New Delhi: In what is set to bring an old challenge faced by the country’s labour movement to the fore, the Haryana government has recently flagged the admission of a contractual worker in the employees’ union at one Manesar-situated auto parts manufacturing unit while terming the move to be “illegal”.
Last year, the employees’ union at Bellsonica Auto Components Private Limited, in a first-of-its-kind initiative in Gurugram’s automotive belt, granted membership to a contractual worker of the company. This was done with an apparent aim to protect the rights of this worker, who had been facing disciplinary action from the management.
The said action, however, “prima-facie appears illegal” as it is in “contravention” of the Constitution of the union, the Labour Commissioner of Haryana said in a letter dated September 5 and addressed to Bellsonica employees’ union.
Through the letter, a scanned copy of which was accessed by NewsClick on Wednesday, the state’s Labour Commissioner sought an explanation from the union within 20 days. Appropriate action in accordance with the provisions of the Trade Unions Act, 1926 shall be taken against the union in case of no reply, the letter added.
Ajit Singh, general secretary of Bellsonica employees’ union confirmed on Thursday of having received the said letter. “We are currently discussing among ourselves and are in the process of preparing an answer,” he said while speaking to Newsclick over the telephone.
Explaining the matter, Singh informed that one Keshav Rajput, a contractual worker at Bellsonica, was granted union membership in November last year. “The union has been thinking of bridging the divide between the permanent and contract workers for many years. Last year, when [Bellsonica] management initiated disciplinary action over some matter against Keshav, the union decided to admit him as a member in the union to protect his rights,” he said.
However, the move to grant union membership to a contractual worker did not go down well with the management of Bellsonica, a first-tier vendor of auto major Maruti, Singh added.
Subsequently, this year, in a letter dated August 23 and addressed to the Registrar of Trade Unions, the management demanded that membership of “all contractual workmen” should be “cancelled immediately.” In Haryana, the Labour Commissioner is appointed as Registrar of Trade Unions.
“… as per rule mentioned in the constitution [of the union], it is clearly mentioned that “Any worker who is working at M/s Bellsonica Auto Component India Private Limited can become an ordinary member of the union” but in the present case, the rule has not been followed by the union,” said the management’s letter, accessed by NewsClick. Highlighting the same, it further demanded the cancellation of the union’s registration.
On Thursday, responding to the above claim, Singh maintained that admission of contractual workers is “in no way” a violation of the terms of the union constitution. “This is nothing but yet another attempt of the [Bellsonica] management to de-register our union,” he said, adding that the union has vowed to fight it.
NewsClick also contacted Mritunjay Nath Sahu, vice president – HR at Bellsonica, who refused to comment on the issue. “This is a matter between the labour department and the trade union,” he said.
Can Contract Workers be Unionised?
The latest objection of the Haryana government to the granting union membership to contractual workers has called for attention to the burning question faced by trade unions in the country: Can contract workers be unionised?
Hired by the labour contractor, who is enlisted with the employer as supplier of contract labour, the engagement of this so-called temporary workforce has observed a significant rise in number across various sectors in recent years. Likewise, in industrial quarters, such as Manesar – the country’s major auto hub, the ratio of contract workers to permanent workers has also shifted by fast accentuating the former.
The logic behind the factory management hiring more contract workers is simple – by not being on the rolls of an employer, this workforce can be easily kept bereft of the relative job security and higher wages enjoyed by the permanent workforce, despite both the groups having made to do an equal amount of work.
But can the same argument also be used to disqualify a contract worker from being a member of a factory union?
Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjoy Ghose, who looks after matters pertaining to labour laws, does not believe so. While speaking to NewsClick, he highlighted that it is a fundamental right of every citizen to form associations or unions – a right that is accorded by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
“Even the Trade Unions Act of 1926 does not make any distinction between a regular and contract worker when it comes to forming a union,” Ghose said, adding, “Every worker in a factory or an establishment is eligible to become a union member. The only thing is that the admission of contract workers must not violate the said union’s constitution in any way.”
The 1926 Act requires, upon the registration of a trade union, the constitution of an executive and the formation of rules which provide for the by-laws to admit members. In recent years, the labour department, while engaging in shaping these by-laws, has weighed the interests of the employers over the employees, Ghose rued on Thursday.
According to experts, this means that the contractual workforce, who are more insecure than the permanent ones, are also generally kept deprived of their right to access collective bargaining.
Moreover, there is another catch; as multiple reports in the past highlighted, unions themselves are also often not very receptive to giving membership and voting rights to contract workers. “For a long time, even the permanent workers were not in favour of extending membership to the temporary workers,” said K R Shyam Sundar, a labour economist and visiting professor at XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur.
According to him, in a factory unit where the majority are now employed on contractual basis, there remains an “apprehension” on the part of permanent workers of getting marginalised. “Such fears are then also exploited by the management which implicitly and, in some cases explicitly, would discourage the unionisation of its contractual workforce,” Prof. Sundar told NewsClick.
To be sure, the Trade Unions Act of 1926, which defines laws relating to the employees’ bodies, is now subsumed under the Code on Industrial Relations, 2020, which is, however, yet to be notified in to effect. Alleging that the said Code tilts the labour regime in favour of employers at the cost of workers’ interests, along with the other three, the Central Trade Unions and independent employees’ bodies in the country have been up in arms.
But when it comes to the question of granting union membership, Prof. Sundar on Thursday underscored that the Code continues to make no distinction between the workforce – in line with the definition of a “workmen” under the existing 1926 Act.
AITUC, CITU Come Out in Support
Meanwhile, on Thursday, leaders of the All India Trade Union (AITUC) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) also expressed their support to the granting of union membership to contract workers. They underlined that it is long-pending demand and must be achieved in the industrial quarters if the constitution of a factory union permits so.
“If the union constitution allows it, then why shouldn’t the contract workers be admitted to the factory unions?” AITUC Manesar’s leader Anil Panwar asked while speaking to Newsclick.
Satbir Singh of CITU also suggested the same as Panwar while highlighting that “at a time when the Indian working class is facing the worst ever onslaught on its rights,” it is the need of the hour. “With contract workers in the union, the unity between the workers will only get strengthened,” he said.