Working class is passing through its most testing times in India. Labourers are pushed to the wall like never before. The heart-rending scenes of migrant labourers making last-ditch efforts to get back to their homes are enough to melt even the most hardened hearts. Workers are staring at the toughest time in their life. But, State governments in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh found it the most opportune time to suspend several labour laws. And they did it taking the brazen Ordinance route. Most of the labour laws have been suspended for a period up to three years. There is no denying that some of the labour laws -- dating back to the British time -- have to be changed to make the country in tune with the changing time. However, the time chosen to do it and the way it has been bulldozed through make one believe that there is more to it than meet the eyes.
Look at some of the changes brought about by the States. The working time has been increased from 8 hours to 12 hours per day, a move that can break the spine of workers. Trade unions have termed it a harsh measure with an inhumane face. Another blow to workers’ rights has been inflicted by suspending the Industrial Disputes Act, thereby exempting firms from the obligation of sticking to its provisions. It will give a free hand to employers to hire and fire. When the workers are faced with an uncertain future in the midst of economic distress, losing jobs at the whims and fancy of employers will be like a straw that breaks the camel’s back. Factories Act, which has been amended a few times for tightening the safety belt of employees, too has been suspended. Viewing it in the wake of the recent catastrophe at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam where a few workers died and hundreds taken ill, the move can have disastrous consequences affecting the security of workers. Equally ominous is the suspension of Minimum Wages Act and many others which can reduce workers to the level of bonded labourers.
The move by the State governments comes even as the Parliament is seized of Industrial Relations Code which takes a fresh look at various labour laws in the country. The Standing Committee of both Houses has given its report and the law-makers have to take a call on it. As the labour laws fall in the domain of the Centre and the States, it is improper for a few State governments to move fast and come out with Ordinances to suit their interests. The State governments, according to reports, moved swiftly to attract companies that are leaving China. An impression has been created that if India’s labour laws, which are seen as pro-working class, are not changed in favour of employers, many foreign companies may not risk to invest in the country. It is to be seen whether changes in labour laws alone will attract foreign investors to India.
Real reforms in labour laws mean protecting workers without adversely affecting the performance of industries. The spate of suspension of existing laws is nothing but stripping workers of their safety and protection. A country that looks down on its labour force won’t be able to board the bullet train to super power.(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)