Under the cover of darkness, using the pandemic as a convenient excuse, all the BJP-ruled states of India are demolishing the entire edifice of labour regulations in the country. What the BJP government at the Centre could not achieve through the parliamentary legislative process, the BJP states are realising through the ordinance route. And this has been hailed by the CEO of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant as “one of the boldest and bravest initiatives since reforms in 1991”. The COVID-19 crisis for him is a golden opportunity for reforms in other sectors as well. “It is now or never; the states are driving bold reforms; we will never get this opportunity; seize it,” he wrote in a recent editorial.
NDA’s beef with labour laws
An important argument of neo-liberal ideologists have been that Indian labour markets are over regulated and market rigidities are hindering investment and employment. The NDA government in the first term had proposed amalgamating 44 labour laws of the country under four principal codes dealing with: i) wages, ii) industrial relations, iii) social security and iv) occupational safety. The new set of codes aimed to appease the industrial elites of India, who for long have argued that labour laws are inherently harmful to the economy and that only a boundless right to hire and fire workers can promote employment and productivity in the country. But such has been the strong labour traditions in the country that the attempt was met with stiff resistance from all central trade unions including massive countrywide strikes.
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After the NDA’s re-election to power with increased majority, the Labour Code was taken up as a priority. But it could pass only the Code on Wages even in Lok Sabha and was compelled to refer the other codes to the Parliamentary Committee on labour. Now the BJP states are using the pandemic as an opportunity to scuttle the labour legislatures. Representatives of 12 employers’ association including Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) have demanded suspension of labour laws for the next two to three years and to increase the working hours to 12. The Gujarat Chamber of Commerce has even demanded that trade unions be prohibited, at least for a year. This level of morbid aggressiveness to labour has never been witnessed in independent India. Even though a few national leaders of the Congress have decried the attempts, Punjab and Rajasthan have succumbed to the temptation to some extent.
Gujrat on April 7, issued notification to allow 12-hour shifts six days a week, for three months without over time. Rajasthan, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh issued similar notifications in April itself, but without scrapping overtime. In the first week of April, Uttar Pradesh suspended all, but three of the existing labour laws – Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act and Payment of Wages Act for 1,000 days. Madhya Pradesh followed suit. Not to be outcompeted, Gujarat extended the period to 1,200 days. Assam cancelled the law on contract labour, and Karnataka and Tripura are now contemplating similar moves.
Just an ordinance could alter human rights
Yes, just one ordinance, and they are all gone. You can see the glee of the custodians of our ancient civilisation. The new dharma now is to deny human rights to one and all. The first casualty, being thrown out of the window is the eight-hour working day, arguably the most precious inheritance of the workers of the world, which they won in the past through hard and bitter struggles, lasting over centuries.
Now onwards, the upper limit is 72 hours a week or 12 hours a day. Your employer will decide if you need to be paid any overtime payment or not. But who will demand overtime, if there is no choice other than to obey? There are some more gruesome provisions in the new ordinances.
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There would be no obligation to maintain any register of employees, adults or children once hired. The hiring enterprises are declared ‘out of bounds’ for the labour inspectors or any public authorities. The employers can always organise third-party inspections and self-certify themselves. No questions will be asked on the practices or procedures followed or on wages, allowances, health, hygiene, safety and working conditions of the workers employed.
The Factories Act of 1948 (admittedly an old relic) stands suspended almost entirely. Start a new unit or revive an old one; as employers, you won’t have to offer any amenities to the workers hired. You are welcome to hire and fire them at will, and no questions will be raised during the next 1,000 days. The constitutionally approved rules, governing the workplace are suspended.
Pitch for a non-interventionist labour regulatory regime
What is the immediate provocation for this attack on labour rights? The pandemic has created a new situation within the factories, making social distancing mandatory for some time to come. Only fewer workers can be accommodated and the labour process has to be reorganised. There are two ways of meeting this challenge, so that profits are not affected. One, reorganise the labour process on the basis of new technology, particularly incorporating IT and robotics.
Two, go back to the past practices of increasing absolute exploitation through extending the working day, reducing the wages or increasing the work load. Indian rulers seems to be adopting to the second option. This would imply a severe deterioration of labour conditions and decline the share of wages in the factory output. If this is the situation of the organised sector one can imagine the plight of unorganised sector. If this succeeds, it is going to be a historic setback for the Indian working class.
There is a new and strange plea made on the behalf of the working class – that only a non-interventionist labour regulatory regime can attract foreign capital, now looking for new pastures in India as it flees China for whatever reasons. A new breed of patriotic leaders have fantasised that India in the post-pandemic world will be flushed with capital, technology and jobs if only they can demolish the labour regulations, inherited from the past.
When protectors turn predators
The legality of these actions are open to challenge. They are in total violation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions to which India is a signatory. As per the Tripartite Consultation International Labour Standards Convention 1976, the authorities should have consulted the stakeholders before making a decision. No such fig leaf of engagement was even attempted. The government of Kerala has categorically made it clear that the state was not going to amend any of its labour laws.
The context for such suspension also matters. The migrant workers from India’s heartland states, who had earlier travelled long distances to far corners in search of living are trudging back home in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. The “far-sighted” leaders of these BJP ruled states are not inclined to let a (good) crisis go waste. They have decided to make sacrificial lambs out of those miserable migrant workers, who have opted to return home though in despair.
The message to the (non-existent) investors of India is loud and clear – These are our workers, now willing to die for you in return for just a living. Indeed, they are craving for life amid poverty, misery and destitution, which they have brought onto themselves. You do what you like; we won’t ask any questions, nor will they.
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Let me remind the political leaders of the heartland states that the essential role of any nation is to protect the weak and the vulnerable in their midst. The regulatory standards, safeguarding minimum wages, hours of work, working conditions, health and social security are only for this purpose. If you relent on these civilisational rules, your very right to govern becomes a question.
There is one lesson from history, which we cannot afford to miss. The inequalities unleashed through mis-governance and ill-treatment of the poor will turn into massive explosions that will engulf all of us. Those of us who do not learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat them.
(The author is the finance minister of Kerala)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)