Trade Unions

  • 14/04/1997

Now that the Supreme Court (sc) has been handing down a flurry of environmental orders, innumerable worms are tumbling out of the woods. The first variety, of course, comes to us in the form of our elected representatives, also known by that exalted name - 'the nation's leaders'. That there were no attempts being made to implement the very laws that these exalted personalities had themselves passed, never crosses their minds.

But now that the courts are becoming green, the most exalted of them all, Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, only encourages his less exalted colleagues to find ways to bypass the court's orders - by relaxing coastal zone regulations to save aqua farms, by setting up an appellate authority to reduce public interest litigation (pil), by restricting pil itself by legislating a fat deposit of Rs 100,000 and limiting petitioners to affected parties, and so on. Never has this individual, who complains to Parliament that the "system does not work", cared to ask himself: Why are people rushing to the courts when there are so many environmental institutions and laws? Is it another case of the system not working? Can the exalted lot that works under him and is called 'the cabinet', do anything about it? He can, obviously, neither think like that nor do anything like that. His simple and humble mind can only help him chant a single mantra: "Environmentalists are against development."

There is now another set of worms coming out of the woods because of sc orders closing down polluting industries. In this case, while Deve Gowda is chanting away "but what about development", trade unionists and leftist-activists are asking "but what about jobs". No trade union leader has cared to bring his or her colleagues together and ask a pertinent question: What is the social responsibility of the trade union movement in cases where capital becomes highly polluting and destructive of community health?

No, of course not. The trade union movement has no such responsibility. If, as the sc put it, "rogue industries" cannot be allowed to operate, which in other words means that socially irresponsible capital is not acceptable, then is socially irresponsible labour acceptable? If irresponsible capital is not acceptable at the cost of community and public health, then how can irresponsible jobs be acceptable at this cost? If I can be extremely provocative on this count, would it not be socially just to argue that if polluting capital ought to be fined to compensate the affected community, then why shouldn't polluting labour also be fined for the same reason?

The importance of a socially responsible labour movement in bringing about environmentally-sound development struck me when the Bhopal disaster took place in 1994. I had then thought that the disaster was a Godsend for the country's leftist labour movement. Thousands had died. National and international capitalists were involved. Global attention was focused on the disaster. I expected trade unions to make a big song-and-dance about hazardous industries and demand safer working places. But few of the mega-unions were prepared to take up the cause, as if pollution affects only the community and not the workers. Trade unionists were interested only in 'economism' - more and more wages. Period; everything else could go and hang itself.

Just imagine if the green movement and the trade union movement came together, what a powerful combination that would be? Neither corrupt government officials nor rogue industrialists would be able to sit quiet for a day. If an industrialist shut off a water treatment plant for a day, everybody in the world would come to know and pollution control officials would be forced to take notice. Trade unionists complain that environmentalists are only gunning for factory closures and workers' jobs. But have they ever tried to work with the environmental community and get both safe jobs and safe habitats? The entire regulatory system would come down on its knees and get cleansed in one shot.

Trade unions have been irresponsible towards the environment almost all across the world because of their poor leadership, which has failed to take proactive positions on emerging social issues. About a decade ago, a Sydney trade unionist, in a rare departure from conservative trade unionism, had joined hands with the green movement and given it a great boost. Australian dock workers refused to unload, among other things, unsustainably harvested wood from other countries.

But the Indian trade union movement has still not seen the light of such a day. I had once spent two days with the national executive of a major trade union, trying to get them to commit themselves to the environmental cause. One of its leaders, who was also a member of Parliament, after a long discussion, said, "Mr. Agarwal, I entirely agree with what you say as a citizen of India. But as a trade unionist, I am afraid I have to oppose you. Environmentalists only want to go to court and close down factories." My plea that trade unionists and environmentalists can work together to get both safe jobs and a safe environment fell on deaf ears. The same situation exists even today. Though I entirely agree that in a job-starved nation, conservation of jobs is probably as critical as conservation of nature, I am afraid I have no sympathy for industrial workers who have supported such an irresponsible labour leadership. Just like the public, which elects such irresponsible politicians.

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