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Trade unions lost the plot by not focusing on young workforce

The clout enjoyed by trade unions, which could once influence management decisions for workers and also successfully create roadblocks if demands were not met, is slowly reducing.

M Saraswathy - Special Correspondent, Moneycontrol

Early in February, two national trade unions planned a national strike for upholding worker rights and reforming labour laws in the country. Due to lack of popular support, it was later restricted to only a few states of South India. On the day of the strike, both claimed that it was their union who had originally planned this protest to bring about better work conditions for. Finally, the strike never took place.

The clout enjoyed by trade unions, which could once influence management decisions for workers and also successfully create roadblocks if demands were not met, is slowly reducing. With younger people joining the workforce each year and overall compensation structures seeing an improvement, trade union activities have come down.

Manish Sabharwal, Chairman and Co-Founder, TeamLease Services said that decline of trade unions is not murder but suicide. “They focused on a minority which is older and only from the formal sector while the majority in India is younger and informal workers. Trade unions are an important civil society institution but they are not keeping up with the times,” he said.

Citing an instance, Sabharwal said that these unions should have been the biggest supporters of Goods and Services Tax (GST) but chose to remain completely silent. Adding that GST would be good for formalisation, he explained that if they focus on issues like GST, skill development, formalisation, provident fund reforms, employees’ state insurance reforms, they will appeal to young workers.

Trade unions, with the help of their top leadership are involved in negotiations with employers on worker benefits, compensation and conditions of employment. With their collective power, they were able to help meet worker demands by protests on the shop-floor as well as boycotting work till their requests are accepted.

Primarily, work hours for senior staff members, additional pay for overtime as well as compensation for injury/accident in factories have been some of the areas where trade unions have concentrated on. Human resource experts said that with more number of youth joining the workforce every year as well automation becoming a norm, trade union relevance is reducing.

Sunil Goel, Managing Director, GlobalHunt said that automation across sectors has led to workers’ lives getting easier. “In recent times, the gap in salaries between blue collared and white collared workers has narrowed. Hence, traditional union-based activities have substantially moderated,” he added.

Further, Goel added that additional skill training is also being provided by organisations. This, he said has led to the shift from demands being motivated by a union leader to more reasonable demands by workers.

With more number of women also entering the labour force, HR experts point out that they have certain specific needs including safety in workplace, better work hours as well as equal pay for equal work.

Sabharwal said that these trade unions tried to position job preservation as a form of job creation. “They painted themselves in a corner. Their focus should be shifted from employers to employees. If they want to represent Indian workers, they need to focus on young people, women and informal employees,” he said.

According to the TeamLease Services’ Jobs and Salaries Primer 2016, salaries for blue-collar domain see a steep rise for select profiles, with employers wanting to reward and retain specialized skills. It said that power and energy (electrician, supervisor) and hospitality (gym instructor, housekeeping) are cases where blue collar job profiles have garnered lofty salary increments.