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In Modi’s India, Labour Laws Are Under A Vicious Attack

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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:

  1. Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)
  2. Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)
  3. Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)
  4. Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)
  5. Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)
  6. Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111)
  7. Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138)
  8. Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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