The Effect of the Trade Unions towards Liberalisation & Globalisation

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Read this article to learn about the effect of the trade unions towards Liberalisation & Globalisation!

Trade unions have by and large opposed the liberalisation policies. They have organised nationwide strikes, bandhs (literally, stoppages) and rallies in different parts of the country. These have hardly had any effect in changing the policies. The only assurance given so far is that there will be no exit policy'. This is of little value, as we have seen earlier, as workers continue to lose their jobs through VRS and lay-offs caused by downsizing.

It is evident that all these forms of conventional protests may not be sufficient. There is need for undertaking a revaluation of the situation and developing new forms of opposition as well as alternatives to the present policies. While it cannot be denied that traditional means of protest including mass action play an important role in mobilisation of the working class and making them articulate their problems collectively, these methods may not achieve the purpose in the changing circumstances of globalisation and its onslaughts on workers' rights.

Ever since the liberalisation policies were introduced, the government and the media have presented a positive and vibrant picture of a 'new' India. In such a situation, the role of organised labour through trade unions is not appreciated. It is projected that organised labour tries to raise unnecessary and unreasonable protests against the new policies. These views are widely accepted by the growing middle class which is the greatest supporter of liberalisation.

One of the weaknesses of the trade union movement during these critical times for labour was that it had by and large restricted itself to unionising labour in the formal sector ignoring the vast pool of labour in the informal sector. The verification of union membership by the Labour Department in 1987 showed that of the total membership of the seven recognised national federations, only one per cent of their membership lay in the informal sector.

Even when the informal sector exists within the formal sector, trade unions have tended to overlook them. A study of contract and casual labour in eight industries showed that casual and contract labour formed between 30 and 50 per cent of the labour force (Davala 1993). Except in one industry, tea, these workers were not unionised. In some cases, unionised workers regarded them as rivals who would take away their jobs. Rare instances like SEWA apart there are hardly any instances of trade unions in the informal sector. We shall return to this issue of unionising the informal sector later.

Fortunately, the national trade unions have tried to overcome this deficiency by enrolling informal sector workers in the unions. However, despite the increase in strength, trade unions are still ignored by government and the media whenever they stage protests.

Protests in some industries though, depending on their strategic importance, can be more effective in highlighting the cause of the workers. For example, a strike in the banking industry for a single day can paralyse the economy; however, even if five times the number of agricultural workers strike it might hardly be noticed. The unfortunate part of this process of change is that the authorities and a large section of the public have become insensitive to the problems of the working class.

At the same time, globalisation is something that cannot be wished away. It has led to a degree of pauperisation and insecurity of the working class all over the world. Labour in developed countries too has to face its consequences. For example, the outsourcing process reduces secure jobs in developed countries and it creates insecure jobs in the developing ones. But is this new for human society? Any sudden change results in situations that are not easily perceived. It therefore gets labelled as anti-people and there are moves to oppose it.

Globalisation has raised certain challenges for the working-class movement. The question now is: can the labour movement adapt itself to face these challenges? Or rather, the question can be reframed as: is the labour movement willing to adapt to the challenges thrown up by globalisation and develop new strategies to face these? Given the present orientation of the mainstream trade union movement in the country, this seems unlikely in the near future.

Trade union strategies, as of now, revolve around two issues: firstly, use of traditional means of protest, such as strikes, rallies and bandhs, whenever the issue of closure or redundancy arises in the organised sector; and secondly, the issue of opposing globalisation itself. Both strategies have achieved limited success in their objectives. The question is therefore not of opposing globalisation per se, but rather, how best the interests of the working people can be safeguarded.

In other words, is mere opposition enough to combat the adverse effects of globalisation or should the labour movement promote some positive alternatives? A related, but more crucial, question is: can trade unions function merely as opposition bodies, or, should they offer alternatives? This is the crucial question facing the labour movement today.


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