Because ‘Normal’ Was Never Good Enough

Because ‘Normal’ Was Never Good Enough

This title is an adopted version of the Unison’s statement ‘Normal was never good enough.’ This was my presentation today at the Webinar organized by Ambekar Institute of Labour Studies and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

I was watching a video published on the YouTube by Unison. It is the largest trade union in England. Unison emphasized ‘Normal was never good enough.’ The reality could not have been put more succinctly. It is important to take a quick look at the industrial scenario before Covid pandemic at both, organization and National levels.

The Situation at Organization and National Levels

While I have watched the industrial relations scene in the manufacturing industry closely, I have also had opportunity to meet union leaders in Kolkata and Chennai. Here are my observations:

The survey of ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) Global Rights Index for 2020 is out. They have rated India as one of the WORLD’S TEN WORST countries for workers. The rating means ‘No guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of the rule of law.’ Such has been rating in the past too. The indicators are there for all to see.

Most organizations employed very few permanent workers and a large workforce of contract workers, trainees, temporary workers and NEEM trainees. Certain service industry units, like banks, show this ratio at shocking high at 1:20. And in some cases industry was run with only contract workers.

Because ‘Normal’ was never good enough

The subterfuge of appointing employees as ‘consultants’ or ‘retainers’ was rampant in the service sector. That resulted in wide disparities in wages between persons employed for similar jobs. This is true of both, the manufacturing as well as service sectors.

The unions adopted, very unfortunately, a short-sighted approach of taking care of only the permanent workers. They ignored the contingent workforce.

Dialogue between unions and management of companies was at bare essential level. And mostly post conflict.

There is no effective representation at the parliament or legislative assemblies. National level unions and parliamentarians have failed to make any appreciable impact on the policies.

The Government has abandoned its role as watch dog of industrial relations. It has failed to implement labour laws. It did not intervene even in the cases of illegal and unconscionable retrenchments and closures.   

What should be done?

This is the context of relationships between the Government, Employers and Unions. These three parties are responsible for seeing us through the Covid 19 pandemic. The issue is who shoulders greater responsibility. My answer is that it rests equally on the three parties.

I would like to quote Henry Mintzberg although he said it in a different context: ‘It is the balance in society that we need to get right, and that will not be done by business alone, or, for that matter, by government or community action alone.’ We see extreme imbalance. The voice of employees and unions has become so feeble that it is not heard!

How to get the balance in the Society right?

Given the situation, the initiative clearly lies with Employers and the Government. While there are some good actions taken sporadically, a strategic action is not forthcoming. Industries and Unions will have to create fora for dialogue and consultations. Social dialogue, I mean. There is no move toward establishing this at the unit or national level. In the absence of social dialogue, we cannot expect parties to understand the concerns of each other, and to devise critical solutions.

The industry will focus on profits. But the times demand that the focus must shift on people, because survival of millions of people is at stake. The newspapers yesterday pointed out that 6 million white collar jobs were lost already. The Government, more than the employers, must appreciate that it is time to focus on people in various ways. Reversing some of the draconian actions of suspending labour laws will be the first step.

CII has asked its member companies not to lay off their employees. The impact of this suggestion is not known. In some cases, not laying off employees may not be the viable option. The point is – diktats like this are not the solution. The parties have to find the optimum solution through dialogue. Henry Mintzberg talks about getting balance in the society right; this is the only way to get it.

As said earlier, onus is on all the three players to respond to this unusual situation. The first step in handling any crisis is to hold dialogues. In any crisis, communication between all players is of vital importance. Unfortunately, we see too little and not-so-meaningful communication between parties.

Take for instance the case of a company which employed a sizeable number of women workers. This is a true case and I have blogged about it. Who Worries About Working Women In Corona Times  The Company discontinued ‘Creche’ facility. Many women employees who had no family support could not leave their kids at home and go to work. Effectively they lost their jobs.

Contract workers are the first casualty of crisis

In another case, a certain airline reduced the pay of pilots. They offered them a fresh contract with reduced pay and benefits. An organization in manufacturing industry reduced pay in flagrant violation of their long-term agreement, and retrenched a group of employees.

Reduction in the employee cost is inevitable in certain cases. The problem is that there is no dialogue. With open discussions, alternate solutions can be discovered. Thermax, for instance, has held talks with employees and reduced pay by various degrees across hierarchy. And there are a few others who have done it too. We also have a case where the employees agreed to take a 16.5% salary cut for six months to help bail out their company.

Actions Required at Organization and National Level

Let us discuss what actions are required at the unit as well as the organization level. I will pick up only three issues here for elaboration.

Sick Leave

First, employees may require additional sick leave during the pandemic. If it is unpaid leave it will cause great suffering.

Godrej Consumer Products insured its workforce of more than 2675 permanent personnel and over 4000 contingent workforce part, meaning contract workers and such others for medical insurance covers for medical hospitalization or treatment of COVID-19. Each employee is entitled to cashless treatment or reimbursement of medical expenses up to Rs.50,000.  

Nestlé factories have put in place generous sick leave arrangements for those who contract the virus and will provide cash loans or advances for those in financial distress. All hourly and salaried staff affected by temporary stoppages will be paid in full for a minimum of twelve weeks.  Read about it here

These two exceptions to the rule are worth emulating voluntarily. The Government will have to step in to make a rule for the benefit of workers.

Right to Refuse

Covid pandemic presents exceptional circumstances at work because they endanger lives. Visitor protocols are essential and also it is necessary to provide safe and healthy working conditions. Some large organizations ensure such conditions, but millions in India work for organizations which do not care to adopt safe and healthy working conditions.

ILO Convention 155 is about Occupational Safety and Health. As one union points out, “In plain language, this says that within the context of national law, workers can, with reasonable justification, remove themselves from unsafe work and not return until the employer has remedied the situation, and if they have exercised this right in good-faith, they cannot suffer undue consequences.” India has not ratified this Convention. Yet both the Government and Employers can set the guidelines. There will be fear of its misuse. And that takes us once again to setting up forum for dialogues.

Declare Coronavirus Infection as ‘Occupational Disease

With spread of Coronavirus, threat exists everywhere. Workplaces which require teamwork also place lives of employees at risk. Hence there is a suggestion that Coronavirus infection should be declared an ‘Occupational Disease.’ This will entitle the employees to more benefits under the ESIC and Employees Compensation Laws. This is a suggestion from ILO, and it should be adopted.

Finally, the trio of Government, Employers and Unions must play a responsible role to help people fight the threat of pandemic. The way forward is social dialogue which will ensure sensitivity to the issues of all the three partners in industrial relations.

Vivek S Patwardhan

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.

“Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”