Labour reforms: What Modi’s ‘Make in India’ call can learn from the Bolsheviks

narendra_modiVivek Kaul

I was just joking to a friend during the course of a discussion in early August that soon we will start talking about the Rajasthan model of development. And that seems to have happened sooner than I had estimated.
Business Standard in an editorial titled The Rajasthan Model today (August 19,2014) writes that Vasundra Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan “is single-handedly creating a “Rajasthan model” of development.” This model, the paper goes on to write, differs from other models like the “Bihar model” and the “Gujarat model” in putting “liberal economic reform at the centre of the development strategy”.
Labour reforms are a key part of what seems to be emerging as the “Rajasthan model”. It is well worth mentioning here that the size of the organised work force in India is only around 15.8% of the total workforce (Source:
What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part 1, Morgan Stanley, August 12, 2014). And this work force which is highly unionised and tends to punch over its weight, has held back the growth of the Indian manufacturing sector.
Before we go any further let’s go back a little in history. Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia abdicated(i.e. relinquished) his throne in early 1917, after a massive revolt broke out. As Alan Beattie writes in
False Economy—A Surprising Economic History of the World “Undermined by Russia’s dismal military failure on the Eastern Front of the First World War, the Tsar abdicated in February 1917 after a massive rolling revolt grew in Petrograd [known as St Petersburg till 1914, changed to Leningrad in 1924 and back to St Petersburg in 1991]…Starting with industrial workers, the rebellion then progressed to thousands of mutinying soldiers. This was a popular uprising but not a communist uprising.”
In fact, the communists were caught napping around the time of the popular uprising. “The ‘Bolshevik’ political grouping led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which would eight months later take control of the country and become the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was taken by surprise. Many of its key members were not even in Russia at the time, giving rise to the faintly comic spectacle of a bunch of revolutionaries hurrying home to catch up with a revolution,” writes Beattie.
Over and above that the Bolsheviks did not have support of people across the length and breadth of Russia. The Socialist Revolutionaries had that support. Nevertheless the Bolsheviks still managed to seize power. What worked in favour of the Bolsheviks was their “increasing control over Petrograd’s ‘soviet’, or workers’ organization, through the months that followed.”
As Beattie writes “They [i.e. the Bolsheviks] watched their rivals punch themselves out and exhaust local popular support by trying to run a provisional government after the February revolution. Amid mounting discontent with the [First World] war, which was still continuing, the Bolsheviks’ October revolution was a special forces assassination of a tottering government, not a pitched battle against the commanding heights of a functioning state.”
In fact, more people were accidentally killed when director Sergei Eisenstein was making a movie on the October revolution than were killed “during the event itself”. The Bolsheviks managed to punch way above their weight because their support was concentrated around Petrograd where the seat of power was, in comparison, the support of the Socialist Revolutionaries was spread across Russia’s vast interior. And given this, as Beattie writes “The Bolsheviks found it amazingly easy simply to dismiss the Constituent Assembly which was supposed to take power and in which the Socialist Revolutionaries had a clear majority, and take control themselves.”
The Indian labour market is similarly placed. The organised labour tends to punch above its weight like the Bolsheviks, primarily because labour laws are rigged in its favour. It is also unionised and the unions ensure that any prospect of labour reform which is beneficial to the overall labour force and not to organised labour, is vociferously opposed.

If genuine labour reform has to happen, it is this ability of the organised labour force to punch above its weight, that needs to be controlled. Let’s take the case of the Industrial Disputes Act 1947. According to this Act any factory employing more than 100 workers needs the permission of the state government, if it decides to lay off a worker. The permission to lay off employees if the situation demands so is difficult to get.
This has led to a situation where firms continue to remain small even when they have an opportunity to grow. It also explains why a country like Bangaldesh manages to export more apparel than India.
Economist Arvind Panagariya in an open letter to Rahul Gandhi in November 2013 wrote that “India exported less apparel than much smaller Bangaldesh and less than one-tenth that by China.” Most Indian apparel firms start small and continue to remain small.
This leads to a situation where they cannot benefit from the economies of scale and hence, cannot compete in the export market. In their book 
India’s Tryst with Destiny, Jagdish Bhagwati and Panagariya point out that 92.4% of the workers in this sector work with small firms which have forty-nine or less workers. Now compare this to China where large and medium firms make up around 87.7% of the emplo
yment in the apparel sector.
Given this, the smallness of the Indian apparel sector, the economies of scale never come into play.
As Panagariya wrote in the Business Standard recently “It is astonishing that Indian laws view a factory of 100 workers as a large, corporate firm. In the United States, any firm with fewer than 250 workers is classified as “small”, while a firm with 250 to 500 workers is classified as “medium”. Even the World Bank, a development institution, defines a firm with 50 to 300 workers as being of medium size, and not large.” This ensures that a firm that starts small, continues to remain small. And this ultimately has an impact on job creation. As Chetan Ahya and Upasana Chachra of Morgan Stanley point out in a research note titled What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part 1 “All of these ultimately lead to lower job growth. Indeed, the manufacturing sector accounts for only 12.9% of GDP in India (2013) vs. 31.8% in China (as of 2011), 23.7% in Indonesia, 20.5% in the Philippines, and 14.8% in Brazil.”
History tells us that the creation of a strong and robust manufacturing sector is very important for robust economic growth. But in India’s case the system as it stands is rigged in favour of the incumbent large firms and organised labour.
The Industrial Disputes Act also requires the firm to take consent from the workers before modifying an existing job description. “This creates additional rigidities in the use of labour in response to changing market conditions,” write Ahya and Chachra.
Another tricky point is the fact that only 10% of the workforce is required to start a trade union. As the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act, 2001 points out “No trade union of workmen shall be registered unless at least 10% or 100, whichever is less, subject to a minimum of 7 workmen engaged or employed in the establishment or industry.”
This leads to a situation where there is “scope for multiple trade unions in a single factory”. As Ahya and Chachra point out in a note titled
What’s Holding Back India’s Labour Market Environment? Part II dated August 18, 2014, “A company with 700 workers can have 70 trade unions. In most other countries, the requirements for minimum membership for trade unions to be recognized are higher than those in India, reducing the scope for multiplicity of unions.”
In Pakistan at least 20% of the workmen are required for the trade union to be registered. In Bangaldesh the number stands at 30%. Sri Lanka requires a minimum of seven employees for a trade union, but collective bargaining is only allowed if the trade union represents a minimum of 40% of the total employees.
Then there are multiplicity of laws to cope up with. This is primarily because labour law is a concurrent subject and both the central and state governments can legislate on it. As Ahya and Chachra point out “This has resulted in multiplicity of laws, at times with overlapping jurisdictions. Currently there are 44 central laws and about 160 state laws on the subject (ILO, 2013).” It is not rocket science to conclude that it is very difficult for any entrepreneur to follow all these laws.
As Reuters columnist Andy Mukherjee wrote in a recent column “As a textile businessman recently tweeted, if small and mid-sized companies in India followed all existing rules, “your underwear will cost what your jeans cost today”.”
The Rajasthan government has begun chipping away at these laws. One of the changes proposed is that a firm needs to approach the state government when laying off workers only if it employes three hundred or more workers. These are state level changes being made to central government regulation, and hence, they need the assent of the president.
But Rajasthan is just a small part of the overall puzzle. Labour market reforms are needed at the central government level especially if Narendra Modi’s recent “Make in India” call needs to be taken seriously.
Currently, China accounts for 17.5% of the total global manufacturing exports. India in comparison stands only at 1.6%. Labour markets reforms at the central government level are needed if that number has to go up.

The article originally appeared on on August 20, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)