Quo Vadis, industrial relations disputes resolution ...?

AuthorJoseph, Jerome
PositionBy Invitation - Abstract

Quo Vadis, Industrial Relations Disputes Resolution.?

The clamor for labor law reforms is back to centre stage with the change of guard at the Centre in India and the first move has been initiated by a state government run by the same party now in charge of labor policy changes at the Centre. The targets again are three labor legislations which have been the focal points in the labor market flexibility debate--The Industrial Disputes Act (1947), Contract Labor (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970 and the Factories Act (1948) (indianexpress, rajasthan-shows-way-in-labour-reforms).Many of these moves are in response to demands from industry associations. For instance, according to FICCI, "The multiplicity of labor laws has created confusion and complexity." (economictimes. indiatimes, 2014dl-sachdev).With the clear objective of asserting the managerial prerogative of employers, according to FICCI the Industrial Disputes Act should be amended to facilitate 'hire and fire' to meet market demands and to give employers the power to change service conditions without the statutory 21 day notice that needs to be given to employees before any such change is implemented. Trade unions have their own stand on the reforms debate as reflected in statements by their leaders. According to the General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, "The labor force is the real contributor to the value-added society so they should be treated as human beings and not as a commodity. Proper enforcement and protection of laws should be there for the labor force. Labor standards are often ignored by employers and exploitation of workers takes place. These violations should be taken seriously by the government and the violators should be punished." (economictimes.indiatimes, 2014dl-sachdev).

The stage is thus set with the players ranged on various sides of the reforms debates and demands with the inevitable differences and disputes which will be played out in the various theatres of representative forums on offer in a democratic setting made possible by the mosaic of the Indian Constitution. While there are many themes which will be the focus of the reforms drama and the diverse enactments of dramatis personae, this paper will focus on one area which will always remain significant in employer-employee relations whatever the denouement on other reform themes which are likely to be enacted in the near future. The area in question is that of disputes and disputes resolution in employer-employee relations and the question to be addressed here is related to the nature of reforms in this important sphere of stakeholder engagement.

Ecosystem of Industrial Relations Disputes

A consideration of the changes needed in disputes resolution will have to take into account the ecosystem of industrial relations disputes in today's context. The history of industrial relations shows that as long as there is an employer and an employee, and there are terms and employment contracts, there will be differences and disputes, conflicts over rights and conflicts over interests, standoffs between what the employee is expected to deliver and what the employee gets in return from the employer. Even if all the laws are amended in line with organizational-managerial and investor demands, the fundamental contradictions between employer and employee will remain on the workplace justice fronts. Disputes in industrial relations cannot be wished away through legal reforms in the thrust towards greater "labor market flexibility". The removal of prevailing fences and boundaries which may result from such changes will necessitate higher order disputes resolution agencies, strategies, methods, processes and competencies in order to create a fair workplace informed by human dignity and speedy disposal of industrial relations disputes.

Table 1 gives a glimpse of the causes of disputes in industrial relations during the period 1961-2011. Disputes over wages and allowances, bonus, personnel, retrenchment, leave and working hours, indiscipline and violence and a whole host of causes under the category "others" which include layoffs, workload issues, union rivalries, have held constant over the past fifty years. Some evidence is available as to what happens when organized labor shrinks and the agencies of the state withdraw in playing their mediatory and statutory role in the data given in Table 1. As trade union numbers dwindle and "de facto" reforms through a tactical withdrawal of state labor department services, workplace indiscipline and violence seems to have escalated as is evident from the 1961-2011 data.

Besides the 50 year decadal data on workplace indiscipline and violence, there have been three major incidents of serious workplace violence leading to the tragic loss of life in the recent past between 2008 and 2012- a Greater Noida firm(timesofindia. indiatimes 2008 indiaunit-graziano-trasmissioni-commercial-production), a Coimbatore firm (dnaindia 2009 12-arrested-for-murder-of-pricol-vp-near-coimbatore) and a Manesar firm (timesofindia.indiatimes2012manesarplant-awanish-kumar-dzire) which were linked to on-going disputes and thus have a bearing on the discourse on reforms related to disputes resolution. A careful analysis of anecdotal information available in the public domain related to the three tragic events referred to above suggests ample evidence of a serious deficit in the area of industrial relations disputes resolution.

At the root of the three incidents clearly is the progressive increase in "de facto labor market flexibility" expressed in the form of the ratio of contract workers to permanent workers. The insecurity and inequality which enters into the shop floor dynamics as a result of the contradictions inherent in workforce structures becomes a major factor accounting for the simmering discontent. The Coimbatore firm workers, for instance, were agitating for over two years against the hiring of contract workers prior to the workplace incident (reuters 2009-pricol-killing-labour-at-the-receiving-end). According to the top management, at the Manesar plant, the ratio of regular to contract was 50-50 before the incident as compared to 30-35 percent contract workers in the parent country (businesstoday.intoday 2012-violence-at-maruti-manesar-criminal-act).

Contractualization has led to wage disparities between permanent and contract employees contravening the "equal pay for equal work" principle leading to serious disaffection and disputes with managements. The Coimbatore firm workers were agitating for over two years against the non-payment of pay and other benefits prior to the incident (reuters/2009/pricol-killing-labor-at-the-receiving-end). The management had also been deducting up to Rs.1,000 a month from each worker citing the loss incurred by the company as the reason (hindu/ 2009/09/26/). The Greater Noida firm dismissed 250 contract employees in June after they had staged a sit-in demanding a salary raise and the status of permanent employees consequent to the Greater Noida firm reneging on an agreement to provide a 3000 Rupees per month pay increase, by attaching conditions to the pay hike (timesofindia. indiatimes. 2008-india-unit-graziano-trasmissionicommercial-production). A fact-finding team of a union that visited the spot after the September 22 incident found that out of the 1200 workers employed in the factory, only 500 were regular workers, and the rest were on contract. The Greater Noida firm at the time paid its regular workers Rs.3200 a month for working 12 hours a day; contract workers were paid Rs.2200 per month, and denied various rights (sanhati/998/12)

Disaffection and discontent and worker reactions with wages and working conditions have been countered with terminations and suspensions which are used freely especially at the slightest sign of...

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