February 2, 2006Economy

The criminal labour mafia

Finance Minister Chidambaram once drew applause for saying that however much he disliked strikes, he disliked banning strikes even more. The goal, he said, was to create conditions such that workers see reasons not to strike. As far as the privatisation of airports is concerned, Chidambaram may already have achieved this goal. But, as Gaurav Sabnis reveals, chances are that this alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent strikes from occuring.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

That is because in contemporary India strikes are orchestrated and organised by the labour mafia that controls the trade unions. For example, not only do the airport workers see the benefits of privatisation of the civil aviation industry, they have already benefited from it. The unions, on the other hand fear that a growing job market will lessen their appeal, job insecurity being one of the key reasons for their existence. But like citizens living in a dictatorship, ordinary workers are unable to influence the unions’ agenda. In this climate, it is unlikely that merely hoping that the will of the workers will triumph over the vested interests of the labour mafia will prevent strikes and militancy in the name of worker’s rights. The televised unrest in Gurgaon has armed the labour mafia with the knowledge that it is possible to generate favourable public opinion far out of proportion of the actual support they enjoy from workers. It is not a coincidence that the return of labour militancy has coincided with the Communist parties holding the balance of power in parliament.

The political and intellectual discourse on labour reform revolves around the consensus that the freedom of association and the ability to engage in collective bargaining must not be trifled with. Yet it is the labour mafia, with its unchallengeable hold on trade unions, that denies workers these rights. Even based on the consensus that exists, there is a case to strengthen those legal provisions prevent the unions from being hijacked by their leaders’. For example, many of the recent strikes were technically illegal. But there are few reports of those responsible for carrying out illegal strikes or instigating violence actually being brought to trial or punished. In addition to legal provisions, doing that requires political will. It is the inability to muster this up that causes the political class to hide behind invocations of democracy and rights, and ironically, deny workers those very things.

Update: When law is backed by political will, the results can be amazing:

The government, as reported in The Indian Express yesterday, had authorised the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security to implement the dreaded SUSCA (Supression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Civil Aviation) under which the minimum sentence is life imprisonment.

This triggered panic among some sections of the forum. [IE]

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