The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal salve for labour leaders

New Delhi, Oct. 18: Trade unions were today offered an olive branch by Atal Bihari Vajpayee who assured labour leaders that a committee would be set up to determine the extent to which privatisation has harmed workers in public sector undertakings like Balco and Modern Foods.

At an hour-long meeting in his residence this evening, the Prime Minister heard out the complaints of labour leaders from all major central trade unions, including the Citu, Aituc, Intuc and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. They alleged that retrenchments were going on in Balco even though the deal on privatisation had declared that no worker would be sacked.

Labour minister Sahib Singh Verma, who also attended the meeting, later told reporters: “A committee will be set up to find out to what extent the privatisation of companies like Balco and Modern Foods has harmed their workers. And whether the agreement has been violated.” Vajpayee also assured labour leaders that a strategy would be worked out to reverse unemployment.

The Prime Minister said that, with government jobs becoming scarce, the private sector should offer jobs to stem the tide of unemployment. Trade union leaders, however, stuck to their guns and demanded a review of liberalisation policies. Vajpayee, as expected, gave them no such assurance, although agreeing that retrenchments were taking place and government jobs had dried up.

“The Prime Minister conceded retrenchments are becoming a serious problem and government jobs have become scarce,” said Aituc general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta, adding: “We had an opportunity to present our views before the Prime minister. The trade unions’ views are never heard.”

But the bottomline was that the possibility of a consensus on crucial policies, like disinvestment and labour law reforms, remained as intractable as before.

At the Indian Labour Conference last month, the Prime Minister had spoken of the need for a consensus on labour law reforms and economic policies. But, at the same time, he had made it clear that his government was not ready to backtrack on these policies in the face of opposition from within and without his party.

Both the Prime Minister and Verma have said they will move amendments in the Budget session in order to rationalise labour laws. But given the adamant stance adopted by the trade unions, a consensus is unlikely to emerge among political parties. The BJP will need the backing of the Congress to get the Industrial Disputes Act passed in Parliament with amendments that will facilitate closures, retrenchments and layoffs.

So far, the Congress has refused to accept the National Labour Commission’s recommendations to make flexible the laws for retrenchments, layoffs and closures. The Left, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal will also not accept the recommendations and neither will some NDA allies, like the Shiv Sena.

The labour ministry has scheduled a meeting of all the parties concerned in labour reforms for next month. The meeting will discuss the commission’s report and try to thrash out issues of agreement and disagreement. There is strong pressure from the employers lobby to get the amendments through for a “hire and fire” policy.

Officials in the labour ministry believe that rationalisation of labour laws is an integral part of the liberalisation package. But they stress that the workers must have some buffer to withstand the impact of such policies. Political parties, however, do not want to be seen as supporters of policies that will portray them as “anti-poor’ and in turn affect their electoral fortune.

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