Monday, May 24, 2010

Is the right to strike unfettered ?

The right to strike work is one the basic rights of workers and is recognised in law in most countries. But should this right be unfettered – and is the right to strike as valid now as it was when the principle was first enshrined ?

The right to strike was first recognised when the balance of power between employers and employees was heavily tilted towards the employer. The company could basically exploit workers as they pleased – a situation which is, alas, all too common even in present day China. Make people work in unsafe conditions, handle poisons, face serious risk of injury, withhold wages, employ children, take away passports / ID cards – these are the conditions that labour often found itself in the past, and still finds itself in , in some parts of the world. The only weapon that workers have to defend themselves is to organise themselves into a union and threaten strikes.

But in many other parts of the world, the situation is very different now. Power is much more balanced with legislation protecting such basic rights of workers. Disputes now are mainly in the area of pay and job losses. In both these areas, the balance of power is much more even. Workers have reasonable protection, including redundancy payments in case of job losses. The reasons for tensions on both issues are less to do with employers exploiting workers and more to do with competition forcing the employers’ hands.

Under such circumstances, is the right to strike absolute and unfettered ? Take the case of British Airways where the cabin crew are going on strike yet again today. Nobody can claim that British Airways cabin crew are exploited. Compared to BA’s competitors like Ryanair, BA crew are handsomely paid. This year has been a horrible year for BA – they just announced record losses. In addition to the earlier cabin crew strikes, the Icelandic volcano also contributed to their misery. Now the cabin crew are striking again. The very survival of BA is at stake. What about other workers of BA who are not striking – if BA sinks, everybody sinks with them. The current demand on which a last minute settlement has broken down is cabin crew demanding restoration of free travel perks which were withdrawn when they first went on strike. Hardly seems to justify a strike in the current atmosphere. No wonder there is very little public sympathy for BA’s cabin crew.

In today’s competitive world, strikes are simply unaffordable by any company. Customers will simply shift elsewhere and not come back. However, at the same time workers need to have some protection as well. Given half a chance, employers will exploit workers. So why not have arbitration by independent bodies to settle grievances and disputes. Sort it out mutually. If you can’t, somebody will arbitrate and the ruling will be binding on both parties.

Maybe its time to remove the right to strike other than for safety and health considerations. I would like to think that human beings have evolved something a little superior to bashing each other up as a way of settling disputes.