In Conversation with Senior Trade Unionist D Thankappan


(D Thankappan has 60 years of experience leading and working with trade unions. He has worked on a number of government committees on revival of sick industrial units, workers’ education and skill Development. He was the Founder Director of Centre for Workers’ Management from 1991 to 2002 and served on the Board of Kamani Tubes Limited from 1989 to 1997. He is one of the Founder Leaders of National Centre for Labour (NCL) in 1995 and New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) in 2006. 

Mr. Thankappan is presently an advisor to the project tiled ‘Ending Sexual Harassment: Making Institutions Accountable towards Women Workers in Informal Sector’, which is being jointly implementing by MFF and PRIA in Gurgaon, South Delhi and Faridabad. He recently visited the office of MFF in New Delhi and interacted with the team. Following are the excerpts from the interaction.)

MFF Team (MT): We have been working with informal sector workers, especially domestic workers around the issue of prevention of sexual harassment at workplace. Collectivizing them has been a challenge. As an experienced trade unionist, what would be your advice for successfully collectivizing or unionizing domestic workers?

D. Thankappan (DT): First of all, informal sector workers cannot be organized in the same manner as formal sector workers. While they have a number of issues at their workplaces, they also have issues related to housing, sanitation, children’s education etc. They all are residents of informal settlements and in extremely low-paying jobs. A myriad of issues collude when we seek to work with informal sector workers and therefore unionization efforts with them have to go beyond traditional methods. Often, they have to be organized at the sites of their residences, rather than their workplaces. When we speak of unionizing domestic workers, we have to remember that they do not have a clearly identifiable employer or a common employer. Therefore, their unionization is tremendous work; we have to spend a lot of time in their homes, also listen to their problems and everyday turmoil. It is only then that they will start trusting us. WE HAVE TO LISTEN, NOT ALWAYS TELL OR PREACH. Working with domestic workers is working with the most difficult categories of workers, which have absolutely no freedom or rights. Inevitably, their unionization will always be a long-drawn process and requires immense patience, grit and hard work.

MT: What are the benefits of unionization? Are there any special exemptions or provisions for unions in India?

DT: Nothing is possible without unionization! Until and unless, workers are unionized, they cannot do anything. They cannot meaningfully and effectively raise their voices and demand for their rights. Also, in India, we have the Trade Unions Act since the year 1926. A registered union in India receives a lot of protection. For instance, a civil suit cannot be filed against a trade union, it is not liable to pay any court fees and the income of the unions generated through members’ contribution and individual donations is exempt from tax. With all these benefits and provisions, it is always better to form a union, which eases the workers’ access to social protection and justice.


MT: As per the Trade Unions Act 1926, what are the rules for registering a trade union?

DT: Any seven or more members of a trade union may apply for the registration under this Act. At the time of making an application for registration, it is necessary that at least ten per cent or one hundred of the workers, whichever is less, engaged or employed in the establishment or industry with which the trade union is connected, are the members of the trade union. The names, age and addresses of all the members has to be provided at the time of registration. If in case, out of the seven registering members, three withdraw from the trade union, the registration will not be cancelled. But if four of them withdraw, the registration will be cancelled immediately. If a Trade Union has been in existence for more than one year before the making of an application for its registration, they will have to produce a statement of their accounts along with their application.

MT: All trade unions need to have a constitution. What should this constitution consist of?

DT: Every application for registration of a trade union shall be accompanied by a copy of its rules or constitution. The constitution should definitely contain the following:

  1. The name of the trade union (it should not be similar to the name of any other union or else the application for registration will be rejected)
  2. The address of the registered office of the union
  3. The objectives of the union
  4. The membership fee (it might differ from state to state but for most unions, it isn’t more than INR 10 per month)
  5. Titles, names, ages, addresses and occupations of the office-bearers of the Trade Union
  6. Those who are not workers or employed can become honorary members and are not liable to pay the fee. But not more than 50% of the union membership can comprise of outsiders. In 2001, the act was amended, which allowed for one-third or five honorary members to become office bearers. But after a recent court order, none of the office bearers in an informal sector trade union can be from outside.
  7. The trade union has to establish the sources of its funding and also the purpose for which these funds will be utilized. Funding can derive from various resources like membership fee, individual donations etc.
  8. How the bank account will be operationalized
  9. The roles and responsibilities of the office bearers; generally, all the executive powers are vested with the General Secretary of the union, who is also responsible for the overall management of the union. The Treasurer is responsible for collecting membership fees, maintaining the bank account and union membership records.
  10. The number of executive members to be elected
  11. The number of general meetings to be held each year and the mandatory attendance for such meetings
  12. Provisions of amalgamation and dissolution of the trade union
  13. The names, designations and addresses of two people who are authorized to make changes to the constitution of the trade union

MT: How can a trade union help its members when they are exploited at their workplaces or have a dispute with their employer?

DT: A trade union can help its members with a number of things. It can use the size of its membership to negotiate for favourable deals with the employer, which can be related to pension, gratuity, leave, maternity benefits, insurance etc. They also ensure that health and safety standards are adhered to at the workplace. Unions also provide financial assistance if there is an accident or medical emergency; if there is a dispute with the employer; unions support their members with court proceedings and counseling. Apart from that, they hold a number of educational and training programmes for their members, where they can learn about their rights, meet each other and come together to voice their concerns to their employers.


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