The Coronavirus lockdown has left more than 90% of Indian workers in a precarious situation, without food, work, and shelter. Their mass exodus from big cities to the hinterland, at their own risk, exemplifies the impact of lockdown.
These days, what they are facing, is a risky present and a future which is getting riskier with the changing scenario of rules made and unmade by the government. Here is a situation where they do not have even basic income and are about to lose their basic rights also.
Decent, safe secure condition to work is acknowledged as a part of the fundamental right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Right to unionisation and social security also constitute international human rights. These rights are indirectly implemented through labour laws where the government is supposedly the custodian of the rights and also empowers the labours and labour union.
There are certain rules, like 1921 of the ILO, that are implemented through labour laws. The workers in the factory face problems of lighting, temperature, dust, fumes, and more. This leads to unsafe working conditions and also an extension of working hours, repetitive work, deficient working conditions, which pose a considerable threat to occupational safety and health of the workforce. All these rights are getting traded off without the consent of labourers for a farfetched hope – employment.
This started happening when several state governments introduced or passed an ordinance abolishing almost all the labour laws in the region for a certain period. Till date, these ordinances have been introduced in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Odisha.
These states have diluted the existing labour rights enabling the industries, in certain cases, to increase the working hours up to 72 hours a week.
it seems that the State governments are doing this as they feel that relaxing these laws and introducing some flexibility will help the business to recoup from the impact of lockdown by attracting fresh investments and establishing industries in non-industrialised states.
It will make the Indian industries attractive place of investment and can help in getting a chance to make a place in the global value chain. What we are talking about these days is about big industries. But what about the large number of medium and small firms where labourers are not in such good condition? 90% of the labour force is engaged in the informal sector.
They are already not enjoying many rights because of unfair practices. This change in the law further takes away from them the shred of formality that they might have thought was available to them.
I feel that what our government is thinking is not entirely wrong. In fact, it is trying to make our economy work in this era affected by the Coronavirus. But, the desired result it wants will not come out only by these efforts. It needs some structural reforms.
What we actually need is not cancelling the existing laws but new laws which are made according to the needs of the 21st century. We need to understand why labour laws were there in the first place and without harming the basic structure of these laws we should aim for reforms. Yes, easing the laws will definitely bring some impetus to the economy. But, for drastic change, we need other reforms as well.
Also, it is important to look at the problems of labours. Most of them survive hand-to-mouth with very little savings and if there is no security of employment and income, it will become very difficult for them to survive.
Flexibility in hiring and firing of employees can help in a situation where there are so many jobs that employment security is replaced by income security and states can provide unemployment allowances.
Economists maintain that labour laws changes giving flexibility to the employer will be meaningless unless supply-side measures are designed, such as wage subsidies, cheaper capital and more access to the market because of piled up inventory due to lockdown.
We know that we are a labour-surplus country, and when we talk of the unorganised workers, we really have an excess of labour. So, in such a situation, the responsibility of the state should be to safeguard the interest of labour because the market will not be able to provide the necessary protection.
Constraints in jobs reflect the overall health of the economy, level of demand in the economy, peoples’ purchasing power, level of wages, export conditions, etc. Increase in employment needs overall structural reform and not just diluting away the rules which guarantee the labourer their rights.
Overall, business depends upon the reliability of the state and its policies, the infrastructure situation, electricity supply, logistics, transport, the quality and skill of labour, human capital issues, and more. It can improve only when there is overall development in all these.