STALE rhetoric, staler Left resolutions on globalisation and TNCs, familiar faces making the usual alarmist noises about the IMF—the fourth Indian Ocean Region Trade Unions Conference (IORTUC) in Calcutta was predictable in more ways than one. So the local press gave it no more than routine coverage.
But, here was a paradox. Despite the obvious limitations, this was no ordinary conference, significant not for what it achieved, but for the issues debated and trends analysed. The message of the conference: in a time of torment, organised labour may be getting back on track and showing signs of resilience.
Leaders of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the main sponsors, admitted that differences prevented a consensus even on basics like minimum wages and safety needs of workers, or environmental abuse and child labour. But the main snag was the uneven economic development within the 14 countries of the region, including Australia, China and South Africa. Said CITU's M.K. Pandhe: "Some delegates proposed a resolution linking social clauses with industrial production. But this would have meant a reference to issues like child labour which India is tackling officially.
There is pressure from the West to slap punitive tariff on our products or restrict their purchase to small quotas. Naturally, we could not agree. So the idea was dropped." Chittabrata Majumdar, CITU state secretary, made a telling point while introducing the main resolution. "There is much talk of the globalisation of capital and opening up of fresh markets. What about the globalisation of technology?" he asked.
The local objection, Pandhe elaborated, was much more than an attempted whitewash of existing social abuses. "Developed countries, in the name of globalisation, exploit these advantages. The only advantage we have is cheap, abundant labour. The isolated emphasis on child labour would deprive us of that little bargaining power too." Clearly, the dictates of international working class solidarity do not necessarily take precedence over official interests of individual countries. Yet another instance of stark reality prevailing over rousing rhetoric, though the Pakistani delegate put it differently: "Our governments may be different, but our problems are the same." These glitches left the rest of the resolutions a mite toothless, though the conference ended with the call to resist "the united onslaught of international capital". The resolution, condemning globalisation that sought to undermine the political sovereignty and the economic independence of vulnerable countries, was passed unanimously.
All major trade unions affiliated to the leftist World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the (anti-left) International Conference of Trade Unions (ICFTU) and even independent organisations had been invited. The next meet will be in Johannesburg in 1998-99 with plans to include Madagascar, Swaziland and Zimbabwe into the IORTUC. Many present agreed about the possibility of a new regional grouping emerging. Said Kamalapati Roy, veteran AITUC leader: "We decided to attend on two considerations. First, individual identities of trade unions did not matter. Second, this would not be an attempt to build a new parallel international group."
But Pandhe admitted: "Our immediate aim is to build a SAARC type of trade union grouping." Doubts, however, centred on the future of trade unionism itself. At the last Durgapur conference of CITU, Majumdar had said: "Workers do not figure in the leadership structure of trade unions." In fact, CPI(M) Central committee member Benoy Konar has gone a step further and stated: "We are at a juncture when trade union sponsored agitations cannot help solve TU problems." Regardless of such sentiments, the conference set up seven workshops on education, health, safety, etc, and drew up time-bound agendas for members to find out their bargaining power, review methods of recruitment and the level of collective bargaining.
But the reality was inescapable. Just a few days ago, a steel mill at Belgharia employing 600 workers changed hands, adding one more to the list of sick units in West Bengal, the second highest after Maharashtra. Workers did not get any compensation. Said Roy: "Earlier, skilled workers did not fear to join strikes because they were sure to get jobs. But now fewer units are coming up, workers are more vulnerable." The conference had little to say about such concrete issues.