The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Labour row on Atal dais

New Delhi, Sept. 18: The battle over reform in labour laws will be dragged to the Indian Labour Conference next weekend when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses trade union leaders and captains of industry.

Union labour minister Sahib Singh Verma has made no breakthrough till now in his talks with labour leaders, all of whom have rejected outright the National Labour Commission’s recommendations to simplify conditions for retrenchments, layoffs and closures.

The final day of the two-day labour conference has been set aside for discussions on labour law reforms, as suggested by the National Labour Commission. “It will be a stormy session,” said a labour ministry official.

Signals from trade unions have been ominous. Verma first met Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the RSS’ trade union outfit, but had no luck in toning down their opposition to the National Labour Commission recommendations.

The commission has suggested drastic amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act. According to the present provisions, industrial units employing less than 100 workers do not need the state government’s permission for retrenchments, layoffs or closures.

The commission has recommended scrapping of any ceiling on the size of the workforce in case of retrenchments and layoffs, which means owners would be able to sack workers in any unit, regardless of its size, without government permission. In case of closures, the commission has suggested raising the upper limit from 100 to 300.

“This would mean, that nearly 90 per cent of establishments in the organised sector would be free to effect closure, if the present floor level is increased from 100 to 300,” said Citu leader M.K. Pandhe after meeting Verma.

Though the Congress has expressed willingness to accept the 300 benchmark for retrenchments, closures and layoffs, its trade union wing, the Indian National Trade Union Congress, has rejected the proposal.

The Indian Labour Conference, an annual event, will turn into a platform for thrashing out these differences between the government, employers and unions.

The industrial lobby has been mounting pressure on the government to push through policies for rationalising labour laws. At the labour conference, this lobby will try to sell its point of view and also have the backing of the Prime Minister.

Even though Vajpayee has repeatedly said he wants a consensus on labour reforms, he has also driven home the need to rationalise labour laws. At previous labour meets, the Prime Minister had exhorted workers and labour leaders to “change” and make themselves “fit” for the new culture of competition.

Indian manufacturers would get swallowed in the competition unless labour laws were amended, he had said.

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