Problems of Marginalised Sections in Trade Unions in India

Read this article to learn about the problems of marginalised sections in Trade Unions India!

Though trade unions are the most effective organisations of the working class, they also need to be sensitive to the problems of the socially marginalised sections.

The two main issues which trade unions in the organised sector have overlooked are the problems of women workers and of workers belonging to the socially oppressed groups such as the scheduled castes (SCs) and marginalised groups such as the scheduled tribes (STs).

From the 1940s till the 1970s, the number of women employed in the organised sector declined drastically. This happened in industries with high levels of unionisation, such as cotton textiles in Bombay, jute mills in Calcutta, and mines in central India. In 1948, women constituted 12 per cent of the workforce in the cotton textile mills in Bombay, 8 per cent in the jute mills in Calcutta, and 15 per cent in the mines, but by 1975, the proportion of women workers had fallen to 2.5 per cent, 2 per cent, and 5 per cent respectively.


This happened at a time when these industries were expanding and their labour force had increased in number. It is believed that the statutory protection given to women workers such as maternity leave, provision of creches at the workplace, restriction from working in the night shifts and, in the case of mines, working underground made the working hours of women workers less flexible and also increased costs for the management.

However, all these provisions are enforced in the plantation industry as well but this has not resulted in the reduction of women in the workforce, who continue to constitute 50 per cent of it. Apart from the attitudes of the employers, who seemed only too eager to lay off women workers, the trade unions too did not take up this issue as they were not gender-sensitive while framing union policies. Thus, trade unions, with their inherent male bias, have not been effective in safeguarding women’s employment rights when the employers sought to retrench them.

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A similar situation prevails in the employment of people belonging to the SCs and STs in the organised sector. Trade unions have often overlooked their specific problems of social deprivation and prejudice or have side-lined them in union activities. For example, the report of the Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes reviewing the implementation of the job reservation policy in some public sector enterprises mentions that the employment quotas for class four (subordinate cadre) employees and factory workers are never filled up.


Is it so difficult to find candidates for these categories or is it merely due to the caste bias of the senior officers in these undertakings? Similarly the promotion policy for these sections, based on the roster system, is hardly ever implemented. Both the job reservation policy and the system of promotion are statutory requirements backed by law. However, none of the national trade unions deem it necessary to take up these legal issues.

There are other problems of social discrimination which have been ignored by the trade unions. One of the more shocking incidents is that of SC workers in the textile mills in Mumbai being prevented from working in some sections in the mills because of the belief of the so-called upper-caste workers that they would pollute the thread, and hence no other worker would be willing to touch the cloth later.

This happened in an industry with a high level of unionisation and militancy in trade union action. None of these unions thought it necessary to educate the workers on the evils of this issue. It is because of this indifference of trade unions to issues relating to caste and tribal affinities that often these sections form their separate associations and distance themselves from the trade unions.

For example, a study of coal mine workers in the Jharia-Ranigunj belt noted that the tribal workers (Santhals) did not join the existing trade unions and instead formed ‘kalyan mandals’ through which they pressed forth their demands (Bannerji 1978).


The working class is thus divided on caste lines due to these actions. But the point is that such associations are formed because the trade unions are not interested in taking up issues affecting these sections of the working class and hence they are forced to form their own alliances to protect their interests.

Caste and gender differences have always existed among the workers but significantly none of the national trade union federations have thought it necessary to give due importance to these problems or even educate the tradition-bound workers on these issues. The present situation is even more complex.

The divide between workers in the organised and unorganised sectors is not only based on the degree of protection or the wage levels, but also on the basis of caste and gender. Women workers are largely engaged in the unorganised sector. The 1991 Census showed that only 4.2 per cent of the female workers were in the organised sector while 10.2 per cent of the male workers were in this sector.

The proportions of male and female workers in the two sectors were one female worker for every six male workers in the organised sector, and one female worker for every two plus male workers in the unorganised sector. Moreover, upper castes dominated jobs in the organised sector, while workers belonging to SCs and STs were mostly engaged in the unorganised sector.

Hence, there is every possibility of this divide being exploited by caste-based organisations to create caste animosity. If this happens the tendency would then be to blame these organisations for creating casteism whereas the seeds had been sown by the caste bias which had marginalised the so-called lower castes leaving them in a vulnerable position.

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