'Three-minutes each is a joke': Central trade unions boycott finance ministry's pre-budget consultations
The joint letter by the ten trade unions also reiterated their outstanding demands, including the withdrawal of the four controversial labour codes and called for an open public debate regarding them
A joint forum of ten central trade unions — including INTUC, AITUC, TUCC, SEWA, HMS, CITU, AICCTU, LPF, AIUTUC and UTUC —has decided to boycott the virtual pre-budget consultation with finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on November 28, demanding a physical meeting with reasonable time to speak. The pre-budget consultation is an annual exercise under which representatives of different sectors give suggestions and raise demands to be addressed through the budget.
In a letter dated November 25, the forum stated: “Now, your email dated November 25, 2022 under reference makes it explicit that each central trade union will be allowed to speak for three minutes. This is a joke and we refuse to be part of it. We will not participate in the proposed video conference on November 28, 2022.” Earlier, the forum had jointly protested against a restricted video conference for pre-budget consultations.“We are constrained to express our disappointment for calling this meeting on virtual mode despite the complete easing of Covid restrictions, and that to for 75 minutes only for a consultation involving more than 12 central trade unions, maybe more as indicated by the invitation letter.
As per the labour ministry’s physical verification, there are 12 central trade unions in our country. That means less than five minutes or even less for each organisation, if the time for customary opening remarks is taken into account,” the forum had stated. The forum also urged the finance ministry “to seriously reconsider convening a physical meeting with reasonable time-allotment for effective consultations in the pre-budget meeting with the trade unions.”
The entire episode is indicative of the more troublesome time ahead and also the strained relationship between the Modi government and the workers of the country, the former hell-bent on implementing the four controversial labour codes, and the latter fighting back tooth and nail to stall those legislations. The former has spent years to convince the workers that the codes are for their benefit, and the latter, who find these codes to be anti-worker are not even given a reasonable time to voice their concerns. It is also indicative of a budget 2023-24, which will not have the workers' concerns included, but will push the government's agenda that the agitating CTUs label pro-corporate.
Trade unions had initially expressed happiness at the invitation on behalf of the Union Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman to participate in the consultations, even though their suggestions given in earlier consultations of 2020 and 2021 had fallen on deaf ears. The invitation was welcomed, but CTUs told in a letter to Sitharaman that such previous consultations had amounted to nothing.
Happiness over the consultation invitations should be sympathetically understood since the four controversial labour codes were passed in 2019 and 2020 with absolutely no consultation with trade unions or the highest tripartite body in the country, the Indian Labour Conference (ILC). The centre also disregarded all objections raised by the opposition in the Parliament of India and bypassed thorough discussions on the likely impact on industrial relations in India and on workers.
The CTUs' happiness over the invitation should have been taken as an opportunity by the Modi government to smoothen the much-strained industrial relations in the country at a time when there are large-scale job cuts in every sector of the economy, and workers have been restive for over three years on a range of issues, which includes the privatisation of public sector undertakings, banks, insurances, etc and the four labour codes against which the county had to witness several all India strike actions.
But the union government has something else in their mind. They don’t want to listen to the workers' representative CTUs for more than a couple of minutes each, which is nothing but a manifestation of their arrogance in pursuing their own agenda, against which the CTUs have been agitating. That is why, they allotted 75 minutes for 12 CTUs, giving each one less than 5 minutes if routine opening remarks were included. The union government was cognisant of the fact that it was too little time for any “meaningful discussion” with the trade unions in the backdrop of a recent discussion with the Union Minister of Labour, Bhupender Yadav that ended without arriving at a consensus on any of the trade union's demands.
Partiality was obvious, since only a few days ago the representatives of businesses and industries like CII, FICCI, PHD chamber of commerce, etc. were given enough time to suggest ways and means to overcome the hurdles facing them. The CPI MP Binoy Viswam has rightly called this maltreatment towards the trade unions deplorable. He even wrote a letter to Nirmala Sitharaman to vehemently oppose the absurd decision of the Finance Ministry. He also found the decision to conduct the session virtually to be arbitrary after having eased COVID restrictions. He tweeted “FM's Pre Budget discussion with Labour unions-Govt.has made it an online joke! 3 minutes to each union! What can they tell in these 3 minutes? With FICCI and CII, will the FM do this? Workers are wealth creators. They should be properly heard with reasonable time in a physical meeting.”
The Trade Unions have been demanding to convene ILC, which has not been called by the Modi government after 2015. In fact, it is mandatory for the Labour Ministry to call the ILC under the ILO Convention 144, which has clearly been violated. In their letter, the CTUs gave another example of negation of any consultation with them and cited the case of the so-called “National Labour Conference” in which no CTU was invited to participate.
Amidst all this, the CTUs have suggested several steps for the Union Budget 2023-24, which includes taking policy decisions that could boost demand to invigorate the sagging economy. It would require putting money in the hands of the toiling people by increasing the budget allocation for MGNREGA, giving scheme workers the status of government employees, paying them minimum wages, filling vacant government posts, giving up plans to sell public sector enterprises, shelving the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022, not privatising government hospitals, reducing GST burden on common people, particularly in fuel and essential commodities, and increasing taxes on corporates along with the introduction of the wealth tax.
The joint letter by the ten CTUs – INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF, and UTUC – also reiterated all their outstanding demands, including the withdrawal of the four controversial labour codes and called for an open public debate regarding them and the policies adopted by the government. They said that instead of these zoom meetings, which do not provide scope for interaction or the time to place their views, the Union Ministry of Finance should agree to an open debate on the outstanding issues.
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