In the summer of 2011, when India was preparing its 12th Five Year Plan (which turned out to be its last one because the Planning Commission was closed sine die in 2014), the Principal Secretary for Labour and Employment in the Government of Maharashtra asked me to chair a meeting of heads of labour unions and industry associations in Mumbai.

There was a stand-off between unions and employers in reforming the labour laws. The government was unable to get them to agree. The Indian states have a large, constitutionally granted role in the framing of and the administration of labour laws. As the largest manufacturing state in India, Maharashtra was expected to play a leading role in the reframing of labour laws. Hence, the state’s Principal Secretary for Labour and Employment, Dr Kavita Gupta, invited me to chair a meeting between the heads of labour unions and industry associations to agree to an agenda for the reforms.

I arrived early for the meeting before all participants. Dr Gupta took me into the meeting room and sat with me at the head of a long, large conference table. There she briefed me about who she anticipated would attend the meeting. She expected about a dozen representatives each from unions and industry associations. She knew them and had met them in many meetings, both separately and together.

I asked her about her expectations from the meeting. She said she wanted them to support some changes that she sought to make to improve the effectiveness of labour regulations. I then asked her about her thoughts on my role in the meeting. She said I was a very senior person in the Central government – at the level of a minister of state and the participants were keen to hear my views. I should convey that the government was very sincere in bringing about reforms in labour regulations. I should also urge the unions and industrialists to work together to improve industrial relations so that the economy could grow faster.

“Say the same blasé things that senior government officials say,” I thought to myself. “They must have heard these platitudes hundreds of times.”

The participants entered the room soon afterwards through the single door opposite the head of the table. As they came in, the union representatives were ushered towards one side of the table and the industry representatives to the other. Participants on each side shook hands with each other, and some even hugged each other warmly. They smiled and waved politely at participants on the other side. The setting of the room had already divided the participants into two sides.

Dr Gupta commenced the meeting with a welcome to all and especially to me. She said the agenda was to obtain stakeholders’ support for the improvements being made by the labour department, and to discuss wider cooperation amongst stakeholders and the government. She had invited me to chair the discussions. She asked the participants to introduce themselves and make very brief opening comments if they wished to.

The union side went first. Some spoke very briefly, others longer. Then the industry representatives spoke. Since they were going second, some of them reacted to statements made from the union side, which provoked some union leaders to respond. Very soon, mere introductions were in danger of slipping into a tense debate even before the meeting could get to its stated agenda.

I had been taking notes of the names and what each person had said. The introductions had gone around the room from Dr Gupta on my left, and had come back to me from the other side. It seemed it was my turn to say something and Dr Gupta asked me if I had any opening remarks to make.

I turned to the union side and said, “I have heard and noted what you have said. I want to ask you how many times before this meeting have you said the same things to industry representatives at other meetings?” The answer was, “A hundred times! We keep saying these things but ‘they’ do not hear us!” Then I asked the industry side the same question.

The answer was the same, “A hundred times, but ‘they’ are unwilling to hear us!”
I posed a question to all. “What then have you achieved by saying the same things yet again if you are not being heard?” “Moreover,” I said, “I don’t think you have really listened to what others are saying. Let me read from my notes of what I have heard so far.”

I pointed out that amongst rhetorical flourishes from some on the union side about exploitation of labour, there were other serious comments too. For example, some union leaders had said that industries in India must become competitive with foreign producers so that jobs would be created in the country. Some had said that employers must invest in their employees’ skills and welfare so as to improve the productivity of the workforce.

From the employers’ side, I had heard some say that unions were only interested in protecting the high wages and job security of their own union members. Whereas, I pointed out, many union leaders were talking about the need to improve working conditions and wages of casual workers who were not members of their unions. I pointed out to the union side observations made by some on the employers’ side about the need for better cooperation amongst employers and unions to improve productivity and skill levels.

As I narrated what I had heard each side say, I noticed something quite interesting.

When I mentioned that the unions were not focused on their own members only, contrary to the widespread view, some industry participants looked alarmed. Whose side was I on, they seemed to question. When I said that many industry participants seemed genuinely interested in the welfare of all their workers, some union leaders, it seemed to me, silently said to themselves, “We knew he was always on the side of industries.” The question was – whose side was I on?

I concluded my remarks by saying that there was a lot of common ground that had already been expressed, which I hoped we would build upon. Unfortunately, it was hidden by a fog of misperceptions about the “other” side. I hoped we would not continue to see merely stereotypes of the other side. I urged everyone to take off the filters in their minds that made them hear only what they expected to hear; and instead listen to what was actually said. Only then would we make any progress towards the “win-win” solutions that we glibly say we must find.

And if we did not listen deeply to the other side, and continue to only find affirmation about what we assume the other side believes, we would remain stuck in a dead-end discourse. We would have left after yet another meeting in which we would have said what we have always said and complained about not being heard.

For over 25 years, both unions and employers have been demanding reforms of India’s labour laws. Both sides insist many laws are archaic and are badly implemented. The government has, rather unsuccessfully, tried to bring them together repeatedly in tripartite meetings to reform laws. Meanwhile, industry has not been growing sufficiently and not enough jobs are being created. With something as small as deeper listening to what is behind the stereotypes in their respective minds, a handful of union leaders and employers could begin a movement of reform that could impact the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians.

A few weeks after the meeting in Mumbai, I was approached by the President of the Employers’ Federation of India, Rajeev Dubey, and the Chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s National Council for Industrial Relations, Surinder Kapur. They had been meeting with union leaders for a year and had noted a willingness in some of them to work with industry for reforms. At the same time, they had noted unwillingness amongst many industry leaders to engage in a dialogue with unions.

Since I was the member incharge of industry, Rajeev and Surinder requested me to convene a meeting of leaders of the principal industry associations to moot the need for a new dialogue with unions. They also asked me to invite some union leaders who would be amenable to a new dialogue. I met Vrijesh Upadhyay, the General Secretary of the Bharti Mazdur Sangh (BMS), the largest national union. He liked the idea and agreed to ask a few other union leaders.

We agreed that the meeting would be informal and exploratory without any pre-determined agenda. The participants would deliberate on what they should do together. Both sides said that I would have to play two roles to give the process a good start. One was to convene the meeting in the Planning Commission, as they believed that invitees were more likely to attend if they were invited by a member of the Commission. The other was a request to facilitate the discussions amongst them. I agreed.

The problem of convening the meeting in the Planning Commission was that there was no suitable room for the sort of meeting I envisaged – a dialogue directly between unions and employers, and not a typical meeting convened by a senior government official. In the latter kind, the usual form is for everyone to address the official in the few minutes that each participant is given to speak. But the objective of this meeting was for participants to speak to each other and not to me.

There were many meeting rooms in the Planning Commission. Some were set up with huge tables in the middle, around which people would sit in long rows of chairs. These rooms were too big and too formal for the informality required for the small, ice-breaking meeting between a dozen or so leaders of unions and employers. Other meeting rooms had narrow tables set up in a U-format. At the deep end of that U was a high chair for the senior official conducting the meeting with chairs alongside for other senior persons.

The participants would invariably sit along the arms of the U with others like themselves, as the union leaders and employers had in Mumbai, to identify which side they were on. This arrangement was also not suitable for the meeting I had in mind.

We had no choice so we met in a room with the U-format, except that I did not sit on the high chair in the middle. I sat on a chair at the end of one of arms of the U, furthest from the centre where the least important person in a meeting would be expected to sit. The advantage of this chair was that I could walk into the U whenever I wanted to, and walk up to any of the participants, just as Joe Curry had done in the transformative meeting of the Telco managers 50 years ago.

When the participants came in, they were unsettled by the arrangement. They asked me to move to the high chair. I explained why I was sitting where I was, and suggested that any one of them could take the high chair treating it as any other chair. They found this very difficult to do. It remained empty for a while, till someone pushed it aside and replaced it with another chair like every other.

I reminded everyone that they had asked me to facilitate a meeting amongst them and I intended to do just that. I said I would not be the chairman of the meeting to arbitrate between the parties or to give decisions. However, I would be in charge of the quality of their deliberations. If I felt someone had not listened to another, I would intercede. “We will have an ‘un- conference’ in a conventional conference room,” I said. It would be a meeting with a difference, they agreed.

Excerpted with permission from Listening For Well-Being: Conversations With People Not Like Us, Arun Maira, Rupa.