Aug 30, 2008

India - Buddhadeb has got it wrong

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has got it wrong, though he is right to protest against the “gherao” and the “hartal”. The first keeps a manager captive, without means of sustenance or access to a toilet —which must be illegal as it is involuntary confinement, usually accompanied by intimidation if not personal violence. Managers subjected to this inhuman treatment have been known to die of heart attacks. The second, also a coercive method, disrupts normal life in a city or state and has been declared illegal by the court; so the Marxists find new words with which to do the same thing. Both deserve condemnation, and the West Bengal chief minister would be right to uphold the law. However, that is not what he has promised to do; he has merely expressed what he calls his personal view, which is a private matter. What is relevant to the rest of us is that it is his duty to prevent these two coercive practices. Will he do that?
On the third issue, of industrial strikes, the chief minister is comprehensively wrong because you should not take away a trade union’s right to strike, as a tool in collective bargaining. This was a right first won by the working class in Britain 102 years ago, when a new law on trade unions protected them from being sued for the losses incurred by a company because of a strike. India recognised the right to strike in its Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, but this law is confined to “industries”. There was a time when the term was extended by the courts to mean even universities and hospitals, but more recently the Supreme Court held that government employees could not go on strike. The International Labour Organisation has some conventions on the subject, but many countries have started constraining industrial action by asking for complicated procedures, and excluding essential services.
The problem in India is that strikes over pay and working conditions are rare; the maximum number of mandays are lost in industrial action protesting against government policy, like listing the shares of a state-owned undertaking (which, rightly speaking, is for an owner to decide), or more general opposition to the thrust of economic policy — and therefore occur most commonly in the public sector. It is arguable that these are not matters on which strikes should be called; in any case, no strike ballot is taken. Perhaps the last major, specific, industrial strike was in the Bombay textile mills, in 1982. Datta Samant organised a long closure that killed the mills, most of which never re-opened. The workers lost their jobs, and the mills in central Mumbai are now turning over their land to real estate development.
Workers have learnt from this that their interest may be aligned with their employers’, more than with professional trade union leaders. In increasingly competitive markets, companies are usually fighting to keep costs low. In any case, the organised sector (which is relatively small) is relatively well-paid. So it looks slightly absurd when Maruti or Tata Motors employees go on strike over pay. There is hardly any trade union presence in the unorganised sector, and they provide little protection in the small enterprises that are nominally a part of the organised sector. The big, national unions have therefore become tools in the hands of political parties when they want to bring normal life to a halt and make a political point. None of this helps the worker improve his economic prospects. In practice, the right to strike has become less of a collective bargaining weapon and more a political gambit (used mostly by the Marxists). And as we’re beginning to see, the courts don’t approve.

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