Will there be a sunrise for workers’ unions in India’s renewable sector?

  • India is rapidly increasing its renewable power capacity and the sector is expected to provide jobs to millions over the next few decades. But the absence of proper worker unions, like the ones in the coal sector, could be detrimental to workers’ rights.
  • Over the decades, the union of workers in India’s coal sector have played an important role in ensuring welfare measures for them.
  • A representative of a coal sector union revealed that discussions are already happening to create similar unions for the renewable sector workers but nothing has been finalised as yet.

In the 2020 United States Presidential election campaign, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has announced a two trillion U.S. dollar clean energy plan which focuses on stable jobs in the renewable sector and promised to defend workers’ rights to form unions so that they can collectively bargain for their welfare. While the issue of workers’ rights and unions in the booming sector is internationally on the forefront, so far there is no major debate in India around unions in the renewable sector, even though the country is also looking at a massive shift to clean energy over the next two decades.

India’s clean energy transition is significant, domestically and globally, given that there is serious international pressure to phase out coal and internal pressure to move towards clean energy to reduce the country’s burgeoning pollution problem. But the absence of an organised group to ensure the rights of workers, who are either employed in the renewable sector or those who may shift from coal-based jobs, will be a major impediment in this transition. 

In September 2019, unions that were opposing 100 percent foreign direct investment in coal refused to attend a meeting with the Union Coal Minister Prahlad Joshi. In June and July 2020, when the Indian government announced auctions for commercial coal mining to boost the economy, it faced a serious backlash from unions that went on a three-day strike in July. The unions had planned a one-day strike in August too but had deferred it. They are still opposing commercial coal mining and efforts are being made by the government to address their concerns. 

Such incidents speak a lot about the heft of unions in the coal sector in India while also highlighting the importance of a mechanism or union to address the rights of millions who are expected to be employed in the growing clean power sector in the coming years. Directly and indirectly, the coal sector in India employs millions of people and is an important part of the economy. The coal power sector in India is dominated by five major unions – Hind Khadan Mazdoor Federation (HMS), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). These unions are part of all the major decision making processes at all levels – central, state and district – as far as the coal sector is concerned. 

Whether the decisions are related to wages, infrastructure development, health and education, pension or any other benefit, the unions play a very important role. Even though many of these unions are affiliated to different political parties on the issue of welfare of workers they are on the same page most of the time.

For instance, in July, when unions had a three-day strike to protest against commercial coal mining, the BMS, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, too took part in it. One of the reasons that coal workers and unions are powerful is that they physically control the asset, coal, and if they halt the production they can force the governments to listen to them or bring them to the discussion table.

Read more: East and west: The parallel worlds of India’s coal and renewable sectors

Why are workers’ unions important?

Ramendra Kumar, President of AITUC, one of the five major unions in the coal sector, said unions are required in every sector where workers are involved to ensure their welfare is taken care of and the renewable sector is no exception.

“Whether it is the public or private sector, unions are a necessity for workers everywhere … across the world. Whenever and wherever workers have been unorganised, they have faced problems. For example, in India, unions have been able to ensure proper wages, social welfare, health and education benefits, pension benefits, etc.,” Kumar told Mongabay-India.

Thousands of people are directly employed in coal mines across India. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.

Talking about the importance of coal unions, he said the central government has been trying to merge the Coal Mines Provident Fund Organisation (CMPFO) with the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). “But we have foiled these plans to protect the rights of the coal sector workers. If this merger happens, the workers will stand to lose. Though we have been able to stop the government, so far, they are constantly weakening the CMPFO through other means like by not appointing officials to manage it,” Kumar explained.

As the name suggests, the CMPFO, which was formed in 1948 just after India’s independence, deals with the Coal Mines Provident Fund, the EPFO, formed in 1951, is involved in managing provident fund of workers in all other factories and establishments. 

Mongabay-India’s query sent to the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy asking if there is any proposal or plan to allow such unions in the renewable sector remained unanswered.

Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader V.M. Manohar echoed similar views about the importance of unions in the coal sector and revealed that discussions are on to form similar unions in the renewable sector.

“There are discussions and proposals to form unions for workers involved in the renewable sector as well. It has not been done as yet but it is being discussed. It is of utmost importance for ensuring the rights of the workers. We have enough examples from the experience in the coal sector that show why the unions are an important component,” Manohar, who is based in Korba, a prime coal mining region, told Mongabay-India. 

Another important factor that the union leaders noted was that the coal sector in India is primarily controlled by government-backed agencies while the private sector has a small role. However,  in the renewable sector, private companies are the major players. 

On this, Manohar said that this is why unions are important for the checks and balances.

Read more: [Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

Unions could become vital with an increase in renewable sector jobs

Even though there are varying estimates, the renewable power sector is expected to generate millions of jobs across India over the next 30 years. For instance, a 2019 study said that by 2050 over 3.2 million people would be employed in the renewable sector while a latest study in September 2020 said that if Delhi and its adjoining regions switch to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, about five million jobs can be generated in northern India alone.

The solar power sector is rapidly growing in India. Photo by Vinaykumar8687/Wikimedia Commons.

At present (till July 31), India’s installed renewable power capacity is about 88.04 gigawatts (GW) which is about 23.66 percent of India’s total installed power capacity of 371 GW. India plans to have 175 GW of renewable power by 2022 and 450 GW (about 60 percent of its total energy capacity) by 2030.

But what is a matter of debate is that workers employed in the coal sector enjoy a certain permanence in jobs which may or may not be there in renewable sector jobs. Thus, this could be a contentious issue in the transition to cleaner energy. This is not only a scene in India but across the world and that is why even in the 2020 United States Presidential Elections are witnessing a heated debate between the coal sector and renewable sector jobs.

Earlier this year, a study had highlighted that India would need to scale up its current solar capacity to nearly 30 times, about 1,000 GW, to transition about half a million people directly working in coal mines. 

Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist of the Environics Trust, which is involved in research and development on environmental issues, emphasised that unlike the coal sector, jobs in the renewable sector may not be of permanent nature and would require certain skills.

“The renewable sector is poised to grow in India at a significant pace with concurrent growth in jobs in installation. Given the growing informalisation, one has to understand and evolve systems for jobs and unionisation,” Ramamurthi, who is also the co-founder of the Mines, Minerals and People (MMP), told Mongabay-India. MMP is an alliance spread across 18 states with more than 100 grassroots groups and about 20 diverse support organisations.

“With heavy mechanisation, technologies available in terms of robotics and mass-load transport systems, the labour or employment is decreasing in mining. Statistics indicate that mining employed far more people in 1951 as compared to 2019. In small scale and largely informalised mining, labour norms are flouted both in terms of remuneration as well as the provision of facilities and massive exploitation of children and women is not unknown even to the policymakers. Distributed and DIY renewables can provide far more dignified solutions and retain the activity for long,” Ramamurthi noted.


Banner image: A girl looking after the maintenance work of a solar street light. Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Department for International Development/Flickr.

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