11 October 2015 by Sushovan Dhar
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Fulltime trade unionist of the Progressive Plantation Workers’ Union and Executive Council Member of one of India’s youngest national trade union federations, the New Trade Union Initiative, Sushovan Dhar spoke to Ceylon Today about trade unions and workers rights.
By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody and Umesh Moramudali
? : What are the challenges facing trade unions?
A: In India, at this point of time, the biggest challenge is that there has been a wholesale casualization and informalization of labour. This is there if one looks at the big, organized sectors. If one takes the estimated size of the entire workforce, over 93.5 per cent are in the informal sector. This is huge. Out of the remaining 6.5 per cent in the formal sector, around 60 per cent are contract workers or casual workers. Casual workers means that one does the same work but is employed at the wage of 25 per cent or 30 per cent of a regular worker for doing the same thing but with no job security and much less benefits and are contractual up to three months, six months or one year. Only 1per cent of the labour force has a certain degree of job security, employment guarantees and employee benefits which are due to any worker. In the contract labour system, how one regularizes employment is a big challenge.
Traditionally, the unions have never paid much emphasis on the huge bulk of and number of informal sector workers. This is a big workforce. Therefore, the challenge is that one has to have minimum wages, social security measures and provident funds and health benefits including hospitalization covered.
The third challenge is that in the specific case of the plantation sector where the workers are indentured to the formal sector, the workers are treated worse than the informal sector workers. They do not get minimum wages and there is absolutely no social security coverage which the employers must provide in spite of there being certain rules in the plantation labour acts. In many sectors, workers are notionally in the formal sector but are treated worse than the informal sector.
There is also of course a severe, serial attack on the right to association and the right to unionization. A number of reforms must take place. We should have a successful general strike on a national scale all over the island. The demands of the strikers should be that the type of reforms the government is trying to do will actually in reality attempt to get the workers out of any formal, legal coverage, legal security or legal guarantee. The government is trying to play around with the acts governing factories and contract labour. After a brief phase of growth, growth has now hit a stumbling block, and is though not in a crisis, getting hit. When growth is getting hit, the employers will always try to keep their profits intact by putting every cost including social costs on the workers. These are the largest challenges to the trade union movement in the region at this point in and of time.
? : What has happened to trade unions in Sri Lanka?
A: The trade union movement of Sri Lanka has a long tradition. There were very powerful trade unions in the country led by people like Philip Gunawardena and Bala Tampoe. What has happened is that a number of factors taken together, the defeat of the left and the strikes of the 1980s, and following the war, the cultivated growth of a kind of chauvinism on ethnic lines, have weakened the working class very much. In fact, the workers were taught to think of themselves as either being Tamils or the Sinhalese instead of all being workers working for workers demands. This is the impact we see in the degrading living conditions here. In fact in a certain point of time in the 1970s, Sri Lanka was much ahead of the other South Asian countries in terms of the human development index with a number of aspects taken together including health, education and the female’s status in the society. Yet, after this, wholly damaging conditions have wreaked havoc.
? : What do you think of legislating the minimum wage for both the public and private sectors?
A: Legislation of course is the way out. In one of the judgments given in 1991/1992, Workmen Employed under IT Shramik Sena vs the Management of Raptakos Brett and Company Limited, the Supreme Court of India said the minimum wage is the wage or earnings needed for subsistence beneath which the humanity cannot be allowed to sink as human beings would not be able to survive. For example, minimum wages should be included in the Constitution as it is a question of human rights. Below the minimum wages, humans cannot survive. The minimum wage is the non-negotiable minimum. One cannot lead a decent human life beneath that. One asks for the minimum wage when in fact the Indian Supreme Court in one of its judgments said whoever that is not paying a minimum wage is not employing workers but bonded labourers. Thus, any violation of the minimum wage must be seen in this light.
We have steps – minimum wages, living wages and fair wages. The goal is to go towards fair wages. These are basic, minimum living conditions, so there has to be legislation and enforceability as well. The employers go to courts and obtain an injunction, or either there is such an inefficient system of monitoring, complaint mechanisms and redressing and there are no minimum wage inspectors and these are not followed up.
The enforceability of minimum wage is a major issue. The denial of minimum wage should be a cognizable offence. Otherwise, one cannot deal with this. The government of Sri Lanka must be progressive about minimum wages and must make it a law and make it compulsory.
A minimum wage of Sri Lankan Rs 10,000 would barely cover the cost of living. The money they are offering is a pittance. If one looks at the current basic minimum living conditions in Colombo for a family of four, the minimum wage earner of a family of four should be taking in at least Sri Lankan Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000. It is otherwise a very serious question of how it is very difficult for workers families to manage with Rs 10,000, in the absence of any social security benefits. Minimum wage is of course necessary, and must be harmonized with the number of rules and international norms on how to calculate the minimum wage. Any of the calculations of minimum wage do not come to Rs 10,000, as this amount is much less than the minimum wage.
Minimum wage demands can be met through minimum wage components. Minimum wage is not the wage one has to pay in cash. The state should rather make a component of a non-cash component in the sense that one has a good quality, free public education system, free public health system and free food, including thereby the right to food and other different programmes and the provision of free shelter, build houses for the workers, do social housing as practised in Europe and many other parts of the world and subsidize on transport. All these things count. These components will actually take out a lot of the cash components. This will also ensure that the minimum wage that one is giving will be properly utilized by the workers and that workers will not spend it on drinks or any other purpose other than looking after the upkeep of the whole family in a proper, decent fashion.
? : What are the issues with the plantations in the estate sector?
A: The plantation labour acts and corresponding laws are quite outdated, the enforceability is a problem and the mechanisms are problematic. For example, in the Plantations Labour Act of 1951 of India which provides for the housing, school buses, playgrounds and the social functions and the water connections, the fine and penalty for non-compliance is Indian Rs 400 (just over Sri Lankan Rs 800) while for a small tinkering the estate owners and the employers can actually pay Indian Rs 40,000. In a number of cases the fine or penalty imposed on owners for non-compliance is much less than the penalty on trade union workers. A similar condition prevails in Sri Lanka as well and owners take advantage of this. We need a strong law and strong mechanism. We need to fundamentally change labour relationships and plantations. The modern world cannot survive with this type of labour practice.
? : What should be done with regard to the workers and the labourers?
A : Number one is that there must be policies. Crises may come and go, but there has to be policies to create funds and to have funds for the workers so that their upkeep and benefits are not hampered. Human lives have to roll on in spite of good or bad markets. This cannot be reduced to the level of penury.
Sri Lanka has a big export market that has not gone through a collapse of demand. There may be temporary problems but in tea, the exports are growing.
Guaranteed price is called the minimum support price in India. In tea too one can think of the production and the ways and means to when in the lean season one can have the banks help out the owners at such a point of time if the production is affected.
The level of workers’ well-being must be taken care of. One can create various trusts and insurances to take care of these things. These things are possible.
? : What should the state and the government do?
A : Firstly, different workers’ rights have to be guaranteed.
They can have different acts. Secondly, it is the enforceability of the rights. If one has a right, the question is how one enforces it. The employers who do not comply go scot-free. This has to end. This has to be changed.
Especially without ensuring this our dreams of looking towards a decent society will remain an illusion. Without ensuring and instituting basic workers rights and their enforceability, our dreams of seeing a just society would be an illusion.
Source : Ceylontoday
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