H. Mahadevan: The Trade Union Situation in India

H. Mahadevan: The Trade Union Situation in India


Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions and Independent Sectoral All India Federations and Associations called upon the working people to heighten the ongoing united struggles to the level of resistance against the desperate pursuit of anti-worker, anti-farmer, ani-people, pro-corporate and anti-national destructive policies by the Government of India which has brought the lives and livelihood of the entire people and the country’s economy to the brink of disaster.

The present situation is as follows:

Increasing unemployment: The situation has been deteriorating, from bad to worse. Phenomenon of increasing unemployment has been competing with faster pace of job-losses arising out of destruction and extreme degeneration of existing employment and livelihood-avenues, throwing not only the working people in rural and urban areas but also the entire youth student generations in a situation of futureless destitution and desperation.

Earnings reduced: The earnings of overwhelming majority of people has been pushed below the human-survival level: during the two-three months of the second wave of Covid in April 2021 onwards, the earnings of 23 crore workers have been pushed down to much below the prevalent statutory minimum wage level which has already been below the standard for human survival.

Global Hunger Index: As a consequence, intensity of hunger, that too among the working people, has increased alarmingly, bringing India further down to 101st rank in Global Hunger Index out of 107 countries and our country is trailing much behind our neighbouring countries in that regard.

Skyrocketing Prices: In midst of such widespread impoverishment and hunger, pushing almost half of the populace below destitution level poverty line, prices of essential commodities are skyrocketing to unbearable level. Price rise is not just happening, it is being made to happen by the Government’s atrocious discriminatory taxation and other policies, only to benefit the small big-business/trader/corporate section of society.

The prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and other fuels are increased almost on daily basis by the present reckless taxation regime which is having cascading impact of price rise in all other commodities and public transport and other services. Almost half of government revenues are coming from taxation on fuel.

Tax burden for the poor: High indirect tax-rates through GST mechanism on essential daily requirements, increasing user changes of almost all public utilities including health, medicine, education etc are further adding fuel to fire – all contributing to increasing intensity of hunger and distress among the mass of the people.

Concessions for the rich: Simultaneously and shamelessly enough, the Government of the day has been continuously lowering the corporate tax rates, abolished wealth tax, declaring moratorium on payment of charges/ taxes payable by corporate and also moratorium on debt repayments by the same wilful defaulter corporate/big-business community, who actually gained a fortune during this crisis ridden pandemic period by way of increasing their wealth by more than 40 percent – all at the cost of misfortunes and miseries being suffered by majority of working population.

The distribution of GDP, created by the working people only, is brazenly discriminatory against them, with the richest 1% cornering more than 70% of the same and lowest 50% of populace getting less than 10%.

Inhuman criminality: Its arrogant refusal to meet at least the basic human survival requirement of the common people by way of free ration and a bare minimum income support of Rs.7,500/- per month to all non-income-tax paying households as demanded by the Joint Trade Union movement, drastically curtailing MNREGA, ICDS and other Social Security allocations on the pretext of their coffers being empty, are all reflections of such inhuman criminality.

Privatisation spree: In the midst of this horrifying situation for the country and the people, the government at the centre has been hastily pushing through its project of all out reckless privatisation through multi-pronged routes of all national productive assets and PSUs including mineral resources, financial institutions like banks and insurance, security sensitive sectors like defence production and major Ports, Petroleum and Natural Gas, Railways, Airlines and Airports, Electricity, Steel, Engineering, Highways, Telecom and Postal Services, selling 500 coal blocks and what not.

Banks are the targets now: It is to be noted that the workers involved in such cases are not allowed any representation in the decision-making process. The latest move is the amendment of the Bank Nationalisation Acts for privatising the banks in favour of the same defaulter-corporate community.

Donation of national assets: The audacity of privatisation has gone to such heinous extent that in its latest move, government has decided to handover almost all infrastructural assets, built by public funds over past seven and half decades, to private hands, virtually free of cost, for making money out of the same, in lieu of its minority shares to government.

Monetisation is nothing by privatisation: It is called the National Asset Monetisation Pipeline project (NMP). Besides loss and destruction of these infrastructural assets, this will inevitably increase the burden on the people through reckless increase in user charges by those private corporates for free fortuitous profit without any investment.

Outsourcing menace: Privatisation spree is not limited to production and services sectors alone. Through mass scale contractorisation and outsourcing of work in most of the government departments and administration, entire governance system is being planned to be privatised. In fact the slogan of the Modi Government for minimum Government and Maximum Governance is being executed by privatising the entire government machineries and establish the absolute grip of the corporate class on the entire governance.

The employees movement in central government and state governments and also the municipal administrators in most of the states are facing this onslaught. And the pension/social security savings of the people and employees are not being spared from such exercise of loot by private corporate.

Plundering of farm sector: In the same brazen fashion, country’s agricultural sector, providing livelihood to more than 60% of our population is being sought to be plundered in favour of handful of corporates through enactment of three Farm Laws – designed for ultimate corporate take-over of land and entire agricultural sector.

Farmers’ issue is workers’ issue: The Food security of the people is going to be a big casualty, besides promoting essential commodity speculation to an atrocious extent, contributing to unmanageable inflation and price rise terribly affecting the entire population, not merely the agricultural community which will be the first victim. The working class movement is fully aware of this atrocious and destructive policy regime and has been struggling against it continuously since the very beginning.

They can kill the farmers but not their fighting spirit: The government has remained arrogantly unresponsive. Farmers struggle is going on combating all offensive by the government and its agents, last being the killing of farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri allegedly by a Minister’s son against which the workers and peasants of entire country have registered strong countrywide protest.

Attack on labour rights: Labour Codes are enacted by way of repealing most existing labour laws and the Codes are aimed at completely demolishing and altering working conditions, rights at work place and trade union rights in favour of the employers’ class.

The government has further gone ahead in enacting Essential Defence Service Act in further curbing and over-riding the provisions on right to collective agitations and strikes in defence production while empowering government to extend such prohbibitory curb to any segment of industry and service on the plea of its linkage with defence sector production.

All to help the corporate masters: It was nothing but a design of imposing conditions of virtual slavery on the working people to ensure “ease of doing business” for their corporate masters, both domestic and foreign. The rules of labour codes which have in many cases gone further beyond the provisions of Codes in curbing labour rights, are being unilaterally finalised ignoring the opposition and pointers by trade unions by the central government and also in many states.

Overall situation in India is summarised as follows:

The government has time and again proved its pro-corporate and anti-worker character. Under the guise of labour law reforms, the labour codes brought in subsuming 29 labour laws are in essence anti-worker, anti-people and anti-woman. There were no tripartite discussions nor were the parliamentary debates on these before passing them. ILC (Indian Labour Conference) was not convened since 2015. the labour codes are brought in gross violation of C144 of the ILO that upholds tripartism. They are sharply against the constitution that makes right to life and the right to live a dignified life, a fundamental right.

The labour codes leave workers very precariously poised. Hire and fire is legalised. Minimum wages are not protected. Contractorisation, casualization, child labour etc are given legal sanctity. Social security is given a go by. Unemployment is rampant which is further accentuated after the onset of the pandemic. Maternity benefit has suffered a setback. Labour Dispute Redressal mechanisms are diluted. Unorganised sector workers who constitute 95% of the workforce are the worst affected.

Policies of privatisation and sale of national assets are declared unilaterally by the government. Sale of Air India and the shares in the profit making LIC, merger of nationalised banks, preparing them for subsequent sale, making 7 corporations merging the 41 ordinance factories, privatisation of coal mines, etc., and the Electricity Amendment Act 2021 are a few of the nasty designs of the pro-corporate government. To cap it all, the very democratic right of strike is subverted through the Essential Defence Services Act that makes strike a non-bailable offence.

NITI Ayog and DIPAM (Department of Investment and Public Asset Management) the institutions installed to provide statutory sanction to the government’s ill-conceived policies have listed out many profit making PSUs for outright sale. Prime Minister has declared in unapologetic terms that “it is not the business of the government to do business”. It is with this spirit that the government aims to handover the national assets to the corporate houses. ‘National Monetisation Pipeline’ is one in the row of this objective. BSNL and MTNL have already been put out for sale as a first step under the NMP.

Crony Capitalism of the government now leads towards creation of monopolies, duopolies and oligarchies. This is against the interests of the workers and people. The consequential effects will defy reservation in government employment that aims at social equality. Price rise of commodities and services will have unquestioned and unbridled rise. Monopolies and oligarchies will exercise unrestrained influence in politics and policy making. This is dangerous for democracy.

Indian federation is assaulted in its letter and spirit. Cooperative federalism has given way to coercive federalism. This is a serious cause for concern. Fiscal federalism augmented through GST has widened inequality between the states and the Union Government. The union government has further employed and stream lined decentralised planning.

The Government in India in power has an extreme right wing ideology. It is pro-corporate in absolute terms and brings in policies to cater to the rich. Crony capitalism rules the roost. In a blatant act of supporting the capitalists to exploit labour and amass wealth, in order to ensure ‘east of doing business’ the government, in the guise of amending the ‘archaic’ laws has bulldozed 44 labour welfare acts to create 4 codes. The labour codes are overtly and covertly detrimental to the interest of the workers. Aim of the government to ensure a union free atmosphere is replete in the codes. Tripartism is given a go by. Parliamentary process is by passed. Voices of the workers are deliberately not heard. Trade unions are disrespected.

Economy is in doldrums. The ‘demonetisation’ announced by the government in the year 2016 was a ‘missile’ and ‘despotic action’ as termed by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Economy was very badly hit. The ill conceived Goods and Service Tax resulted in closure of millions of small, micro and medium industries. Unemployment and job losses increased like never before in the independent India. Government has no sound policies to create employment. Manufacturing is hit. Production has plummeted. Growth is projected in terms of distorted calculation of GDP. Income inequality is showing deep fissures. Gini coefficient of India shows alarming levels of inequality. Covind 19 pandemic worsened the conditions further. Millions of workers have lost jobs, both from the formal and informal sector.

Re-employment is very poor. Unemployment coupled with job losses pose a Herculean challenge. But the government remains unwavered in its commitment to the corporate world.

India is touted to be the fastest growing economy. But in reality, India’s ranking has slipped to 101st position in the United Nation’s Hunger Index. Inequality has worsened. The World Inequality Report 2022 has ranked India among the most unequal countries. Poverty has risen. Poverty rate is set to rise further with drastic cut in public spending and reduction in the consumption expenditure. Price rise is sky rocketing. In all the intense devastations, the government has been successful in muting the voices of protests. In the most typical of a fascist regime dissent is handled with an iron fist. Police, judiciary and all the government machinery is communalised and decisively converted to toe the line of the communal divisive ideology.

Indian democracy is in peril. The ruling party has no respect either for the Indian constitution of the parliamentary process. The policies of the government are in absolute terms pro-corporate. The Prime Minister goes on record saying, “it is not the business of the government to do business”, and brings policies and schemes to sell the public sector. The government is in a spree to sell, privatise and mortgage the national assets. Banks, insurance, telecom, defence, coal and mines, natural resources etc are all enlisted for outright sale or to privatise. A scheme termed as National Monetisation Pipeline is laid out to give out the public assets on a long term lease to private owners. This is a sure recipe for the formation of oligarchies, monopolies and duopolies.

Indian farmers were on struggle for almost a year. They were protesting against three farm laws that were enacted in haste to profit the MNCs. The farmers demanded an unconditional withdrawal of the laws. The struggle gave a lesson in resilience. The unwavering resolve and the indefatigable spirit was amazing. Participation of youth and women in the struggle was amazing. Farmers won the battle with the Prime Minister came out to announce repeal of the acts.

Media, that has a crucial role of the fourth pillar of democracy is made subservient to the ruling dispensation. The very few media houses who uphold the journalistic ethics and try to do honest reporting are arm twisted and put off using all the state apparatus. Federalism, the fulcrum of Indian democracy is in danger. Unilateral decision making to usher in a culture of unitary governance imperils the federal democracy.

The secular and pluralistic India is at the most dangerous cross roads. Indian working class has played the pioneering role in the Indian freedom movement. Now is the time considered to be another freedom movement. All the Central Trade Unions have come together on a united platform. The Central Trade Union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) affiliated to the ruling BJP withdraw itself from the joint form as soon as the BJP came to power in 2014. But it is a heartening fact that in many sectors the members of BMS join the strike on the call of joint trade unions. Joint actions and strikes are successfully undertaken. When the call for strike from the platform of Central Trade Unions is given, more than 200 million workers participate. On 28th and 29th March two days strike was a tremendous success. Banks, Insurance, Defence, Coal and Mines, Transport, Railways, Telecom and all the sectors were closed. Workers of the unorganised sector participated. Farmers and agricultural workers extended solidairy and support. We are sure to forge a workers – peasant alliance to thwart the destructive designs of fascist government.

The Struggle

The All India Bank Employees’ Association, a class based Trade Union

50 Strike Actions in 30 years – against neo-liberal economic policies and retrograde banking reforms – continue the struggles against these anti-people, anti-worker policies and made the countrywide strike on 28th and 29th March a total success.

Workers’ cause is a political task: There have been and even now there are views and critism that these struggles are political in nature and hence Unions need to be away from such strike actions. But India’s Central Trade Unions considers that it is the responsibility of the trade unions to champion the cause of workers whenever any policy of any Government would affect the interest of the workers.

Fighting for more jobs for the unemployed is the job of the Union: The United Trade Union Movement is conscious that jobs and job security are very vital in our country where level of unemployment is very high and where standard of living of workers is not that high. We all know that in 1969, the number of bank employees were less than one lac and due to nationalisation and branch expansion, we have nearly 10 lacs of bank employees today. We need Public Sector to provide jobs for our unemployed youth. Hence we believe that we should be in the front of the struggles to oppose privatisation which will affect jobs and job opportunities. We will always support common struggles demanding more jobs for the unemployed youth.

Who will fight for the unorganised, if not the organised? We also believe that organised workers cannot remain oblivious to the exploitation of the unorganised workers. Can we ignore the problems of unorganised workers, contract workers, and outsourced employees? They suffer from lesser wages, lack of proper service conditions, undefined working hours and job insecurity. When there is a common struggle on these issues, it is our duty to participate in the same.

Regular employees have to fight for contract employees: Because  of the Government policy and encouragement, employers are resorting to more and more outsourcing the regular jobs. These employees are an exploited lot and are not covered by most of the labour laws. Even in banking sector, their number is on the increase. There are 4,70,000 business correspondents. There are others who are contract employees or on cost to company basis. They do the same job as we do but they do not get the same wages we get. Who will fight for them, if not we? This is one of the important demands in this strike call.

Labour Law Amendments – Some specific circumstances:

  • Codes give more power to states to be flexible as labour laws: The move helps industry push for exemption at a micro-level and flexibility in retrenchment, working hours, safety standards and collective bargaining.
  • Business cheer, unions fear contentious Indian labour. They say these are aimed at making hiring and laws firing workers easier and imposing restrictions as trade union.
  • Rick Rossow, a senior adviser at the Washington based centre for strategic and international studies who specialises US-India business ties, said the reforms were likely to prove attractive to overseas investments (at the cost of Indian investors).
  • Six states, belonging to the political party at the centre, have already relaxed the labour laws, including raising caps on working hours to the concern of groups including the United Nations labour wing.
  • The labour reforms were facing opposition from the congress and left parties. But because the Congress led opposition boycotted the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha (Upper and Lower houses) proceedings, the “Industrial Relations Bill” got passed without a hurdle,.

Industrial Relations Bill:

  • With the Industrial Relations Code Bill, the Government has sought to amend the definition of ‘strike’ to bring ‘mass causal leave’ under its ambit, wherein, if over 50 percent of a company’s workers take concerted casual leave, it will be treated as a strike.
  • According to the bill, the workers planning to go on ‘strike’ must give at least 60 days notice and the strike cannot continue while proceedings are underway before a Tribunal or a National Industrial Tribunal.
  • Companies in which the number of employees is less than 300 will be able to lay off without getting approval from the government. Earlier, only a company with 100 employees was allowed to do so.
  • Overall, companies are allowed to hire or fire their employees. According to the new rules, the expulsion, punishment, promotion of employees working in the company will be more in favour of the employer.

Doing away with standing orders for firms with less than 300 workers, which will essentially cover most firms, is tantamount to watering down the basic rights of workers in most organisations, affecting their bargaining power.


As against the government’s retrograde steps on the working class, central trade unions in India are determined to unitedly carry on the relentless struggles, in one form or the other, in one sector or other, encompassing the organised as well as unorganised (informal) with or without the political support in the national parliament and state assemblies, as unfortunately the right wing party has the majority in the parliament and in many state assemblies. The issues also include:

  1. More inclusive social protection and sustainable development.
  2. Ending gender-based violence and racism (casteism in Indian states) in work place.
  3. Just transition and worker organisation.
  4. Organising across the platform: Innovative strategies for building worker power.
  5. Migrant labour.
  6. Workers rights and organising under authoritarianism.
  7. Global supply chains and industrial policy.

Legal remedies at the Apex Court – Supreme Court of India:

Slamming the Centre for its ‘unpardonable’ lethargy in implementing a 2018 direction to register all unorganised sector workers, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Union and State Governments to complete registration of all workers by July 31, which also will be the deadline for implementing one nation one ration card (ONORC) scheme. Quoting 2017-18 National Statistical Organisation (NSO) survey to peg the number of workers in unorganised sector at 38 crore, or one-fourth of the country’s population, a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R.Shah said since they are the hardest hit by the pandemic caused economic slowdown, it was the duty of the Centre and the States to provide them with dry ration and run community kitchens to ensure that no one went hungry as long as the pandemic continued.

“When the unorganised workers are waiting for registration to reap the benefit of various welfare schemes of the States and the Centre, the apathy and lackadaisical attitude by the Ministry of Labour and Employment is unpardonable. There was urgency in the National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) portal to be finalised and implemented looking at the pandemic and dire need of unorganised workers to receive the benefit”, the Court said.

“The attitude of the Ministry in not completing the module even though directed (by the SC) as early as on August 21, 2018 shows that the Ministry is not alive to the plight of the migrant workers and the non-action of the Ministry is strongly disapproved. We further direct the Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment to ensure that the NDUW portal is finalised and implementation of the portal commences on or before July 31. Let the Secretary of the Ministry file a report to that effect within a month thereafter”, it ordered.

In conclusion, we declare the full implementation of the working class slogan:



*H. Mahadevan has been Deputy Secretary General of the WFTU for many years. He has also served the class-oriented trade union movement of India undertaking various leading positions inside the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).