Amarjeet Kaur took over as general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) at its General Council meet at Ranchi on 11 December 2017, becoming the first woman in Independent India to be at the helm of one of the country’s largest trade unions, after Maniben Kara’s election as AITUC General Secretary in 1936.

Succeeding veteran CPI Parliamentarian and trade union leader Gurudas Dasgupta, Amarjeet has taken charge of the union when the Indian economy is at the threshold of major labour reforms, with mounting pressures from industry and workers. Announcing the change, AITUC, founded in 1920 by Lala Lajpat Rai, said it had elected a “woman leader to lead the movement at this crucial juncture when the working class is facing tremendous challenges”.

Amarjeet (65) started as a student activist at Delhi’s Ramjas College while taking her MSc degree in Physics, following it up with a law degree from Delhi University in 1979. She was General Secretary of All India Students Federation (AISF) for seven years from 1979; and General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), for three years from 1999.

While a student, she was jailed in Delhi for 10 days in 1972 for participating in a CPI protest over price-rise, and for four days in 1977 for a joint Jamia-JNU-Delhi University students’ protest over Aligarh Muslim University riots. She was AITUC National Secretary from 1994, before becoming its General Secretary last month. Married to an ENT surgeon, she has a doctor-son pursuing super-speciality in medical emergencies in the UK. In this interview to DEEPAK RAZDAN, she spoke on burning labour and employment issues. Excerpts:

Q: What are the major challenges confronting the Indian working class?
A: I think, at present, the Indian working class is facing many more challenges than during British rule. At that time, we knew it was a foreign government, and we had to struggle for Independence, as well as for labour rights. The unions struggled hard and got the Trade Union Act and other Acts during the 1920s.

What is happening today is we have our own government, elected by our own people, but this government at the Centre is trying to do away with whatever we achieved during the British period. So, the challenges are deep. The first challenge is to labour laws, enacted pre- and post-Independence, and to the several rights in the Constitution in recognition of the role played by the working class in the freedom movement.

We got rights of unions, equal pay for equal work, social security for all, laws to protect women labour, no child labour, work place safety, and they were addressed in the Constitution. At present, what we are facing is that the laws we got through Parliament, based on the Constitution’s spirit and direction, are endangered through labour law reforms. These are not labour law reforms, but changes in the labour laws to favour corporates and foreign companies, and employers in general.

Q: Do you think there is jobless growth in the country?
A: Ever since the new liberal economic policy started, we said it would lead to jobless growth. At present, not only is unemployment rising, but jobs are lost also. Jobless growth is growth that is not able to create new jobs. But now we also see those who have jobs are losing them. Existing labour rights are going, and existing jobs are jeopardised, livelihood is being impacted, specially after the way demonetisation was imposed and GST implemented. Lakhs of jobs have gone, and 2.4 lakh small factories shut down work.

Q: How do you think the government is going about labour reforms?
A: The government is going ahead without caring about the trade unions’ viewpoint. While deciding on any amendment Bill, they don’t consult us, they prepare everything, they call us, listen to us, but they practically do what the employers are demanding. They don’t pay heed to any of our suggestions. It happened when they started the codification of labour laws. They have already prepared the three Codes – Wage Code, Industrial Code and Social Security Code.

When they brought the Wage Code, unions had extensive discussions among themselves, and then we took a joint position before the government. But when they brought the Wage Code, none of our suggestions was included. It was the same with the Industrial Code, the meeting was held, the trade unions placed their views, but we are seeing none of our concerns have been taken care of. The Social Security Code is on the website, we have submitted our viewpoints, independently and jointly, but there is no word from their side.

On Wage Code, our fear is the wage negotiation system will collapse; there is Pay Commission for Central Government employees, bipartite wage agreement system for public sector units, and, third, a minimum wage process in various states. All these levels will collapse, the way the Wage Code is drafted. Putting up a minimum floor level and leaving everything to the employers will be damaging.

In the Industrial Code, they are changing the Trade Union and Industrial Disputes Acts, and increasing the threshold for easy hire and fire, and for closing units, in entities having workforce up to 300 workers, in place of 100 workers at present.

The Social Security Code will jeopardise existing schemes like EPF and ESI, construction and beedi workers’ welfare boards. Instead of addressing separately the needs of workers not covered under any of the schemes, they want to combine them with the workers covered under the schemes, put all the money at one place, and thereby kill the schemes.

Q: Despite agreement on major issues, there is no trade union unity?
A: We came on a single platform, all unions including INTUC, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, besides AITUC, HMS and others, 11 of us. Till 2014, we conducted joint activity, INTUC continued with us, and BMS too. After that, when we gave the call for the first strike on 2 September 2015, just four days before the strike, BMS wanted to listen to the Labour Ministry.

We insisted that a Group of Ministers should discuss with us. The Group was there but when it held the meeting, it did not consider our agenda. We decided to go ahead with the strike but two days before that, BMS withdrew. The strike was successful. Since then, the BMS is not on the platform which mainly discusses action programmes. The BMS comes out with statements opposing government proposals from time to time and dharnas, but is not ready for united action. At the sectoral level, they do come together. All other 11 unions are together, and there will be a satyagraha soon.

Q: The government is revising the job data collection methodology. What do you think of this?
A: There are already systems in place. NSS data tells us there are various surveys. I think the government is doing this to undo their failure ~ not to end the failure, but to hide the failure. They want to include everybody, even when you have work for five days or 10 days, or 50 days in a year, they will say they are all employed people. The intention is to hide the failure, the intention is not to make corrections in the existing systems.

Q: Trade unions are charged with having neglected the unorganised workers, accounting for the vast majority of the total work-force.
A: I deny the charge. It is the trade unions which fought for beedi workers and got their beedi welfare hospitals and the Act. Trade unions got legislation for construction workers. Whatever enactments were done were the result of trade unions’ work. More than 80 per cent of our membership comes from the unorganised sector ~ agrarian, agro-based industry, beedi workers, construction, small factories, self-employed rickshaw pullers, shop workers, or street vendors, they have been unionised by trade union workers.

Achievements may be slow because the government’s concern is little. After 30 years’ struggle, we got the 2009 Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act. Now we are demanding Budget allocation for this law, a few lines of legislation talking of social security without a Budget will not do. Trade unions are not neglecting the unorganised workers.

Q: Is a safe working environment for women workers still a challenge?
A: It is true from all points. Take occupational safety, women have special needs which are not met. Hardly four to five per cent working women are covered by maternity benefit law. The vast majority is not protected, they are even back to work within days of delivery. That women will not work in the night shifts in factories or mines we achieved in the Sixties.

They continued to work in health, aviation, telecom, day and night; but otherwise for security reasons, they were prevented from work between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. The government has amended the law and factories and mines are included where women can work at night. In the Factories Act, women were barred from working in hazardous industries; now the Act has been amended to say pregnant women will not work in hazardous industries, others can work.

In the Sexual Harassment Act, complaint committees have not been formed even in the government and public-sector units, and the vast majority of unorganised workforce is not covered. A formal employer-employee system is required to address the problem, which does not exist in the unorganised sector. Instead of giving security to women at workplaces, the government is going in the reverse direction.

Q: Trade unionism is generally treated as aggressive activity. How were you drawn towards it?
A: When I joined student movement in the Seventies, I was told I should stay out as student politics was not a girl’s cup of tea. Nothing could stop me once I was in the students’ movement. Now, I am leading the third organisation at the national level. Aggression or no aggression, women have space, and should have space, in every walk of life because they can prove themselves as capable of doing anything.