'On December 5, the government called unions for pre-Budget consultations.'
'12 trade unions were called and the time allotted was one hour which means 5 minutes for each union.'
'We were asked to present our views in about four minutes.'
'That itself is a reflection of how serious the government is about workers' demands.'
Last month, trade unions held massive protests in the national capital against the government's labour law reform proposals.
Though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh opted to have its own show, Centre of Indian Trade Unions President K Hemalata tells Somesh Jha all trade unions are united in their thought process.
The trade unions had called nation-wide strikes in the past two consecutive years since the NDA government took charge, but not this year. Why?
This year there was a big mobilisation drive -- mahapadao -- in Delhi from November 9 to 11 where all trade unions decided to prepare for a higher form of struggle before calling a strike in case the government doesn't fulfil our charter of demands.
It has received a good response. Though the media didn't quite cover that, lakhs of workers had participated.
Trade union workers had come from all over the country and there was representation from all the states.
We have decided to prepare for an indefinite country-wide strike and before that, in the first week of January, district-level conventions will be held and in the last week of January, we will court arrest.
Why do you need to prepare, given that the unions have already called nation-wide strikes twice in the past two years?
In September 2015, 150 million workers participated in the strike.
Then in September 2016, we had another strike where the participation was even larger.
As you know, the BMS didn't participate in both strikes, but still the mobilisation was huge.
Despite that, the government hasn't called a meeting of the unions.
Before the 2016 strike, the government invited the BMS which was not party to the strike, but didn't call other unions.
In order to compel the government to talk to the unions, the anger of the workers has to find proper reflection in the struggle, which requires larger mobilisation at the grassroot level. That's why we have taken up these programmes.
The panel of ministers on labour, led by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, met the BMS this year as well. What do other trade unions feel about it?
This shows the discriminatory attitude of the government.
This year, over 200,000 workers participated in Delhi and 10 trade unions were sitting outside Parliament for three days. But only the BMS was called for a meeting.
We don't know what assurances they have been given, but the demands have been the same.
Even after this meeting, we haven't got any assurance from the government on these demands and that's what matters.
Trade unions seem to be a divided lot. The BMS organised a separate protest this year as well.
The BMS probably went back on the strike call in 2015, influenced by the government. This is because we don't feel that the government has been positive towards the demands of the trade unions.
Now, the BMS also participates in trade union meetings. For instance, they came to discuss the plan to organise a mahapadao. Even the BMS didn't have anything different to say, except criticising the government.
We think there is a commonality on these issues of privatisation, minimum wages, labour law amendments and social security in the trade union movement.
Even though they organised different programmes, the demands are the same.
We feel that at least a unity in the thought process has been achieved. It is not what the government does; it is about whether we are able to fight unitedly or not.
We want the unity of the trade union movement.
What will be your next step?
We have decided when the Union Budget comes and if there are anti-worker proposals in it, we will hold joint protests and immediately after the Budget is presented, all trade unions will sit together and decide the future course of action.
How far do you think the government has succeeded in meeting the trade unions' 12-point charter of demands?
No demand has been met. Even on December 5, the government called unions for pre-Budget consultations. This has become a ritual which was also followed by the previous government.
In the meeting, we pointed out it should not be a ritual. Twelve trade unions were called for consultations and the time allotted was one hour which means five minutes for each union.
We were asked to present our views in about four minutes. So, that itself is a reflection of how serious the government is about our demands.
What were the issues you flagged at this meeting?
We flagged our charter of demands.
In addition, we told the government to increase the social sector spending, especially on health and education.
We also said the mobilisation of resources has to be done internally by taxing the rich and the corporates -- those who can pay.
Recently, the government hinted that direct taxes will reduce; that means the indirect taxes will be more which people have to pay.
We also highlighted the job losses due to demonetisation.
About 2 million workers have lost their jobs and employment-intensive sectors like textiles, garments, gems and jewellery, etc were impacted.
We demanded that government expenditure should be increased, particularly in the infrastructure sector.
But the government has said in the past that it is working on addressing nine of the 12 demands...
One of our demands is the effective implementation of labour laws.
After this government came into power, they hastened the process of labour law amendments.
The anti-labour amendments in the labour law should be stopped. They are still going ahead with that.
The government is merging 44 major laws into four codes and three codes have already been discussed. But the views of the trade unions are not incorporated in any of these labour law amendments.
For instance, the Indian Labour Conference had recommended a universal minimum wage for all workers, but in the code on wages Bill, the provision is missing; instead, the government is going for region-wise minimum wage.
The government should fix Rs 18,000 as minimum wage for private sector workers, following the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, which is being implemented in the government sector. There should be no disparity.
Similarly, in the Industrial Relations Code Bill, the government has proposed giving hire-and-fire flexibility to factories with a larger workforce.
Due to automation, the size of factories has already reduced so much and hence, the cap should go (away) completely.
In the social security code, 15 social security Acts will be clubbed together. The government is claiming it will provide universal social security to everybody, but there is no sense as to how they will provide social security.
The government has proposed that all the social security funds be clubbed and a national advisory council, under the prime minister, will be formed and the management of these funds will be handed over the states.
We find that the money collected by the government through cess at present is not utilised to provide benefits to construction workers.
The unorganised workers will have to pay even the employer's share towards social security in some cases.
IMAGE: Striking bank workers. Photograph: Sahil Salvi