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When Sri Lanka re-writes its constitution trade union rights should be considered

2017-11-15 00:00:36
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Gautam Mody General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) of India says ;

Gautam Mody is the General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) of India. When still a student he joined the trade union movement inspired by some workers taking over a metal factory. Although he joined as an activist he went onto become the leader of that union which eventually joined other trade unions to form the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI). The NTUI is a national trade union centre committed to building working class power through democratic and militant unions. In an interview with the Daily Mirror during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, Gautam said that violence was the strategy of capitalism, and not of trade unionism. Excerpts:  

  • The contention of capitalism that it can deal one- on- one with employees is historically invalidated 
  • Three or four decades back people didn’t talk about inconvenience. There used to be solidarity strikes; this was in essence [the result] of the expansion of the media, the capital control over the media and the presentation of a message
  • There was a recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India in the case of municipal workers who were irregular at work pronouncing that every resident of the city of Mumbai has the right to a clean city
  • When does a strike happen? It happens when there is a break down, when workers-be they doctors or factory workers- believe they have no resort but to strike
  • The Government has to put in place strong laws that protect the right to form trade unions and the right to the recognition of trade unions​
  • The problem is the working class is being divided like a cake by political parties. This is where parties of the Left and progressive parties particularly in our sub-continent have failed the working class
  • We are opposed to all forms of violence. I don’t think that it even enters our minds that violence is a strategy or tactic. Violence from the working class never originates from workers

QWhat is the necessity for trade unionism in a country? 


As long as there is capitalism, there will be trade unions. The contention of capitalism that it can deal one- on- one with employees is historically invalidated. A trade union is a legitimate, democratic, self-managed and self-governed forum of working people. It is there to stay whether people like it or not. 

 
QPeople have been greatly inconvenienced by trade union action. For instance, by doctors’ strikes, bus strikes etc. Forming a trade union and joining a trade union is a right. But does this right encompass inconveniencing the general public? 


The general public comprises mostly working class people. To some extent yes, it is our failure that one section of working people have not been able to connect with another section. But it’s also the nature of how capital has rolled out especially in the last thirty years, culminating in more divisions and more  layers between working people. Three or four decades back people didn’t talk about inconvenience. There used to be solidarity strikes; this was in essence [the result] of the expansion of the media, the capital control over the media and the presentation of a message. It’s not even clear how many people are actually opposed to this kind of action and how much of it is played out from the capital side trying to create an environment of irresponsibility among sections of workers.   


There was a recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India in the case of municipal workers who were irregular at work pronouncing that every resident of the city of Mumbai has the right to a clean city. Correspondingly every worker who keeps the city clean has his or her rights as a worker. So the two are intertwined. I have a right as a patient in a hospital and that includes my right to life. Every employee in the hospital also has a right and this is really for the State and society to reconcile. Doctors don’t strike because they are mean people. Doctor’s don’t strike because they don’t want to treat patients. Doctors strike because they are also oppressed and are treated unfairly. 

 
Q But when doctors go on strike for twenty four hours on end wouldn’t that jeopardize the lives of patients?


What are the number of deaths recorded when doctors go on strike? Doctors are not criminals; let’s look at the real environment. I’ve not heard a story of a doctors’ strike causing fatalities; they pull it off somehow and mildly break their strikes to make sure emergencies are dealt with.

  
QPatients might not have access to immediate healthcare which otherwise could have increased their quality of life.


My point is that this is for the State and society to mediate. Doctors typically strike as a last resort. That’s been the experience of India and I believe in Sri Lanka. It has been the experience across the world. Where did the failure occur? Does the failure occur because doctors strike? Or because the Government wasn’t willing to sit down and talk to doctors? When does a strike happen? It happens when there is a break down, when workers-be they doctors or factory workers- believe they have no resort but to strike.   


Q With globalization and other modern advancements what are the new challenges that workers are facing today?


I think the biggest challenge workers face today with globalization is the continuous and rapid restructuring of production. That means the old composite factory system is broken down and extended to highly decentralized production in many industries. It’s the push of capital to extract higher profits through decentralization which allows it or pushes it to create more and more poor quality jobs and sub- standard work widely known today as precarious jobs. In India you have contract workers. In Sri Lanka you have the man power and workers who come through the third party agencies. I think the biggest challenge the working class faces is actually the irregularization or contractualization which causes enormous job insecurity. It undermines trade union rights.   


QHow can the government address these concerns?

 
First the Government must ensure that the law of the land as it exists is implemented. In India and across the west and the south Asian sub-continent we see huge violations of laws. So the first task of Government is to ensure that the labour machinery works together with the inspection machinery  robustly. In India the current government has diluted the system of labour inspectors and that’s an enormous concern to trade unions in India. The actions of the Government of India are a complete violation of the ILO convention on inspections.  


The Government has to put in place strong laws that protect the right to form trade unions and the right to the recognition of trade unions. It’s widely and perhaps universally accepted that all citizens have a right to vote. It is a  universal and a necessary right of modern society. But workers’ rights to elect their own union is not a widely accepted universal right. I think the task of Governments today is to recognize that. An enormous amount of so-called ‘capital-working class’ conflicts will be resolved if workers are protected by law and they could choose and constitute their own trade unions. Much of the multiplicity we talk of, much of the dissidence within the trade unions is a creature of capital playing one union against another.   


Q Sri Lanka is in the process of formulating a new constitution. Do you think that by including labour rights and trade union rights into the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the constitution that practically speaking workers will benefit? 


Of course. Trade union rights have been recognized in many of the young constitutions that have come out of progressive struggles. The constitution of post-apartheid South Africa, in our own sub-continent, and the constitution of Nepal have recognized trade union rights as democratic and fundamental rights.  I think it’s important that when Sri Lanka re-writes its constitution these rights are considered. And I’m sure that my comrades from the Sri Lankan trade union movement and Sri Lanka left will fight for this; it’s a legitimate fight. 

 
Q How does the NTUI grapple with politicization? 


We’re still struggling with it. I wouldn’t say politicization;politics is central to the working class struggle. It’s not politicization that we have a problem with. In fact the need would be to politicize the working class struggle more than it already has.   


The problem is the working class is being divided like a cake by political parties. This is where parties of the Left and progressive parties particularly in our sub-continent have failed the working class. I think our task must be to unite the working class irrespective of party affiliations. It is the only way we can build a progressive working class that can combat the attack we face today by capitalism and neo-liberalism.   


QWhat are the issues the NTUI has tackled so far? 


The biggest fights we face are our right to freedom of association, the right of workers to join trade unions of their choice and the right to collective bargaining with employers who are refusing to hear our demands. The only law in India that is universal for all sections of workers is the Minimum Wages Act. And it’s also perhaps the most violated Act. Our right to form unions and workers to join unions of their choice and the minimum wage,are really the two biggest challenges in advancing the working class struggle today.   


Q Does the NTUI approve of violence in trade union action?


Of course not. We are opposed to all forms of violence. I don’t think that it even enters our minds that violence is a strategy or tactic. Violence from the working class never originates from workers. The fact is that capitalism and capital are quintessentially violent. 

 
When the working class is attacked, especially physically,violently and brutally  the working class is going to respond; and they should respond. There’s no other way. Violence is not our strategy; it is that of capital.   


I think today the agenda of capitalists to push the working class increasingly to violence, delegitimize their trade unions is with the objective of criminalizing the working class [giving them a licence] to label the working class as a bunch of criminals. That’s the agenda of capital. But when capital crosses the line, workers will respond.     

Trade union rights have been recognized in many of the young constitutions that have come out of progressive struggles

I think it’s important that when Sri Lanka re-writes its constitution these rights are considered. And I’m sure that my comrades from the Sri Lankan trade union movement and Sri Lanka left will fight for this; it’s a legitimate fight

I think the biggest challenge workers face today with globalization is the continuous and rapid restructuring of production. That means the old composite factory system is broken down and extended to highly decentralized production in many industries

 


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