Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | Home› Articles
Cover Story View: Lessons from labor violence
Labor unrest from time to time is not an unknown phenomenon. It could sometimes be fuelled due to political or other motivations by a few individuals. They may guide a larger worker population to unfair and even violent means to justify and enumerate demands or bargain for them. Such sporadic cases create immediate and visible impacts. Whether such means actually serve the cause of the workers is really questionable. In fact, incidents like the recent Maruti case could turn popular opinion against workers’ demands and agitations, even rightful and peaceful ones.
The unnecessary consequences of violence and aggression can take away from understanding of the real issues, and broader social aspects at play. And, we must understand that the average worker is interested in working and making a decent living, rather than losing wages as consequences of layoffs, strikes, layouts, etc. The larger worker class interest is also in ensuring employment generation on an ongoing basis.
1) *Labor reforms must focus on managing aspirations of the working class through skill development, fair play and participation.* Looking at the working class as downtrodden and the managing class as the lords and masters is passé. Industrial development can only be enabled by larger and more equitable participation. However, wealth creation and aspiration management of workers must be linked to education, skills and contribution, and not as a right through collective bargaining or other unfair means.
2) *The aspirations of a younger workforce (generation) are different from the past.* There is a need for employers to understand this and devise policies and methods to deal with them. The divide between white collar and blue collar in terms of their needs and lifestyle aspirations is becoming smaller. This applies not just to manufacturing or other labor intensive industry, but also to most industries with large scale employment of young people.
3) *Responsibility must come before rights. *Whether it is demanding higher wages, better working conditions or demanding productivity, all are legitimate. However, the chances of these demands being fulfilled are better when the other party genuinely believes that the demands are coming out of responsible behavior on the shop floor, in negotiations and all around and is aimed at "good for all". Irresponsible behavior will not augur well for demanding rights. The mindset that I will only get if I demand, by whatever means, is a ‘lose–lose’ mindset. It only hardens stands between employers and employees.
4) *Social and daily pressures must be understood.* The pressures of daily life are immense these days. Pollution, societal and family expectations, sheer irritation on waiting for water or electricity for daily chores, all add on to unnatural levels of stress. Add to that the need for instant gratification, and we have a cauldron, which is boiling and waiting to explode. Living life on a daily basis for an average person is an uphill battle. In this environment, sometimes, some things give way. Our ability to make our society more livable for people will go a long way in reducing the angst and anger of the common man. The government and political class have a huge role to play here.
5) *Competition and open trade practices are key to better working conditions for labor.* The more we try to control market forces, the more restrictive and damaging all our practices will be. Wages must be determined by skill and contribution levels across trades and industry. Similarly, government policy must allow labor to move from one employer to another through re-skilling and migration possibilities. The best employees will be matched to best employers. Doling out subsidies to either companies or labor class is both retrograde and kill the competitive mindset. Employers who are forced to produce quality goods and services to survive will in turn create the right environment for their people. This will require huge degree of transparency at all levels in industrial governance and killing vested interests. Given the lack of education, employable skills and poverty, this may seem like an impossible agenda, but we must start somewhere.
6) *Human values, dignity and respect must stand above all.* We must remember that nature made us human beings and not animals. The sense of values and dignity to all, including the lowest class manual laborer, needs to be built into our societal values through constant education. Violent means are not the natural means for us as human beings, rather dialog and mutual understanding is the key. Violence, lowering someone’s dignity or sheer insensitivity towards another human being, will all show deviance from core human values. It also takes us further away from who we are as a race.
At the end, there is no solution, but a broader understanding and dialog focusing on what we really want to achieve as a community, happiness through material, mental and spiritual wealth for all stakeholders and a human life of dignity at an individual level. Anything which takes us away from there must be condemned and dealt with. Communities and societies must act as their own healers.
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