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Mainstream, VOL LV No 27 New Delhi June 24, 2017

Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh in the Present Indian Labour Scenario

Saturday 24 June 2017

by Gautam Sen

The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS)has recently demanded a reorientation of the government‘s labour policies. The BMS has also called for a correction of the policies of the NITI Aayog (former Planning Commission re-incar-nated as a government think-tank),which it has described as aligned to the interests of the corporate sector. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated labour union, claiming a membership strength of nearly one crore and affiliation of more than 5000 unions, enjoys a considerable heft in trade union circles and on India‘s labour and political scene. Therefore, the BMS‘ posture, as reflected above, should uplift the morale of India‘s working class and even of the proletarian and Left-of-Centre political forces. This is more so in the context of what Gurudas Dasgupta, the leader of the Communist Party of India-affiliated All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) has mentioned as virulent attempts of the present Central Government to crush the trade unions and consequent unpre-cedented unity of different central trade union organisations.

The BMS, having its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has grown signifi-cantly over the past nearly 50 years. From eight lakh members of its directly-affiliated unions and second largest strength-wise status in 1973, the BMS had reached a direct membership of 62 lakhs and become the largest central trade union as on December 31, 2002. This central trade union has represented India at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since 1996. In the above-mentioned backdrop, it may be interesting to watch to what extent the BMS is able to or will be successful in preventing the Niti Aayog and Central Government, as per its observations, from “dictating things on labour issues and on being oblivious to the decade-old tripartite culture prevalent in the country“ and protecting the interests of the working class in general.

The BMS has an interesting slogan as its driving force. It is “nationalise the labour, labourise the industry and industrialise the nation”. Such a slogan does not fit into the normal lexicon of traditional trade unions. Its exclusiveness, perhaps, indicates the unique path and discourse of the BMS. However, notwithstanding what the RSS ideologues or BMS leaders may claim, an aspect which is apparent even to the layman is that the BMS, by virtue of its motto of ‘nationalising labour‘, wants to keep itself away from issues which normally are common to the working class universally, and instead, underpin its policies and thrust on developments and attributes in the Indian or so-called national context. The BMS claims to be an apolitical trade union inculcating a national spirit in workers and striving for ‘workers, to unite the world‘ as distinct from the communist or socialist motto of exhorting the workers of the world to unite to obtain their legitimate rights and justified remuneration as per their toil.

The track record of the BMS on labour-related issues has been mixed. The BMS had once worked in an unique sphere towards organising the unorganised domestic servants in Maharashtra —particularly in the Mumbai region—through the Kharelu Kamgar Sangh. This was an area involving substantial welfare impact on womenfolk in particular, in urban agglo-merations where the traditional trade unions had not ventured into. Apart from such informal sectoral areas, the BMS has been active towards unionising in the organised sector, for basic minimum wages, etc. Furthermore, in landmark events like the nationwide railway strike in 1974, it has participated along with other central trade unions. However, the BMS had pulled out of the recent countrywide general strike of trade unions affecting the organised sector, in September 2015, which was rationalised by Saji Narayanan, its earlier President, to the effect that the BMS is known for reconciliation. The BMS, however, had praised the Centre, from the policy angle, for opening up crucial sectors like defence, civil aviation and food and agro-based indus-tries for foreign direct investment, as distinct from the stand taken by other central trade unions like the Congress Party-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress, AITUC and Communist Party of India-Marxist-aligned Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

At present, the Central Government seems to be trying to reorient the flagship rural poverty alleviating Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)-based scheme towards reducing the labour content, that is, the total quantum for payment of wages to rural workers deployed under under the MGNREGA. This will undermine the scope of earning of rural labour deployed in distressful agrarian conditions. Apart from this develop-ment, the Central Government has communi-cated an order to the State governments in February this year, withdrawing facilities for registration of the MGNREGA workers who have performed 50 days of work, under the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996. The Cess is intended for welfare expenditure on workers within its ambit. These measures will adversely affect the MGNREGA beneficiaries who do not have any fallback social security support. While the BMS has articulated its support for social security measures for ASHA multi-purpose heath workers under flagship schemes like the National Rural Mission and anganwadi workers Mid-day Meal Scheme, it is yet to take a proactive stand for the MNREGA workers.

The BMS is an unique trade union organi-sation which draws its sustenance from the socio-cultural roots of the RSS. There is nothing wrong in this approach provided the intrinsic interests of its members and the labour community and wage earners at large, are not compromised. The BMS has opined for de-linking labour law reform from ‘ease of doing business‘, and regularisation of contract labour, that is, converting labourers on contract work but deployed on a long-term regular basis, to regular workers, and payment of wages to contract labour at par with regular workers where the job content is the same. The BMS has also criticised the Central Government for not ratifying the important ILO Conventions like (C-87) on Freedom of Association and Right to Organise, (C-98) Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, (C-182) Worst Form of Child Labour and (C-131) Minimum Wage Fixation. The BMS has also opposed the Centre‘s stand that the ratification of these ILO Conventions can only be feasible after national laws are brought in conformity with the former.

The presence and posture of the BMS will have a salience on the Indian labour milieu for some time to come. The time is also propitious, as Grudas Dasgupta has opined, for unity on major issues of concern to the working class. Notwithstanding the predominant position of the BMS in the organised sector, the other national trade unions still have sufficient space in the organised as well as informal sectors. Mobilisation of the target groups have to be done on specific issues by the other central trade unions in concert with the BMS which should be feasible to a large extent, and on separate course where such alignment poses a problem because of the BMS‘ political or RSS or BJP-driven compulsions. A constant churning, as above, will create enough pressure on the BMS to stay course for upholding the labour interests. The instrumentality of the BMS towards promoting the BJP‘s political power-oriented interests cannot be lost sight of. To the extent fundamental issues on welfare and economic interests of the India‘s working class are kept at the forefront and activated by the other central trade unions, whose combined affiliated strength is not less than the BMS, the latter will perforce have to play a meaningful role vis-à-vis the former, even sometimes mode-rating the above-cited political compulsions.

The author is a retired IDAS officer who has dealt with developmental issues in senior positions under the Government of India and a State Government. The views expressed here are the author‘s own.

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