India, a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has been a permanent member of its governing body since 1922. The first ILO office in India started in 1928. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work cites eight core conventions that define human rights at work:
Being a founding member of ILO, India has an obligation “to respect, to promote and to realize in good faith and in accordance with the Constitution, the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of these conventions.”
These very rights are being ridiculed by the PM Modi government at every stage of policy making. The status of working-class people in India is miserable despite the fact that our Prime Minister launched ‘Shramev Jayate’ in October 2014 to provide more security to them. There was nothing wrong with these announcements, except that they had little to do with the real concerns of the working class. While this scheme was being made, there was no consultation or dialogue with central trade unions.
Last year on May Day, the Labour Ministry held an event in Delhi where officials spent most of their time showcasing portals and apps launched by the government for the ‘ease of doing business.’ This sums up the BJP-led NDA government’s intentions of “empowering” the backbone of nation’s GDP growth.
Soon after assuming power at the center, Modi government worked on the sole agenda of climbing up the ladder of ratings in World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” and thereby simplified the labour laws which were a hindrance in the path of big corporates. Both organized as well as unorganized sector workers were the target. In the name of reform, the entire edifice of labour laws, which were constructed after more than a century of the labour movement, was sought to be dismantled.
Labour laws are part of the concurrent list which means legislative power is shared between states and the Centre. The changes in labour laws initiated by the BJP state government in Rajasthan, made fundamental amendments in four laws. The changes were made to make it easier for businesses to train, hire and dismiss workers more easily. This was followed by Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh making amendments in their labour laws, all BJP ruled states.
Three amendments undertaken by Vasundhara Raje-led government can be considered the most adverse. The first is the amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act that raised the limit of number of employees up to which an industry could lay off without prior permission from the government – from 100 to 300. Second, the Contract Labour Act was amended to absolve the principal employer of responsibility for compliance. Upto 49 contract workers can be employed without a licence. Third, changes in the Apprentice Act made it possible for employers to employ large numbers of employees with no worker right – not even the already meager rights available to contract workers, even after working for five years in an establishment.
Here is an overview of amendments made by BJP led governments of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Rajasthan Labour Law 2014
According to the Business Standard, “The amendments in the Factories Act propose to increase the threshold limit of employment for factories operating without power from 20 to 40 and from 10 to 20 for factories operating with power. Complaints against the employer about violation of this Act would not receive cognizance by a court without prior written permission from the state government. A provision for compounding of offences has been added.”
Gujarat Labour Law 2015
The most controversial provision under the new law is the out of court settlement of disputes between workers and management.Labour and Employment Minister Vijay Rupani was quoted saying:“This provision will reduce unnecessary and endless litigation, as court cases go on for years. Thus, we want to introduce a system wherein labourers can arrive at a compromise with employers without approaching court.” However, this amendment clearly alienates workers from their basic right to reach the court of law.
Madhya Pradesh Labour Law 2015
According to a senior ministry official, “Companies are now allowed to let go of up to 100 employees without needing government approval. The new, higher limit will be applicable to companies where ‘not less than 300 workers were employed on an average per working day for the preceding 12 months.'”
Maharashtra Labour Law 2017
The Contract Labour Maharashtra (Amendment) Act says – “Large number of small and medium-scale establishments will be out of the purview of the Act. Larger establishments will also employ four to five sets of 40 contract workers to avoid coming under this law. This means employers will avoid providing statutory benefits, including provident fund, the minimum wage and leave to contract workers in smaller units.”
In successive years from 2015 to 2017, workers from all states have staged protests against anti-worker policies of the Modi government. 180 million Indian workers went on strike in 2016 against the government’s economic reforms. It was the biggest workers’ strike in India. A 12-point charter of demands was put by Centre Trade Unions against stringent labour laws, disinvestments in central and state-owned enterprises and opening up sectors ranging from railways to insurance and defence to foreign direct investments (FDI).
Then in 2017, nearly 100,000 workers gathered in Delhi for the “Mahapavad”. The Government had raised more than Rs. 564 billion by selling shares in state-owned industries. This step threatened the livelihood of lakhs of workers. Health workers in some states had not been paid in months, food subsidy and distribution schemes were being neglected and private employers who wish to discourage any kind of unionisation are being actively encouraged by the central government.
The government talks of simplifying labour laws. There are no labour laws to cover women workers who deliver crucial government schemes, such as the Anganwadi Worker and Helper of the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) or the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) of the NRHM (National Rural Health Management), the IKP (Indira Kranti Patham) or Grama Deepika workers of the National Rural Livelihood Mission or the various Shiksha Karmis. Even the above-mentioned schemes have no minimum wage provision for women workers.
Demonetisation in 2016 was amongst the worst blow to millions of workers in this nation. It’s no less than a permanent pain to more than 91% of the informal sector who do not come under labour laws and their day-to-day lives are dependent on the cash they earn on a daily basis. After the note ban, this huge population of working class, including marginalised farmers suffered irreparable loss. India is also home to millions of migrant workers but in four years no beneficiary step in the form of labour law forthe migrant population has been laid down.
The Modi government is probably the most pro-corporate government we have had in 25 years. Hire and fire has become a norm followed by corporates to carry out their profit making deals. The announcement of labour reforms are show-off efforts where they try to prove to a worker how much an elected government has done for them, but the reality remains over-shadowed by anti-labour reforms.
In words of Karl Marx, “The entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour.” I hope the existing distress among our nation’s working class people turns the tide in their favour by defeating this anti-labour government.