3 million people out of the labour force of over 470 million. As yet, successive Indian governments have shown no sign of coming up with jobs or wages and incomes policy for the country’s growing workforce. Between 1993 and 2005, despite higher economic growth, annual growth rate of employment declined to 1.85% from 2.03% and most of this growth has been in the informal economy. India’s young population which is much touted as its comparative advantage remains illiterate, underfed, unskilled and unemployed or underemployed – which is a colossal waste of the nation’s development potential.

HMS Convention also takes note of the findings of the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector titled ‘Challenges of Employment in India: An Informal Economy Perspective’ which has pointed out declining growth rate of wages under all categories of workers, including casual labour between 1993 and 2005. The Convention agrees with the observation of the National Commission that ‘Instead of creating a level playing field, policies of the government have focused on creating special playing fields for large corporate entities, undermining micro and small enterprises that provide productive employment to the growing labour force.’

HMS Convention reiterates that the main obstacles to the democratic development aspirations of India remain poverty, unemployment, educational and social backwardness of many of its people, including particularly women.

Labour market situation:
India is a country of over 1 billion people, with a workforce of over 470 million, majority of who work in the unorganized, informal sectors. At best 8% of this work force can be said to be working in some semblance of Decent Work conditions. While absolute number of those unemployed in the country is alarming (over 4 crores), it is the plight of the underemployed - the majority of the workforce that works in the informal economy, on contract/casual, daily wage basis – that needs even more attention since it is these workers who cannot afford to be unemployed and hence are compelled to work under any conditions. Women form a significant proportion of these workers in informal economy and need urgent attention of the government. 

The declining growth of agriculture from 3.8% to 1.5% is further deteriorating the unemployment situation leading to a very large number of petty peasants to join the ranks of agricultural workers and the later joining the slums in towns and cities as casual workers. In fact, the number of these workers has gone up from 7 crores in 1990’s to 11 crores in 2008. The common minimum programme of the UPA adopted in 2004 had provided for enactment of a separate law for agricultural workers which to some extent would have helped tackle this situation. Unfortunately, the law was never enacted.

HMS Convention would like to remind the policy makers that every year some 12 million job seekers enter the work force with hardly any new jobs being created in the organized sector. Increasing unemployment, especially the crisis of the educated unemployed, is also reflected in growing terrorism and crime in the country. As the formal sector shrinks, millions are forced to work in the informal sector at barely survival wages with no social security or other labour rights. The purchasing powers are stagnant for most of them and declining for many. HMS Conventions calls upon the Government to take immediate steps for social protection and implementation of living wages for these workers – a bench mark below which no one should be employed in Indian economy. 

Labour Laws and Industrial Relations:
HMS convention notes with regret that while there are innumerable number of labour laws in India, though with poor enforcement, there is as yet no comprehensive employer-employee relationship law that sets the basic labour standards, including social security entitlements and applies to all the workers in the Indian economy, irrespective of the nature of employment. Against this background, it is a matter of concern to note the laxity in enforcement of labour laws ever since economic liberalization was initiated. HMS convention would like to caution the government not to amend unilaterally the Industrial Disputes Act to undermine the protections which the organized sector workers are entitled to.

The Convention notes that while the Indian constitution provides for the right to organize, in practice and in law, the employers are under no obligation to recognize such a right or to compulsorily enter into collective bargaining. The HMS Convention regretfully notes that there is no respect for the workers’ right to organize (ILO Convention 87) or engage in collective bargaining (ILO Convention 98) and that India has not ratified these core ILO Conventions. Further, government is unilaterally attempting to bring about changes in the labour regulations and weaken the rights of the workers at workplace. Even on economic and industrial issues affecting the employment conditions of workers, there are no meaningful consultations with workers organizations by the Government. In the agricultural sector, where around 60% of the workforce is engaged, there is no law for protecting the rights of the agricultural workers. The situation in small and medium scale units is not much different, despite the applicability of labour law. 

It is also baffling to note that while many in the civilised world recognize the right to strike, as an invaluable entitlement of workers and employees won through years of toil and struggle, in our country the Supreme Court in a judgment delivered in 2003 went to the extent of observing that Government Employees including industrial workers did not have any moral or equitable right to go on strike. HMS deeply deplores the tendency to treat IR issues as law and order problems that often leads to brutal police action against the workers. In fact, the State of civil liberties in the country including its applications to the workers movement is dismal. At the same time HMS is of the firm view that violence as a means to express grievances should be deplored.

HMS Convention demands from the present Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which has come to power on a huge mandate that it fulfill its commitment to the working class and ratify the core ILO conventions 87 & 98 and take effective steps in law and in the implementation machinery to guarantee these to all workers in Indian economy – both in the formal and the in informal economy. 

Trade union Situation;
From 1890 (the year when the first organization of the workers was formed in India), to 2009, the labour movement in India has come a long way in the last 120 years. The number of trade unions has risen from 29 in 1927-28 (membership 1,00,619) to around 70,000 with a membership of approx. 40 million, spread over 15 Central Trade union Organizations and independent unions.
The weakness in the workers’ movement is that it is divided along the political party lines and this often prevents effective united action by the workers’ organizations and allows the system to ignore the workers interests. HMS Convention calls upon all unions to reflect on the current politico-economic scenario and unite to push forward workers’ agenda on employment, purchasing powers, working conditions, social security and trade union rights.

Another issue which some may argue is a bit futuristic, but stands at our door posing challenge not only to the environment but also to the world of work, is Climate Change. A failure of free market economics and bad governance of globalization, climate change has become a serious threat to our health, wealth and the survival of our planet. Production and consumption patterns have resulted in uncontrolled proliferation of green house gas (GHG) emissions causing irreversible damage to the environment and global warming (all round rise in temperatures), frequent and severe natural disasters, and serious risks to present and future food and economic security.

HMS calls upon the government of India to involve the social partners in the discussion to ensure that India’s transition to a low carbon economy does not result in loss of employment or adverse effects on employment as a result of climate change policies. A fair and just transition should be based on how we can take further ILO‘s “Green Jobs” initiative which promotes labor policies and economic activities that can help reduce energy consumption, restore ecosystems, and minimize pollution in workplaces, as well as policies that can help transfer labor to low-carbon industries.

The Convention notes that the world of work is changing in India and the change requires that the trade union movement too comes up with new responses.  If we are to remain relevant and protect the interests of the workers in this age of globalization, then we not only need to unite but also adapt our strategies and structures to address the adverse effects of the new economic and political orthodoxies. We also need to forge new partnerships with other social partners in the society and take united action to make the government listen to silent voices of the millions in the unorganized and informal sectors.  This is the challenge of globalization before the labour movement in India.
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