The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bid to crack labour logjam flops

New Delhi, Sept. 29: The Prime Minister’s call for consensus was heeded on the public platform for labour’s biggest spectacle, but not off-stage.

As the curtains came down on the Indian Labour Conference without any on-stage fireworks, the government conceded that the session had made no headway in striking a deal on controversial reforms, which include easier retrenchment and closure of industrial units.

Labour minister Sahib Singh Verma claimed a “general unanimity” but admitted that no decision was reached. “Today we only discussed the issue. It was not possible to take a decision,” the minister said.

Verma has scheduled another round of talks at the end of next month with trade unions and state governments on the National Labour Commission report, which has made recommendations on the two sensitive issues.

However, Hansubhai Dave, general secretary of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), said there were “no fireworks” on the last day of the conference.

The BMS leader was seconded by Ram S. Taneja, vice-chairperson of the employers’ group, who claimed a “consensus”. Several employers have been seeking amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act — governing retrenchment and closure — which they felt would help attract more investments.

While seeking a consensus on economic policies, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said yesterday that the government would arrive at a decision on labour reforms before the budget session.

But the public pronouncements at the conference could not paper over trade unions’ opposition to the “hire-and-fire” proposals and the disinvestment policy. Verma’s statement also indicated that the conference had not made much progress in turning the sceptics around. “I have asked all state governments to send their views on the report in writing so that the government can come out with a definite view,” said Verma.

However, participants at the conference were unanimous on non-controversial recommendations like an umbrella legislation for unorganised workers, a skill development fund for retraining workers and consolidation of social security legislation.

On disinvestment, the unions stuck to their guns. They demanded an overall review of the policy, saying it was inimical to national interests in its present form.

The employers, on the other hand, supported disinvestment, saying it enhanced competitiveness among enterprises and improved efficiency. The workers urged the government not to disinvest profit-making public sector enterprises.

On this issue, they have the support of some parties within the NDA, like the Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena, who have been persistently attacking the disinvestment policy.

The conference document reflected the opinion of the government, saying: “Public sector undertakings find it difficult to adapt themselves to the globally changing scenario. Taking note of the international and national experience, it is imperative that PSUs be privatised.”

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