This article has been written by Nikhil Gayner pursuing the Diploma in Labour, Employment and Industrial Laws (including POSH) for HR Managers from LawSikho. This article has been edited by Zigishu Singh (Associate, Lawsikho) and Ruchika Mohapatra (Associate, Lawsikho).
Trade unions or labour unions are institutions/organisations formed by the workers working in the same establishment or working in the same profession across establishments to work for the common interest of its members. These trade unions play a major role in advocating workers’ rights and helping them with issues such as equality of pay, good working conditions , better working hours and benefits. Such labour unions also operate as an intermediary between the management and workers.
In India, The Trade Union Act, 1926 is the primary act which enumerates the guidelines and regulates the mechanism governing trade unions. However, major trade unions in India are also often influenced by various political ideologies. At an International level, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) works to safeguard the interests and fundamental rights of workers. This ITUC is a brainchild of the International labour organisation (ILO) and enumerates the right to organize in trade union, collective bargaining and protection against discrimination. The Confederation also works to protect children against practises of child labour practice and forced labour. The ITUC has three salient arms as its regional organisations, namely Asia- Pacific Regional Organization, Trade Union Confederation of the Americas and the African Regional Organisation. The main purpose of the regional organisations is to streamline the international policies on trade unions.
The ITUC Asia Pacific represents the trade unions from the countries in Asia and Oceania. It has 40 affiliated organisations across 28 countries, with a membership numbering 30 million. From India, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha and Indian National Trade Union Congress are the main members of ITUC Asia Pacific.
An authoritarian state is defined as a state in which the basic liberty and rights of an individual have been curbed and the power has been concentrated on a single party or individual. In such a situation, it is very much likely that repressive strategies would be in use to suppress any dissent and curb individuals’ rights to protest. The state and labour relations encompasses the role of effective communication and laying down the conditions of employment for workers. Typically, there are four types of authoritarian governance related to unions and these types are distinguished by certain key dimensions of state-labour relations: resolution of industrial conflict, tolerance of labour organising and labour-related policies and legislation. These types are as under;
- Exploitative :
In this, the governing body adopts a repressive approach towards managing the state and labour conflicts. The Trade Unions work only in the interest of the state and the labour protest and strikes are subdued forcibly . Demonstrations by labourers are prohibited strictly and there is no scope for the development of labour. All the employment policies favour the employer and the labourers are not allowed to protest.
In the protective type, the state imposes certain limits to exploitation. However, Trade Unions continue to support the protective measures and follow the states policies at large. This has scope for legal activism and makes adherence to labour laws and workers are allowed to use protective laws to claim their rights. The state’s policies are aimed to protect the labour.
This is a more open system and works on the inclusion of labour representatives with effective dialogue and proper negotiating tools such as collective bargaining. Workers are allowed to share information on protests and are involved in strategic decision making . Some labour organising and internal coordination of activities allowed for labourers and labor can take the role of educating and guiding others on their rights, sometimes supporting the strikes as well. Various policies and laws are designed to help in effective negotiations and means for arbitration. Workers and laborers have some influence over policies and states allow more freedom in decision making.
Here, the state is more inclined towards resolving the industrial conflict and has a limited role for negotiation. The Trade unions work as a state agency but are made to focus on addressing the workers grievances. Little scope for experimentation in organising and resolution of conflicts/disputes. No opportunity for inclusion of labour representatives in decision making.
The above types of authoritarian governance related to unions are driven by various factors such as globalisation, state internal developmental strategy, state leadership and approach towards good governance.
Trade unions in Asia and the Pacific
In the last decade, many Asian countries have revised their respective policies on labour relations, some of which were specifically focused on regulating the activities of trade unions and focused more on Industrial peace.
Trade unions play an important role in ILO’s tripartite structure. Trade union representatives play an important role in shaping and directing ILO policies and programs concerning employers and government agencies. Constant dialogue with such employers and such agencies is important to promote the standards for decent work for all men and women and implement decent work country programs.
However, the trade unions in the regions are facing serious challenges in terms of protecting the interests and rights of the workers. Few of the key issues includes the inability to organise and push for a collective bargain, failing to protect r the rights of migrant laborers, unable to deal with the problems of child labour, forced labour and increasing level of gender inequality.
COVID-19 and Unions
The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap of inequality and created major rifts between the working class and the employers. Like everywhere in the world, Asia also has encountered the problems of job loss, major lockdowns and forced job cuts. As per the report of 2021 ITUC Global rights devastating events have taken place across Asia, to name a few, In Cambodia work suspension was imposed unilaterally on all the airports without even informing the unions thus leaving thousands unemployed. The governments in Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar have violated the workers’ rights and their strike and opposed such measures by forcibly suppressing them by means of force. Several killing incidents of trade unionists were reported across the region.
As per this same report, the workers’ rights were denied in Asian & Middle East countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Philippines & Thailand. Region wise APAC Asia Pacific Accreditation Cooperation was the second-worst region in violating the workers’ rights and India was one of the several other countries to adopt the laws which have severely violated the basic liberty of workers leading to major strikes across the country.
In 2021, countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Hong Kong were devastated by major violence which suppressed the workers’ protests and intentionally prosecuted major Union leaders. Many countries adopted regressive laws which have severely violated the workers freedom and challenged the state’s role in their protection. The various violations observed in these countries relating to Trade Unions include violation in right to strike, violation in joining a trade union, trade union activities, and attack on trade unionists.
Challenging time for Trade Unions in future
Work and employment are major activities for an individual and the society at large and participation in this labour force determines the opportunities for work and subsequently, the workers joining Unions. Considering the disinterest of various governments in protecting the workers rights and the current scenario where many have been asked to leave their jobs and their voices were not heard due to ineffective mechanisms of negotiations, there are many other factors which will directly impact the role of Trade Unions.
The changing landscape for employment and higher growth in the service sector decreases the unionism number along with the lack of permanent jobs coupled with hiring threats making the time difficult and thus decreasing the number of union members. As per a recent report of ILO, the future of the trade union depends on the informal economy and reveals that renewal in trade union movement can only be possible if the workers working in the informal economy are organized. The future trends have direct implications on workers organizations and thus the trade union must be focused on promoting workers rights and raising concerns over states’ forceful implementation of unjust laws.
The current situation is making the unions lose their effectiveness in promoting good relations in the organisations. The position of the union and its traditional members has been affected due to the current scenario. The major policy changes at the government level and ineffectiveness of trade unions in raising the voice against such rules have made the current situation worse and because of which the coming workforce labour members are of the opinion that the trade unions are unable to represent them and have become the tolls to drive government’s agenda making drifting them away from unionism. Eventually depriving them of effective collective bargaining and ultimately losing the power of unity.
Deploying a new index for measuring de jure and de facto labor rights, the article presents new comparative data on labor rights in the region. Democratization has produced stronger collective labor rights in much of the region, but labor laws in most countries still fall far short of international labor standards. East Asia’s labor laws offer similar levels of protection for individual labor rights to the rest of the world when firing costs are taken into account, and low regional averages are primarily a consequence of Singapore’s extremely weak individual labor rights. Few countries have revised their labor laws in the direction of allowing greater labor market flexibility. However, the distance between law and practice is wide, so improvements in laws are not necessarily reflected on the ground. Flexibility enters through the back door of ineffective labor law enforcement, which in turn has affected the organizing efforts of unions.
- 2021 ITUC Global Rights Index: COVID-19 pandemic puts spotlight on workers’ rights – International Trade Union Confederation (ituc-csi.org)
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