Who Owns The Labour Trouble?

Who Owns The Labour Trouble?

In their edition of June 17, 2016 Business Today has published a report authored by Chandan Pal Chauhan – ‘The Strife Within.’ The sub title of the report is “Labour trouble continues to torment automobile companies in India, even as they work to get ahead in an attractive market.”

It is a well written report, yet somewhat incomplete because it stops short on analysis. To appreciate the situation fully, here are some points for the consideration of readers.

Labour Trouble or Management Trouble?

We react to the words. Words convey thoughts and ideas. They also convey images. When you say ‘Labour Trouble’ we think of slogan shouting at the gate of a factory, vociferous shouting.

It takes the Management Guru Peter Drucker to tell us that every problem in the organisation is a management problem! The stark truth of this however gets lost when we talk of ‘labour trouble.’

Yet when we talk of ‘labour trouble’, we unknowingly shift the focus of discussion on how difficult it is to manage labour. It keeps managements in reactive mode and not proactive one which is essential to build any relationship. We talk of labour’s intransigence, low productivity, indiscipline and violence. We talk of labour as if they belong to a different species. [A learned friend once observed that managers have anthropological curiosity about workers.]

If we talk of management problem of managing labour, a very different conversation will ensue. We will then talk of our HR policies, we will talk of the way we have managed conflicts, we will talk of training supervisors, and we will talk of creating a good work ethic.

It is not as if the labour and their leaders are free of any blemish at all. [See the next point]. The point here is that in all reports the words used are ‘labour trouble’ and it surely deprives more meaningful conversations. It also prevents us from comprehending the complete picture.

Labour Trouble: It is a bias well-earned

There are still many active HR/ER managers who began their careers in seventies and eighties. The extreme and intransigent stances of labour then seems to be a matter of folklore, but the attitude of people was surely shaped by it.

Let me illustrate: Many of those ER managers have spent long time in their early career, in industrial canteen which was a battlefield.

The Union in Sandvik Asia in Pune asked Alphonso mangoes to be served in the canteen; the management agreed to it. The issue then was the size of the mangoes served. Then the workers made a round hole in a steel plate. If a mango passed through the hole, it was deemed to be a small mango, unacceptable and therefore rejected!

The stories in many industrial canteens was no different. Workers in literally dozens of companies wasted over 100 Kgs sweets to be distributed on the festival of Diwali because workers would make acceptance of sweets conditional to gaining some concession. This wastage in our country where there are millions starving for their daily bread!

The fact is that if public opinion turned against labour and if people did not see these as management problems, it was largely due to misdeeds of labour. And their so called leaders, the unconscionable leaders.

But that was in the eighties and may be to a lesser degree in the nineties. Things changed thereafter but the blemish remained.

You killed my dog….

Children in primary schools often sing a ‘retaliation’ song. It goes:

Tit for tat,/ Remember that!/ You killed my dog,/ I will kill your cat!

The song signifies the attitude of both management and labour over the years; believe me, things have not changed. Both are unscrupulous, no exception.

Take seventies and eighties when the trade unions were stronger, the court decisions were shockingly populist and lopsided. Workers who stole money, committed frauds, or stole material were to be reinstated, according to the court decisions. Political leaders’ love for labour was out of their personal agenda to create a political base. They did not care about law. Nor did others. Dr Samant openly and with scant respect to the law, chose to break many a valid settlement and forced the managements to sign settlements with unrecognised unions. He often refused to recognise the onus placed by the infamous MRTU and PULP Act. Violence forced managements of many companies to deal with unrecognised unions.

In the post globalisation era, the pendulum has swung the other way. The unions have lost their teeth. Political leaders have deserted the unions. The number of court cases have dropped so much that many lawyers have taken to practice of their craft in other courts. Court judgements also show another extreme. And managements of companies, auto manufacturers included, like the State promoted Maruti Suzuki, observe labour laws in its breach. There is indiscriminate employment of contract labour, retainers, fixed time employees, trainees and temporary workers. In several organisations the ratio of permanent employees to contract [or non-permanent] employees is 10:90. This breeds ‘labour trouble’ as Chandan Pal Chauhan says.

These companies are managed by well-trained managers, with their vision and mission statements, value statements. Why do they adopt people practices which take liberty with law and good values? It is all about greed and short term gains. Are they any different from the unions of the sixties and seventies?

‘The Strife Within’ seems to place the blame on ‘labour trouble’, emphasis on the first word, and my submission is that it is only half the story. In recent times it is more of a trouble fomented by management actions [or otherwise].

The reports of PUDR ‘Driving Force’ on Maruti Suzuki, of International Commission for Labor Rights ‘Merchants of Menace’, of CEREAL, Cividep India, SOMO on Nokia titled ‘Nokia Disconnected’, of Laura Ceresna – Chaturvedi Cividep-India ‘Shiny Phone, Paltry pay’, of Nicky Coninck (ICN),  Martje Theuws & Pauline Overeem (SOMO) ‘Captured by Cotton’ capture the other side of the story – that in the present day employee relations the managements contribute to making of what is erroneously called ‘labour trouble.’

So let us get this clear: It takes two to tango! In a conflict both management and workers share blame. But in a commercial organisation the responsibility is greater on the management to create harmonious relations and good work ethic. Yet many organisations of repute have failed to live up to this responsibility.

Vivek S Patwardhan