Let's look at ways we can provide labour benefits without union red tape

Are the Provisions of the Trade Union Act, first drafted in 1926 relevant in today’s fast moving technology driven age?

More and more labour actions are being directly resolved by groups of employees negotiating with company management, outside the framework of Labour Union Law. Both in India and abroad, unionized emplyees are working in areas of business that are shrinking (given the advent of earth movers, robotics, artificial intelligence, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and e-commence).

New technology intensive businesses are rarely unionized particularly as the half-life of technology is considered to average around six years. That means that someone who gets a job operating a new software technology will be halfway to being unemployed after just six years on the job. The speed at which business moves today has no room for moribund union procedures. Government departments of labour will also need to reinvent themselves, finding new groups to serve in the unorganized labour segment.

Then there is the fact that businesses prefer to deal with workers as self-employed businesses. Uber and Airbnb are good examples of small businesses stepping up to replace employees, many of whom were unionized in the past.

Does that mean that these new self-employed workers have no recourse? Uber Drivers and Google employees both organized successful agitations in the recent past. The recently published book, Labour Law for the Rank & Filer (Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law)” by Straughton Lynd & Stanley Gross cites the effective issue-based agitations organized by Uber drivers and Google employees in the USA*1.

An article in the New York Times on the book strikes a cautionary note, It says, While applauding the grass-roots organizing that the book has helped inspire, union leaders have cautioned that solidarity unions can be exhausting for workers to sustain and that they leave workers vulnerable to company retaliation.” This problem can be mitigated by Worker Welfare organizations coming in as service providers to manage employee data, interface with the media and advise on legal issues.

Finally, the numbers alone indicate that change is likely. In the United States for example, some 30 percent of public employees are unionized whereas less than 6 percent are unionized. In India too, most unionized employees are in government departments, public sector companies and banks. Private sector unions are few and far between. The Indian (BJP) government is already trying to streamline and redraft a proposed code on Social Security Benefits for workers. If you want to comment you can do so no later than October 25, 2019. For more on this visit: https://www.citizenznews.com/2019/10/we-have-only-till-october-25th-2019-to.html

Many government (unionized) functions are now being outsourced. In Kerala, if you need a copy of your land records you are now required to visit one of hundreds of “Akshaya Centers” that provide service for a nominal service fee of Rs 35. Other services like photocopies are also available at a set price. This means that overstaffed government departments that are unionized will over time shrink as less new employees are taken on.

If unions continue to lose relevance (and it certainly seems likely that they will), what are the functions of unions that we need to retain and how might we retain them?

1.        Reform and expand the labour adjudication process: Whether there are unions or not there will always be labour disputes at the organizational level, there will also be disciplinary issues at the individual level. We already have a system of labour courts, and we need to add to those mediation functions and possibly mandatory arbitration. While unionized workers may receive faster service or have extra privileges, unorganized labourers could qualify for access to this process through a qualification process.

2.       Reach out to unorganized labour through a standardized registration process: Some states already have a process for migrant labourers who can provide acceptable forms of ID and then receive a labour card that qualifies them to receive limited health services at government hospitals and empaneled private facilities. There could be an incident specific registration process managed by District Labour Officers that funnels these individuals into counselling, prior to determining what form of adjudication is possible or warranted.

3.        Groups or individual organized and unorganized workers who pay into a State or National Pension Plan should be able to access the Labour dispute resolution process as they are already displaying a commitment to being responsible members of the labour community,

Even way back in the Pre-Socratic age the Philosopher Heraclitus warned us that “Change is the only constant.” Today we know that change is not just constant but it’s also speeding up constantly. We would do well to remember that this principle certainly applies to the Trade Union Act and Labour Management as well. Labour advocates are advised therefore that if we do not manage this change proactively, change will be thrust upon the labour community with consequences that all concerned will dislike.

Written by Pravin J P Arapurakal, Editor, CitizenzNews

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