In 2020, the Indian government looks to implement all the provisions of the four codes on wages, industrial relations, social security, occupational safety, health and working conditions. These codifications essentially subsume 44 central labour laws under these four labour codes.
The labour laws are very essential for every worker who currently works under an employer. It is also important, keeping in mind the needs of freelance workers. The labour laws ensure that the rights of the workers are protected and that the workers are not exploited by their employers. It also provided the right of the worker to get justice if the employer breaks any rule which leads to the exploitation of the worker. The 44 central labour laws have been carefully constructed over the years, and trade unions, as a primary stake-holder, played a huge role.
The government said that the amalgamation of the labour laws under the four labour codes is historic since it would benefit both the workers and their employers, while the trade unions are of the opinion that the codes nullify the historic struggle of trade unions for labour-friendly laws.
Following this, huge protests by trade unions like the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and others were held at the national capital. The protest also included many questions like the long-standing demand of many trade unions to include the informal sector and benefits of social security for them. This is also linked to lower female labour force participation.
Maternity benefits are an internationally recognised right, which provides for wage compensation during pregnancy and after delivery. The benefits are also required keeping in mind the exclusive care and breastfeeding for the nutritional benefits of the newborn.
The Maternity Benefits Act of 1961 before the intervention of the Labour Codes covered the provision of only women employed in the organised sector. The Unorganised Workers Social Security Act of 2008 also included provisions of maternity benefits but no entitlement of wage compensation was attached to it. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) promised ₹6000 to all pregnant mothers, but the scheme Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) limits the benefit only to the first child and also reduced the amount to ₹5000.
The introduction of The Code on Social Security subsumed the existing Acts on maternity benefits. The Code explains and guarantees maternity benefits under formal work for all women.
The earlier maternity benefits act made it mandatory for establishments to set up creches. The new code fails to make it mandatory states that the establishments may set up a creche in an establishment with more than 50 workers.
In the informal sector, the code vaguely promises that the central or the state government (since labour falls under the concurrent list) will come up with schemes in time which will benefit the informal women workers of maternity benefits. It does not provide any detail guidelines for the maternity benefits as it did for women in the formal sector.
Workplaces have been repeatedly proved to be hostile and unsafe towards women, both in the formal sector and the informal sector. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013 defines what constitutes sexual harassment at workplaces and requires all employers consisting of 10 or more than 10 employees to set up the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
For informal workers or any workplace consisting of less than 10 employees, the complaints are to be made at the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) set up at each district by the district officer. However, the implementation of this Act has so far been very hard.
Maneka Gandhi, the then Minister of Women and Child Development, requested the then Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister, Arun Jaitley, to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have put in place an ICC.
Arun Jaitley replied that it may not be desirable and also informed that industry representatives were against, “enhanced disclosures under the Companies Act, 2013”. Most of the companies have not set up an ICC.
Ministry officials in response said, “We regularly get sexual harassment complaints from women employees in well-known firms that still don’t have a panel. Many firms believe that having such a cell will lead women employees in creating a nuisance.”
For the informal sector, the problem is more acute. Majority of the workers are not aware of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act. The LCC and ICC in most places do not get any members who are well versed with the working of such bodies. Awareness programmes to do the same are not held for the LCCs because of lack of funds. Also, because the informal sector is not set up within the four walls the implementation of the orders of the LCC becomes very difficult.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, if a little more inclusive, can actually educate the Indian labour force about safe workspaces. However, the onus of implementing the guidelines falls on the Ministry of Labour and the Labour Codes. The newly constituted labour codes fail to address the issue of sexual harassment of workplaces which is a prime reason why the female labour force participation is decreasing.
Most of the women are not given equal pay for equal work even with the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 in place. Women in the informal sector with no overall monitoring are given even lower wages. The income of women in this sector also drastically decrease when they are pregnant, and even after childbirth because of the unavailability of a creche for their children.
These structural biases and the availability of basic social security for women like maternal benefits, I feel is one of the prime causes for lower participation of women in the labour force.
The growing gender gap in economic participation which got reflected in the Global Gender Gap Index is alarming. Studies have shown that women with access to daycare earn 50 % more and that more than 70% more older children started to go to school and to colleges.
The labour code instead of bringing some clarity to the long-standing demand of the safety and better working conditions for the informal sector remains ignorant and leaves it at the mercy of the central and state governments to implement required schemes and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act.
Also, the people who make these laws and people who are at the charge of implementing those are men. For example, in one of the training sessions for the implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, out of 68 attendees, 10% were men.
If one looks at senior corporate leadership posts in India, 95% is held by men. It seems that men do not take sexual harassment at workplaces seriously and as a result, the number of women in the workforce dwindles. Given the track record of the government, it is highly unlikely that the situation for the unorganised women workers is going to change soon.
The industries welcomed the new labour code. The policy-makers, who are mostly men, consistently make the workplaces uninhabitable for women, which makes women leave work and force them to adhere to societal gender roles. This, in turn, reinforces the patriarchal social norms. It is time to question such labour laws that get framed even in the face of the growing gender gap. Proper maternal benefits and social security is the first step to ensure greater participation of women and formalise informal work.