Why labour unions have called for a nationwide strike today: Explained

All the central trade unions, except RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), have called for a nationwide strike on Wednesday. They feel that the government is disrespectful towards workers in its “policy and action.”

This is the fourth nationwide strike called by 10 central trade unions since the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. 

The unions have been calling for action on a list of demands and they make out that the government is not paying heed to any of it.

The unions have a 13-point charter of demands which include urgent measures from the government to contain price-rise by “universalisation of public distribution system” and “containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation.”

The retail inflation, measured in terms of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), rose to a 3-year high of 5.54 per cent in November 2019, due to higher food prices. After the recent attack by the US that killed Iran Revolutionary Guards' commander Qasem Soleimani, the global crude oil prices have increased by over 5 per cent, which may stoke inflation further.

The government has been facing criticism of joblessness, as its own official survey report revealed that the unemployment rate had touched a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18.

One of the key demands of the unions has been to increase the minimum wages of workers. While it is a long-standing demand, in the past, unions have asked for monthly minimum wages at Rs 15,000 for workers, they now demand the government to hike it to Rs 21,000.

The government's new law, the Code on Wages Act, 2019 will ensure that workers from all industries are entitled to receive minimum wages fixed by various state governments. Earlier, workers belonging to a set of industries (40 per cent of the entire workforce) were eligible to receive minimum wages. The new Act, which became a law in August 2019, also prescribes a set formulae to fix minimum wages, but it has not come into effect yet.

For the central government employees, the minimum wage rate is Rs 21,000 a month. In India, minimum wage across states has wide variations. For instance, it is Rs 1,794 a month in Arunachal Pradesh and Telangana but Rs 8,476 in Haryana and Rs 9,100 in Chandigarh, as of November 2018. The central government has fixed a floor of Rs 9,750 a month for minimum wages.

Additionally, the unions have demanded ‘worker’ status to all scheme workers, such as the Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and those who work in providing mid-day meals in schools. Since these workers are not officially categorised as ‘workers’, they are not protected by most labour laws in the country.

The unions have asked for a minimum monthly pension of Rs 6,000, up from Rs 1,000. It had earlier demanded a minimum monthly pension of Rs 3,000. A six-time hike in the minimum pension to workers will require a huge budgetary support from the Union government – a key reason why it has not accepted any demand to hike the minimum pension as yet.

Other demands of the unions include a halt in the merger process of 12 public sector banks, no disinvestment and strategic sales of the central public sector units and bar on employing contract workers for ‘perennial nature of work.’

In a joint statement issued on Monday, the unions said, “The attitude of the Government is that of contempt towards labour as we construe from its policies and actions. It is more than 4 years since the last Indian Labour Conference (ILC) was held in July 2015. The last meeting of the Group of Ministers constituted to discuss the 12-point charter of demands was held in August 2015. Since then nothing proceeded in that regard.”

The ILC, often known as the Labour Parliament of India, is an important forum where industry, trade unions and government officials sit together to iron out key issues and it is usually inaugurated by the Prime Minister.

Charter of Demands for Strike

1. Urgent measures for containing price-rise through universalisation of public distribution system and banning speculative trade in commodity market.

2. Containing unemployment through concrete measures for employment generation.

3. Stop anti-worker codification of Labour Laws in the name of “Ease of Doing Business”. Ensure strict enforcement of all existing basic labour laws withoutany exception or exemption and stringent punitive measures for violation of labour laws.

4. Universal social security coverage for all workers.

5. Minimum wages of not less than Rs 21,000/- per month with provisions of indexation.

6. Give “Worker” status to all Scheme workers as per the unanimous ILC recommendation and pay them wages and all benefits like the government employees.

7. Assured enhanced pension not less than Rs.6,000/- p.m. for the entire working population.

8. Stop disinvestment and strategic sale of Central/State PSUs. Stop merger of Public Sector Banks and strictly recover the NPA loans of the Corporates.

9. Stop of contracting out/outsourcing permanent perennial work and ensure payment of same wage and benefits for contract workers as regular workers for same and similar work.

10. Removal of all ceilings on payment and eligibility of bonus, provident fund;
increase the quantum of gratuity.

11. Compulsory registration of trade unions within a period of 45 days from the date of submitting application; and immediate ratification of ILO Conventions C 87 and C 98.

12. Stop FDI in Railways, Insurance, Coal and Defense Sectors.

13. Give complete loan waiver and Guarantee remunerative prices for agricultural products.

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