Industry and unions must work together to raise the game for the Indian economy.
In a welcome development, industrial disputes have been at their lowest ebb in 2010 (ET, March 29). This is so, despite some high-profile industrial disputes involving violence and killing. While the overall direction is, no doubt, right, some underlying trends continue to cause concern. Many strikes tend to centre on a demand to make temporary workers permanent, and gain recognition for trade unions.
Workers and unions complain that large numbers of workers continue to remain temporary after years of continuous service, in violation of laws that prohibit protracted employment of temporary workers. Employers, on their part, are chary of taking on workers who cannot be dispensed with even if economic conditions warrant cutbacks in production and the associated workforce. Both sides miss the real point in a dynamic economy such as India’s whose potential is just about beginning to be realised.
In many sectors of the economy, the challenge is not how to downsize, but how to prevent attrition, as workers shift jobs to better their own prospects. Those sectors witness intense demand for skilled labour because they are globally competitive, and growing fast. If other sectors of the economy, too, become globally competitive, their challenge, too, would be to find an adequate supply of skilled labour, and then to retain them.
And to be globally competitive, it is no longer sufficient to be an efficient sweat-shop. World-beating quality cannot be produced by under-paid, unhappy workers who curse their working conditions, their employers and their fate as they mechanically perform their assigned tasks. Quality is produced by workers whose creativity is tapped at the workplace. And that calls for a new paradigm in labour relations.
Industry is right to expect flexibility but must turn more generous on compensation at the time of retrenchment. It must also create conditions that make creativity flow. Workers must focus on improving skills and mobility, not on permanence. Sure, this calls for a change of heart on both sides. But the result would be well worth the effort for both parties.
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