The deferment of a strike in ordnance factories could be looked at as a “win-win” situation, representatives of two out of three recognised defence bodies contended on Saturday, even as the union leader of another federation suggested that the development could lead to “another betrayal” by the Centre.
The move to defer the strike comes a day after a provision of The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, was invoked to ensure that a settlement was reached between the defence federations and the Centre for the time being. It saves the latter from having to handle another stir at a time when farmers’ groups and trade unions have already taken to streets.
Nearly 82,000 defence employees – more than 75% of the total workforce – were set to strike for an indefinite period beginning Monday, October 12.
They intended protest was against the Centre’s decision to corporatise the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and its subsequent listing on the stock market. There are fears that the move will damage the service conditions of defence employees.
The OFB is engaged in the production of defence equipment, including ammunition for the Indian army. It currently operates as a government department under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
A notice for the protest, signed by presidents of the defence unions – All India Defence Employees Federation (AIDEF), Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation (INDWF), and the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Pratiraksha Mazdoor Sangh (BPMS) – was served on August 4.
However, a joint conciliation meeting called by the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) on Friday – attended by representatives from both, unions and management – saw it stalling.
“It is agreed by both the parties that in respect of strike demands dated 04.08.2020, during the pendency of ongoing conciliation proceedings, the Employer will abide by the provisions of Section 33(1) of Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 and Unions will not proceed on proposed strike from 12.10.2020,” minutes of the Friday meeting, signed by all parties, noted.
The said provision deals with the conditions of services applicable to a workmen, which, according to it, are “to remain unchanged” during the proceedings of the conciliation talks between the employer and the employee.
A meeting with Secretary, Defence Production and Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) is to be arranged in the days to come. It is so unions “can put forward their issues and grievances pertaining to the disputes before them,” the minutes added.
INDWF general secretary, R. Srinivasan, termed it a “win-win” situation for both unions and the Centre, as the former has been successful in putting a stop to further proceedings to corporatise OFB.
“Till August, the Centre had maintained that the corporatisation of OFB will be completed by next year; now, after yesterday’s meeting, the government cannot take any final decision or continue with proceedings,” Srinivasan said.
The decision to corporatise the board was part of the Centre’s Atmanirbhar Bharat package, announced in the month of May this year in the wake of the pandemic-triggered economic disruption. A KPMG Advisory Services-led consortium was subsequently appointed by the defence ministry in September.
Mukesh Singh, general secretary, BPMS, said that “whatever KPMG does is not the concern of the unions.” He said that the final call “is with the Centre and we will press that the proposal to corporatise the ordnance is withdrawn altogether.” Singh also held the view that the development is a “win for both parties,” as the grievances of the unions “will now be considered by the EgoM.”
Notably, similar assurances were given to the defence federations last year as well, in the wake of a one-month strike in the 41 ordnance factories across the country – which lasted for six days.
A High Level Official Committee (HLOC) was formed following the industrial action with Terms of Reference (ToR) to safeguard the interests of employees “due to converting OFB into a public sector entity.” The unions, demanding a withdrawal of the decision, recorded their protest.
C. Srikumar, General Secretary, AIDEF, condemned the Centre for “betraying” the defence employees with its announcement in May this year, despite having reached no conclusion as far as the HLOC was concerned.
“It could be very much possible that the Centre similarly betrays us once again with the now initiated conciliation meetings,” Srikumar told NewsClick, adding that in that case, “this time it would be last chance given to this government.”
He further added that if the conciliation meetings fail to reach a “fruitful” conclusion – the withdrawal of the decision to corporatise – then the unions won’t be hesitated to consider a strike again.
“The indefinite strike is only deferred at the moment, and not called off,” Srinivasan said. A similar notion was shared by the leaders of the other two defence unions as well.