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Trade unions have to update themselves to emerging situations

(I was commissioned to do this interview for a current affairs magazine for Labour Day. However, due to the unexpected demise of the magazine, this interview could not be published. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting in the background of the current labour unrest faced by not only by Maruti but (as today’s newspapers suggest) even Honda’s factory in Haryana.)

Coming of age in the global economic market, India’s working class hasn’t really benefitted by the ‘emerging economy’ tag that India has been labelled with. In an interview, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and Rajya Sabha member D Raja, shares his opinion on labour movement and communism in today’s economic market.

Q: What is the current state of labour movement in India?  

A: When neo liberal policies and privatisation emerged in early 1990s, there were attempts made to change labour laws. Ruling allies thought laws were in favour of working class and wanted new laws that would give more power to corporate and business houses to impose hire and fire policies. Now, in labour market there are two categories that define remuneration – time rate and piece rate. Today, the thrust is on the latter one, where you see outsourcing and project wise remuneration, especially in IT companies. You find contractual labour in a big way, where employer doesn’t take any responsibility at all. So, the exploitation of workers has become more ruthless now.

Now, there are trade unions in the organised sector. But today, these unions are struggling for legitimate functioning like the recent Gurgaon factory workers’ protest. There was a period in capitalist development, when trade unions were considered important mechanism to negotiate and bargain on issues. Now, employers don’t want them. The existing rights are not only denied, they are also snatched away in the form of contractual recruitment, VRS, etc.

As a consequence, new kind of social unrest is seen in the form of Occupy Wall Street and similar protests that took place across the world. People are challenging the system. Two decades of neo liberalism has proved to be disastrous for vast sections of population and working class.

Q: Why labour unions have failed to form union or labour organisations in big companies, especially cross-sectoral multi-national companies (MNC) that have mushroomed in India? It seems there is limited or no legal protection for local employees working in MNCs.

A: Amongst educated workforce, we have trade unions in some sectors like banking. However, forming a union in IT sector has still been problematic. IT workers cannot be clubbed with traditional labourers. A new section of workers has emerged. So, we need to create a labour movement that not only integrating IT employees but also enabling them to identifying with traditional work force. For this to happen, trade unions cannot function like the olden days. They will have to update themselves in new and emerging situations. We now require activist, who have expertise in sectoral wise labour issues and laws governing MNCs in India.

Q: What about the unorganised sector? Almost 92 per cent of the working population in India is in unorganised sector. Still the presence of labour union is not that strong enough.

A: At one point, there were no trade unions in unorganised sector. Now, organised trade unions are taking up issues of unorganised community. In fact, ‘Organise the unorganised’ has become the new slogan of central trade union organisations in the country. Hence, we have union for construction workers fighting for social security and agriculture workers’ union is fighting for comprehensive central legislations. However, they are still at regional level and the movement is spread out in the country.

Q: Where does communist ideology stand in the face of pro development agenda India has taken? Is socialism fading?

A: No. On one hand India is leading nation in IT, modern productive manpower and intellectual infrastructure, on the other, you still have manual scavenging in the country. India started as welfare state but has now transformed into neo liberal state. So much so, that you find a ban in recruitment for government jobs and decontrolled public sector undertakings. Being a diverse country, unrest has been demonstrated in different forms. The February 28, strike called by all trade unions notwithstanding their political lineage was one such example. It’s a paradoxical situation in the labour industry.

So, what is the alternative then? That’s were ideology of socialism comes in. If you don’t have ideological vision, you cannot move forward. At present, capitalism has failed to solve basic existential problems. I think, the alternative is socialism, which is also the future.

Q: If that is the case, why doesn’t one see youngsters subscribing to socialism?

A: Youngsters are coming forward to some extent but how to approach them is a challenge before CPI now.

A few decades ago, when we were fighting colonialism, there was an element of sacrifice and romanticism with regard to communism amongst youngsters. Today, it’s a period of realism. You have to be convinced by experiences to believe in the right kind of ideology. From capitalism to socialism, it is going to be a huge and difficult transition for the country. And, I believe, we are in that transition period now.

Neo-liberalism has forced certain things on young people – careerism and consumerism. Now, there is nothing wrong with careerism but when it becomes self centered, it leads to crisis in society. Besides, not all youngsters have been benefitted by neo-liberalism. To ensure that all have non discriminatory access to comforts and opportunities in life, it again comes down to ideology. And, neo-liberalism has failed in doing that.

Q: The Kerala CPM polit bureau is mulling over the idea of creating ‘Indian economic model of the left alternative’ by adopting strategies from China, Vietnam, Russia and South American countries. Is it workable in Indian context?

A: The communism model in Latin America has proved to be relatively successful in the fight against neo-liberalism. They (South American countries) have even challenged International Monetary Fund (IMF). We can draw some lessons from their model but we cannot adopt any country’s model. We have to evolve our own strategies and tactics, which will then have to be applied to Indian conditions.

One needs to understand that Latin America’s history is vastly different from that of South Asian countries. Being in the backyard of USA, they were the first victims of neo-liberalism. In return, they lost sovereignty of their natural resources. Now, they have fought back and taken charge again.

In India, it will take time to fight neo-liberalism. There are views to create common market on the lines of EU and Latin America. But there are historical problems here, which we need to sort out first. It will take time.

Q: Is Communism getting a bad name from the Naxalite fraction? What is your opinion?

A: No. Extremist trend will be there for different reasons. However, communism as a philosophy and ideology cannot be dismissed by anybody because of its concern and love for everybody. ‘All should live in happiness’, that’s what communism says. Naxilism has ideological inadequacies. They are not realists. We (CPI) don’t agree with their organisational methods and ideology and do not approve of them. At the same time, we do not agree with the government, which is treating naxalites as law and order problem. The government needs to address the root cause problem, which emerges from socio-economic reasons.

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