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Crushing Labourers

Crushing Labourers

On 15 May 1891, Pope Leo XIII gave to the world his path-breaking and visionary social Encyclical ‘ Rerum Novarum  (meaning  ‘of revolutionary change’) or ‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’. That Encyclical is still widely hailed as the start of Catholic Social Teaching; however with Pope John XXIII and the teachings of Vatican II and with Pope Francis at the helm today, greater emphasis is given to the social engagement of the Church in today’s world.

In ‘Rerum Novarum’ Pope Leo XIII delves on six interrelated themes (i) the need for cooperation between the classes: both the employers and the workers should respect each other(ii) there is dignity in work; but the workers must be provided with reasonable hours of work and with good working conditions (iii) the worker must be given j ust wages ( sufficient to support themselves and their families)and  be able to be members of workers Associations/Unions (iv) the State has the role and responsibility of safeguarding and protecting the rights (v)private ownership of property is legitimate but there has to be a just and equitable distribution of wealth and finally (vi) the Encyclical defends the rights of the poor stating) “Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government” (# 37).  

Significantly on ‘Worker’s Day’, 1 May 1991, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of ‘Rerum Novarum’ Pope (now Saint) John Paul II gave the world another significant Encyclical ‘Centesimus Annus’. Whilst acclaiming ‘Rerum Novarum’ as “an immortal document” and reemphasizing the core principles of the Encyclical, Pope John Paul II goes several steps further when he says, “Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice. Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment. Only such an awareness can give the courage needed to face the risk and the change involved in every authentic attempt to come to the aid of another. It is not merely a matter of "giving from one's surplus", but of helping entire peoples which are presently excluded or marginalized to enter into the sphere of economic and human development. For this to happen, it is not enough to draw on the surplus goods which in fact our world abundantly produces; it requires above all a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies. Nor is it a matter of eliminating instruments of social organization which have proved useful, but rather of orienting them according to an adequate notion of the common good in relation to the whole human family (# 58)

Catholic Social Teaching on the rights of workers is unequivocal: workers have rights and they must be safeguarded. Thanks to Popes like Leo XIII, John Paul II and now Francis. The point is how would they (and in fact the Church in India today) react to sudden anti-labour policies which were formulated by the BJP Government of Uttar Pradesh (UP) led by  Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath? Quick on the heel of the UP Government’s decision, the Governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat also decided to amend their labour laws though perhaps not as drastic as the move undertaken by the UP Government.

In a move which is blatantly unconstitutional and which violates the rights of the workers, the UP Cabinet on May 6, decided through an ordinance, to suspend 35 of the 38 labour laws in the State for three years.  It justified this act saying that it would attract a  much-needed investment to an economy battered by Covid-19. The laws that remain are Section 5 of ‘The Payment of Wages Act, 1936’, ‘The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923’, ‘The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and The Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996’.

The ordinance covers all the existing industries and manufacturing units as well as the new ones that are expected to come up in a few years. All labour laws related to labour unions, settling work disputes, regulations for working conditions, contracts, among others are suspended. This includes ‘The Minimum Wages Act’, ‘The Maternity Benefit Act’, ‘The Equal Remuneration Act’, ‘The Trade Unions Act’, ‘The Industrial Employment Act’, ‘The Industrial Disputes Act, ‘The Factories Act’ among others.

The ordinance has now been sent to the UP Governor Anandiben Patel for her approval which is a foregone conclusion. since labour is on the concurrent list it will then have to be sent to Delhi for the Centre’s nod. The UP Government whilst clearing the ordinance said in a statement, "For encouraging new investments, setting up new industrial infrastructure and benefit of existing industries and factories, it is imperative that they are provided temporary exempted from the existing labor laws in the state. Therefore, it is important that existing labour laws in Uttar Pradesh are relaxed for a period of three years. To this end 'Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020' has been introduced"

The ordinance will deny workers access to legal redress, paid leave or even compensation for termination. It is clearly a calculated move to make ‘Trade Unions’ impotent: they are bound to lose their bargaining power particularly with growing unemployment in the country. Just suspending labour laws is clearly not enough to revive an economy which has been on the downslide since 2014; what is needed is adequate demand and supply side measures. These laws are also in violation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention No 144. India is a signatory to it and states are bound by the ratification

Once the UP ordinance receives the Centre’s approval it could result in the termination of the services of all permanent employees and they would easily be replaced with contract workers. Then there is the issue of payment of gratuity: a worker has honestly worked for twenty-five years and more; he now has to retire in the midst of the pandemic. The UP ordinance means that he will not get any gratuity on retirement. Terribly unjust indeed!

The working class has suffered enough during this pandemic. The Government denied them public transportation for almost two months to return home. They were denied wages when their establishments were closed during the lockdown. The Government seemed to desperately have wanted to keep them back at their ‘workplace’ so that they could be available as soon as the lockdown is lifted, to work once again at the mercy of their employer. What the Government did not visualize was that they would have the grit and determination to walk back home. There are the terrible pictures and footage of them walking miles back to their native place, inspite of the Government’s denial of the same in the Supreme Court more than a month earlier.

Shortly, after the UP ordinance was announced ,in the early hours of  8 May,  sixteen migrant workers, hailing from Umaria and Shahdol districts in Bihar working in a steel factory in the MIDC zone, Jalna district, who had been walking back home, were killed when a  goods train ran over them reportedly somewhere between the Jalna and Aurangabad districts. They had left Jalna around seven the previous evening, walking on the road for a certain period of time, after which they began walking along the rail track. After walking some thirty-six kilometres, they fell asleep on the track, exhausted and perhaps confident that there were no trains running. The fact that they were mowed down for no fault of theirs should disturb the conscience of every citizen of India. This is not an isolated incident of our hapless migrant workers. Apparently more than three hundred of them have died, either due to accidents, starvation, exhaustion, suicides and police brutality all of which can be attributed directly to the ongoing lockdown. Invariably, these are deaths that have occurred due to gross mismanagement of the crisis.

In a lead article in BloombergQuint (14 May 2020) ‘The Unprecedented Changes To India’s Labour Laws = Social Chaos?’ Payaswini Upadhyay writes, “the usefulness of labour laws aside, both sides agree to one thing—that the manner in which the changes are being introduced will lead to social chaos”. In the conclusion she writes, “ Worker association Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has instructed its state units to oppose the unilateral withdrawal of labour laws, as per the media release. The units have been asked to write to the chief ministers of the respective states to stop withdrawal of labour laws and ask governments to consult trade unions on every step taken in labour sector. The state governments have so far not been able to convince the public how labour laws are hurdles in economic activities and about the emergent situation requiring the extreme step of suspension of labour laws, it said”.

That is true trade unionists, human rights and other social activists and several from the legal fraternity are on the warpath on behalf of the workers of India. Once the changes in UP, MP and Gujarat have the Centre’s approval these will certainly be challenged in the High Courts of the respective States. It is bound to be a long drawn battle. There is however a clear pattern: a method in the ‘madness’ – which means the subjugation of the rights of the workers. Very few in India doubt, that what one sees and experiences today, is the emergence of a totalitarian State. The Government has made a mess of the economy. It has mainstreamed corruption allowing their buddies to loot the country. The BJP has amassed a huge amount of wealth and has crushed every form of dissent and questioning. A large section of the judiciary has become fairly pliant, as they continue to bow to the whims and fancies of their political masters. Crony capitalism rules the roost as never before as one sees the way the workers of the country are treated and denied their legitimate rights. ‘Crushing Labourers’ seems to have become the new normal in a country which has the painful picture of those exhausted and hungry labourers crushed by a train as they lay their weary bodies on the tracks for some rest.

Years ago Mahatma Gandhi said, nothing will demoralise the nation so much as that we should learn to despise labour”.  One hundred and twenty nine years ago ‘Rerum Novarum’ was about a ‘revolutionary change’. It was clearly that. In 1991 ‘Centesimus Annus’ was clearly about justice for the workers. The way things are going on in the country, our labourers who are our lifeline but who are being crushed in a systematic way, are crying out for justice! Will Pope Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II motivate us to respond to their cries?

( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)