09 Apr 2020 22:51 IST

Social dialogue can make the key difference in a post-lockdown workplace

Discussions across Government, industry and trade unions will smoothen the resumption of operations

When the Prime Minister announced the countrywide lockdown from March 24, it was after consultations with industry representatives, during which he reportedly exhorted them to adopt a humanitarian approach towards workers across sectors. As the national lockdown unfolded, however, the unforeseen and harsh realities surfaced. The visuals of the spontaneous exodus of migrant workers, especially from Delhi but also from many other places, were disturbing and heart-breaking, and how these hapless workers were treated, both at their points of departure and their destinations, was an eye-opener, that highlighted the utter failure of planning or basic humanity.

The Central and some State governments have, in the meanwhile, issued advisories to employers not to terminate workers, treat their absences as ‘on duty’ and pay them full wages. And though the Centre and most State governments have issued relief packages, this was largely done without any coordination and without consultation with the social partners — trade unions and industry bodies. The relief packages could have been more comprehensive and meaningful had they been issued after due consultations with the stakeholders in the labour market.

There are talks concerning the possibilities of lifting or continuation of the 21-days of lockdown which will of course depend on the empirical realities relating to threats pose d by Covid-19. Prime Minister Modi has been holding talks with several Chief Ministers, and leaders of industry and other sectors in the last few days. The PM should involve and consult with representatives of trade unions and industry associations in several ways to deal with the implications of Covid-19 in the manufacturing and services areas, where around 465 million workers work, and possibly 30-50 million workers have been either rendered unemployed due to Covid-19 and/or have already been unemployed.

A CMIE survey, which reports a huge, recent spike in the unemployment rate to 23-24 per cent, could well be an underestimate as the samples may not capture the status of widely stranded migrant workers. The ILO has advocated the use of social dialogue, among others, to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, to manage the issues relating to the world of work and the larger society. In fact, the Prime Minister has hailed the Indian Labour Conference as Labour Parliament of India, and India has ratified the ILO Convention C.144 Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976.

Three-way dialogue

Social dialogue continuing at the macro level through tripartite consultations (the government, industry and trade unions) is urgently required. This will facilitate the exchange of vital information relating to industry’s concerns (say, in implementing the directives of the government to pay wages during the national lockdown or business losses) and workers’ issues (relating to migrant workers, the extent to which government relief measures have actually provided relief to the working poor, etc.) which will help better design and targeting of relief measures during the remainder of the lockdown period.

Given the social network that the migrant workers typically builds and uses trade unions will help the government to map the spread of migrant workers which will be useful in tackling the return migration post-Covid crisis. Further, trade unions can avert possible feuds between the migrant and the local workers during the crisis and post-crisis times and this is especially true where the locals often feel (rightly or wrongly) that the Trade unions are doing essential and invaluable fieldwork relating to the migrant workers and, hence, their inputs on how to deal with migrant workers’ issues will be relevant, even crucial.

For example, trade unions are in touch with their regional and zonal affiliates in connection with the dissemination of information relating to relief measures, and assist them in availing of such benefits. They are thus better-placed to provide vital inputs to the governments (State and Central) on the conditions prevalent at the micro-level. They play a significant role in securing shelter and food and other amenities to the stranded migrant workers.

The right strategies

Social dialogue will also provide relevant inputs on issues arising out of a calibrated lifting of the lockdown and will help come up with appropriate sectoral strategies (for instance, the issues and concerns relating to the transport and the construction sectors may be different from those of the manufacturing sector).

In the post-lockdown period the ‘social distancing principle’ will need to be maintained and, hence, at the industry or the firm levels, managements will have to consult with the trade unions/workers’ bodies to decide deployment and recall of workers while uncompromisingly implementing the social distancing and other health directives which will lead to orderly resumption of work and also deal with the issues concerning workers who may be called for work at a later stage.

Working together

Trade unions and industry need to work together as social partners to deal with the crisis, and it is imperative that Union and State governments consider them important stakeholders in the process of return to normalcy. Put simply, joint consultations will help smoothen the resumption of work, while simultaneously taking care of business imperatives and workers’ welfare. Giving primacy to the principle of social dialogue, the Prime Minister his advisors should nominate representatives of trade unions to the Board of Trustees and/or the Advisory Board relating to PM-CARES Fund.

In fact, the ILO Monitor 2nd edition, “COVID-19 and the World of Work: Updated Estimates and Analysis” estimates that around 400 million informal workers are “at the risk of falling deeper into poverty” due to Covid-19. The ILO places strong reliance on social dialogue by making it one of the four pillars of policy responses in tackling the issues arising out of the crises caused by Covid-19.

It is time for the government to actively and continually involve trade unions and industry bodies in the months to come. The Prime Minister has himself acknowledged that the war against Covid-19 is going to be long, and that his government requires counsel. Who better than trade unions and industry bodies to provide it?

(The writer is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur.)