NEW DELHI: At a time when the Communists have accepted Christ as a “great revolutionary” and has included him in their flex boards, the Catholic Church seems to have decided to turn a revolutionary leaf literally. It has forayed into the ‘working class’ terrain of trade unionism by forming its own trade union and that too in a sector where the Communists had tried and failed.
The Workers’ India Federation (WIF), launched by the Catholic Church in 2010 as an NGO with the motto “Secured Worker, Strong Nation”, is all set to get the status of a national trade union thus becoming the first ever trade union with a religious tag. As per the rule, a trade union will get a national status if one is registered in five states with more than five lakh membership.
Quite significantly, the focus of the Catholic Church is the unorganised sector workers who form around 90 per cent of the total workforce in the country. And it goes without saying that the Church has made this at the expense of the Leftist trade unions. Both the CITU and the AITUC had been desperately trying to make inroads in the unorganised sector, including information technology (IT), without much headway.
“We decided to enter the trade union sector as it was found that the unorganised sector that forms the largest segment of working class is left unprotected. There is no social security for them, no job guarantee due to contract and casual, no collective bargaining power and they were left to fend for themselves. So we thought of doing our best for them,” said Fr Jose Vattakuzhi who heads the National Labour Commission under the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI).
According to him, the political trade unions had been fighting for the rights of the organised sector who forms barely 10 per cent of the total work force. “Even the unions like CITU were keener on fighting for the rights of Air India staff whose basic salary is more than `50,000 while nobody bothered for the maids in their house who could never think of a salary beyond `5,000. This was something unjustifiable,” he said.
The WIF has applied to the Ministry of Labour for the national trade union status and is awaiting the result of the headcount the ministry has undertaken. “We have our trade unions registered in six states including Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh and have a membership of nearly four lakh in the domestic maid category itself,” said Fr Jose.
According to him, the church had been quite active in all unorganised sector for quite some time. “We thought of getting registered as a trade union because it gives you more leg space and bargaining power,” he said. The primary focus of the WIF is the domestic maids, construction workers, fisher folk and casual employees of shops and other commercial establishments.
According to an official with the labour ministry, the headcount has reached the final stage. “We are in the process of verifying the memberships of various trade unions. If the WIF meets the parameters of becoming a national trade union, it will naturally get that status,” he said.
The WIF is planning to enter IT sector too where trade unionism is unheard of. “IT is one sector where there is lots of insecurity despite all the hype. We have made small inroads. But it is really tough to get access into the IT sector,” admitted Fr Jose.
The Church, however, is very conscious about the religious tag of its union. “Please don’t call it a Catholic trade union. Ours is a secular union in which people of all religion are members. Our primary concern is to give voice to those in unorganised sector who are the most oppressed lot,’’ he said.
According to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, 92 per cent of the total employment in the Indian economy is in the informal sector.