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– By Artika Ashdhir

The Indian Labour Movement

Like many countries the concept of trade unions is understood at a very limited capacity. This is mainly because unions have been portrayed as elements of society that hinder economic growth, are corrupt and autocratic.

When we talk about India the trade unions are extremely fragmented, we have 12 national trade unions, most countries have 1 or 2 major unions, and we have 12! Also our system is reverse, in UK the unions fund the labour party, in India, firstly we do not have a labour party, and the multiple political parties have their own wing of national trade union and these political parties fund their respective union. So the national trade unions and political parties are extremely dependent on each other.

How did we get 12 national unions is like a story of a family that started out as big and happy but due to ideological and ego issues split.

The growth of the labour movement in India started and ended with the textile mills.

The origin of the movement is traced back to 1877 when the workers at the Empress mills at Nagpur struck following a wage cut. In 1884, 5000 Bombay Textile Workers submitted a petition demanding regular payment of wages, a weekly holiday, and a mid-day recess of thirty minutes. Therefore with the textile mills Bombay/Mumbai became the epicentre of the labour movement. And this is why it was called the city that never sleeps, because the textile mills would run 24×7 and so did the people

These strikes were poorly organised and short lived and inevitably ended in failure. The oppression by employers was so severe that workers preferred to quit their jobs rather than go on strike.

An interesting fact, it was to promote the interests of British industry that the conditions of workers were improved. Concerned about low labour costs, which gave an unfair advantage to Indian factory made goods, the Lancashire and Manchester Chambers of Commerce agitated for an inquiry into the conditions of Indian Workers.

That’s how we got the labour laws in India

The first workers’ association was named ‘Bombay Mill hands Association, formed by a man called Narayan Lokhande who is also know as the father of the Indian modern trade union movement. Essentially a welfare organisation to advance workers’ interests, the Association had no members, rules and regulations or funds. Soon a number of other organisations of a similar nature came up.

The first systematic attempt to form a trade union on permanent basis was done in 1906 in the Postal Offices at Bombay and Calcutta. By the early years of the 20th century, strikes had become quite common in all major industries.

Mahatma Gandhi got involved in a trade union based in the city of Ahemdabad called the textile labour association, he declared this union as his laboratory for experimenting with his ideas on industrial relations and a model labour union, on the basis of which he advised other unions.
At this point of time the trade unions needed an external leader to guide them, that’s how a lot of nationalist party leaders who were fighting for freedom got involved with the trade unions since they saw a potential base for their political organization in them.
The first national federation of trade union was formed in 1920 called the all India trade union congress (AITUC). This was solely because of ILO. Since India was one of the founding members of ILO, The formation of India’s first Central Labour Organisation was wholly with a view to satisfy the credentials committee of ILO.
The first trade union law came in 1926, called Indian Trade Unions Act 1926 made it legal for any seven workers to combine in a Trade Union. It also removed the pursuit of legitimate trade union activity from the purview of civil and criminal proceedings. This is still the basic law governing trade unions in the country.
After this when the AITUC leaders became a lil comfortable with the situation and with more and more unions being affiliated to it, the ideological conflicts among the leadership began which lead to various factions over the years and has resulted into 12 Central trade unions today.
Till the 1980’s the Indian economy was highly regulated, therefore most of the workforce was employed in the public sector, and they all had unions. But still the major labour struggles came from the textile mills.
There was a huge struggle in the textile mills in Mumbai in 1980. the strike in 1982, which resulted in the closure of over 80 mills in Central Mumbai, leaving 150, 000 workers unemployed and complete disappearance of the industry from the city, the trade union movement also lost its grounds in the country and with the incoming of globalization in 1990’s, the movement saw further series of setbacks. The entire blame of the closure of the textile industry in Mumbai was put on the strike led by the workers. That strike became “the quote” to epitomize consequences and effects of trade unions on an industry. It gave a very negative image to the trade union movement. Workers preferred to be left alone if possible. Although there is an increase in number of registered unions but the membership has gone down.
When we look at the situation after the strike, union membership in India at present is around 10 percent of total workers employed in organized sector and the unorganized sector is meagrely represented.
The trade unions in India today face problems of low membership, fragmentation, alienation between trade unions, multiplicity of trade unions, dependence on outside leadership and politicization of unions. This changed occurred mainly after the textile workers strike of 1982.


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