At one end lies lives locked up within the comfort of home, and the other side carriers workers and labourers, pushed around, endlessly amid the pandemic, with no work or cash, no roof to cover their heads and no food to feed their soul.
What worsens the situation more is their eagerness to be with their loved ones.
And on the top of that, once again, their ‘particle’ freedom is set to be sacrificed.
Coronavirus has left us devastated in many ways, from taking human lives to injuring the world economy.
After weeks of lockdown, business and economic activities geared up for their revival at the cost of wiping off labour rights.
Taking the cover of coronavirus crises, some states of India thought of addressing the need to wipe off the labour law to
- ‘attract’ relocation of foreign companies from China
- to breathe new life to business and economic activities
When the focus should be on protecting the working population in factories, industries and other establishments amid the coronavirus crises and fulfilling their basic needs, states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat embarked on their plan to further exploit the rights of labourers and employees in the name of boosting economic activity.
A question arises, is India, as a nation failed to protect her most vulnerable sections and labourers from the Coronavirus Impact?
The Real Fight
Madhya Pradesh allowed factories and other units to operate without fulfilling the requirements of the Factories Act, 1948.
Working hours may extend to 12 hours (instead of 8 hours) daily and the weekly duty may go up to 72 hours.
State Government’s actions cited of utilizing Section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948 which is
Section 5 in The Factories Act, 1948
Power to exempt during public emergency.—In any case of public emergency the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, exempt any factory or class or description of factories from all or any of the provisions of this Act 1[except section 67] for such period and subject to such conditions as it may think fit: Provided that no such notification shall be made for a period exceeding three months at a time.
2[Explanation.—For the purposes of this section “public emergency” means a grave emergency whereby the security of India or of any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbance.]
Soon Uttar Pradesh state came up with a decree to suspend all labour laws, except for the abolition of child and bonded labour, women employees, construction workers and payment of wages, besides compensation to workmen for accidents while on duty.
Coming to the conclusion, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and some other states have passed executive orders exempting new establishments from most labour rules and allowed and allowed them to extend the working hours from 8 to 12 as a part of reform.
Also, there were executive orders issued by at least 10 states to increase the daily working limit to 12 hours from 8 hours, along with other labour law changes.
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A united step by trade unions
However, any change in the manner in which labour laws operate in a State may require the Centre’s assent.
Soon, a complaint was raised to the International Labour Organization (ILO) on 14th May by 10 Indian trade Unions, namely the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the All-India Trade Union Congress, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, the All-India United Trade Union Centre, the Trade Union Coordination Committee, the Self Employed Women’s Association, the All-India Central Council of Trade Unions, the Labour Progressive Federation and the United Trade Union Congress stating that the state governments had not consulted the unions before proposing or making labour law changes, as is required under the ILO’s conventions.
These states have either diluted many of the labour laws or suspended them for two-three years to ‘revive’ the economic activities and businesses.
The complaint points out that states like MP, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are ‘ceasing the application’ of the Trade Union Act, 1926, and the Industrial Disputes Act that provide scope for collective bargaining.
ILO’s letter to PM Modi
Seeking ILO’s intervention to protect workers’ rights and international labour standards in these states, the conjoint efforts of 10 trade unions did well.
ILO’s Director-General, Guy Ryder wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed ‘deep concern’ at the attempt to roll back long-standing labour laws, and has appealed to PM Narendra Modi to intervene and remind the states about India’s international commitments.
Here are the words quoted from ILO’s Chief of Freedom of Association Branch under the International Labour Standards Department, Karen Curtis to trade unions on May 22.
“Please allow me to assure you that the ILO Director-General (Guy Ryder) has immediately intervened, expressing his deep concern at these recent events and appealing to the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to send a clear message to Central and state governments to uphold the country’s international commitments and encourage engagement ineffective social dialogue.”
The letter also reflected that the ILO will keep the central trade unions informed about “any observations or comments that may be made by the Indian authorities on the matters that you have raised.”
India & ILO Convention 144
India is a signatory of ILO convention 144, which calls for tripartite (three) consultations among government, employers and workers.
Meantime, Niti Aayog’s vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar has recently said that reforms do not mean complete abolition of labour laws.
“I have just noticed that the Union Ministry of Labour is firming up its stance to tell the states that they cannot abolish labour laws because India is a signatory to the ILO,” Kumar had said in an interview to a news agency.
Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar, in a recent interview, said there was “no question of removing labour laws”.
He further added that India was a signatory to the ILO convention and that it would do nothing that would give reason to the world labour body to complain.
After strong protests by trade unions like RSS-affiliated labour union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and other, UP and Rajasthan abolished the decisions.
These indications are the fruits of some positive rethinking happening at the state governments and the centre.
But that’s not all; the labours and other working classes require much more to heal amid the pandemic.