Women in unions

“Trade unions need to strategize to reach youth, and vulnerable workers”

Amarjeet Kaur, General secretary, All India Trade Union Congress speaks with the ILO on the role of unions in today’s changing times, and what must be done more to strengthen workers’ rights.

Feature | 13 November 2018

1. What will be your strategy to engage the world of work more on workers’ rights?

It is quite important that union members of any union need to continuously engage in dialogues and debates to update and educate themselves as well as their members on the latest developments in the world of work — such as labour laws, approaches and decisions of managements in different sectors. The union members need to reach out to other unions to keep themselves abreast of the developments in the government, discuss strategies, collective bargaining, bipartism, tripartism, ILO conventions and recommendations, labour standards as well as the UN charter of human rights and the convention on the elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW).

Unions must also be active in activities held at various plant, enterprise and institutional-level and at big factories of the formal economy. They also play a key role in the informal sectors of the economy as they inform regarding implementation of laws relating to wages, social security and provide answers on how to maintain decent working and living conditions.

Platforms like the joint advisory forums at the local and central level have to work together to promote unity among the unions and to strengthen the workers’ movement.

Women labour force too need to be unionized, and trained. And we must see more women promoted to leadership roles.

2. From your life can you recall any specific incident that shaped your journey as a trade unionist?

It all started in the 1970s when I was a Delhi university student. At my university the staff was unionized. And were active in voicing their issues. I remember being very impressed by their zeal and organizational talent. So I too started to take an interest in mobilizing support from the students.

There were many big textile mills within a radius of two to seven kilometres of the campus. Several thousands of workers worked there in shifts. Back then a major strike had begun at four mills in Delhi. This attracted my attention and some of us decided to take students to the mill gates. We stood by the families of workers. This was mid-1970. The experience helped me learn the workers’ issues, and the working of unions. Their struggle influenced me and I decided to take up trade unionism as my main work.

3. Why do you feel the youth in India is disenchanted with unionism? What can be done to tackle this?

With the advent of globalization and information technology and with the liberalization of policies in India in 1991, significant changes occurred that impacted the working lives. Governments changed but policies remained the same giving way to a market-led economy. This adversely impacted the unions. We saw many industrial hubs mushroom without any unions. Workers – mostly the young, and semiskilled-- feared losing their jobs. This wave of privatization led to employers working closely with the government. Unions felt that they need to organize the new workforce in a different way. Then the question of surplus labour force due to growing unemployment also remains a concern. Many trained workers move to other cities for work and face difficult working conditions and a hostile environment. When workers frequently change workplaces, their prime concern remains of getting quick results. Employers tend to have the money and the muscle. So they undermine unionization and dialogue with workers.

Engaging the youth to unionize requires patience. It is not easy to teach them about unions and rights of collective bargaining. To really influence young minds, we have to educate them and work with them.

4. How can we encourage women leadership in trade unions?

India has deep-rooted patriarchy. It gets difficult to induct women into unions and then develop them as future leaders. In the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), we conduct trade union education on this subject.

Electing women as leaders in unions demonstrates that unions are serious about inclusion. Women leaders need to engage in dialogue processes, negotiations, collective bargaining and settlements with employers. They must have the opportunity to get trained at premier labour institutes and sit at the table when there are negotiations going on. Involvement of trainings and in discussions of the ILO also help them build their capacity to become future union leaders. Unions have to do more to support the women members and provide them with greater responsibilities. An enabling environment goes a long way to retain women in unions. Just like any workplace women, union-leaders too need access to certain benefits, a work environment free of harassment and an equal opportunity to excel.

5. The world of work is fast-changing. There are strong fears that technological advancements are disruptive – resulting in job destruction and compromising the rights of the workers. What are your views?

The world of work is rapidly changing. The new production systems have made labour secondary and cheap and have perpetuated a culture of hire and fire.

Employers in Export Processing Zones and Special Economic Zones (EEZs) demand for union-free environment. Labour laws too are being compromised. Unionization and registration of unions is being made difficult. We see a trend towards employing workers on contracts which makes work precarious. There are now different forms of outsourcing, increased casualization of the economy which undermines workers’ rights and wages. I feel that the amendments in the current child labour laws will give rise to more child labour. And allowing women to work night shift will result to women being subjected to even more problems.

India needs technological growth and labour-intensive industrialization. Our working population increases by 10 million each year whereas job creation is not happening at the same pace. We see in fact job losses. The spirit of collective bargaining too is being diluted. In such a scenario, workers’ rights will get undermined. To realize decent work for all — we need unions, collective bargaining, good working conditions and social security.

6. How challenging is it to organize workers working in the informal sector?

It is indeed a challenging task. Workers feel that they will lose their jobs if they get into unions. The workers who don’t have the direct employer–employee relation often tend to work long hours, sometimes 14 to 16 hours a day.
We see more migrant workers in industries like hospitality, hotel, construction and even agriculture. And it is difficult to get them to unionize.

Despite these hindrances, national unions still champion for these sectors to have strong social security norms, welfare boards, and are asking for their registration. This will then make accessing benefits and rights for them easier. Also as next step, we are strategizing to organize home-based workers and demand for the increase in their work that are paid as per the pieces. We are also demanding extension of social security to all these workers. We want the worker status to be recognized, even those who are called volunteers — such as Asha and Anganwadi workers - should be paid an honorarium.

Contrary to the popular perception that unions are active only in the formal sector, the fact remains is that our major membership, more than 70 percent, comes from the unorganized sector work force.

Note: The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author Ms Amarjeet Kaur.