A hardhanded response that strikes at the root of rights

Source- The post is based on the article “A hardhanded response that strikes at the root of rights” published in “The Hindu” on 30th March 2023.

Syllabus: GS2- Polity

Relevance– Issues related to right of workers

News– An estimated 19 lakh government and semi government employees have been on strike demanding that the government return to the Old Pension Scheme

What has been the response of the government towards strikes in India?

Since 1960, the government’s approach to strikes by their employees has been to invoke ESMA, or the Essential Services Maintenance Act. It is used both by central and state governments.

It was historically a colonial instrument. Since 1950, several States on numerous occasions, have promulgated ESMA.

What are issues related to government response to strikes?

Private sector employers argue that the government, which is supposed to be a model employer, often uses its elaborate legislative and police powers. But they do not have any choice. They have to face a strike and attempt negotiations with striking employees.

There are questions related to the definition of essential. There are questions related to the criteria for defining essential services and duration for which an industry can be called as an essential service in order to prohibit strikes or protests.

ESMAs empower the government to define any economic activity as essential. It is an example of a dangerous weaponization of the government.

What is the ILO stand on right to strike?

The ILO has constructed the principles on the right to strike. The basic principle is that workers enjoy the right to strike. It is one of the principal means to legitimately promote and defend their economic and social interests.

ILO recognizes “a general right to strike” while allowing for an imposition of restrictions on strikes by some categories of public servants and workers in essential services. There could be a prohibition of strike action during acute national emergencies.

The employees in essential services do not enjoy the right to strike. Essential services are those where “the interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”.

The question of essentiality will depend on the peculiarities prevalent in countries. It has identified essential services such as the hospital sector, and services such as electricity, water supply, telephone, and air traffic control. Strikes in these may even be prohibited or strictly regulated.

Where the right to strike is prohibited or strictly regulated, alternate dispute resolution mechanisms must be put in place. It has mentioned a negative list of industries which are not essential. It includes the transportation and education sectors.

What should be the government’s approach towards strikes?

Governments have entrusted them with wide powers to include any economic activity as essential. It is irresponsible, unwise and anti­democratic.

Democracy means an equitable distribution of power. But, ESMA monopolizes power while suppressing the democratic rights of stakeholders.

India is a pluralistic democracy where protests hold an important place. Their sanctity needs to be respected by the government.

Social dialogue rather than authoritarian measures will promote amicable and long-lasting solutions.

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