The global crisis unveils the existing inequalities. The planet is now fighting the novel Corona Virus, and it has exposed the structural gaps and loopholes in the country’s social, political, and economic structures. The COVID pandemic not only calls for stronger political will to provide economic packages and protection but also calls on governments to instil and maintain the people’s confidence and trust.
Yet various Indian state governments, including UP, MP, Gujarat, and Rajasthan are doing the reverse by repealing most of the essential labour laws that apply to all kinds of businesses, old and modern at a time when the economy is struggling, and the workers are looking at an uncertain future.
Throughout the COVID crisis, many Indian states made amendments to the existing labour laws. But the harshest changes were brought by UP, MP, and Gujarat to boost the staggering economy. Where other states like Rajasthan and Punjab made slight changes in the laws, Uttar Pradesh is the largest and the most populous states of the country decided to suspend 35 of the 38 labour laws the state for three years through an ordinance.
This means several fundamental laws will not apply to Uttar Pradesh. Some of the labour laws which will no longer apply in the state are The Minimum Wages Act, The Maternity Benefit Act The Equal Remuneration Act, The Trade Unions Act, The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, The Industrial Disputes Act, The Factories Act, The Contract Labour Act, The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, The Working Journalists Act, The Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, The Employees’ State Insurance Act, The Payment of Bonus Act and The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act.
The economic downturn caused by the current COVID-19 outbreak and the suspension of labour laws will have significant implications for both men and women, but substantially for working women who are ranked lowest in caste, class, or religious hierarchy. Such changes in-laws hit women employees harder in all sorts of occupations, from day-to-day wage workers to managers at various levels. Because of broad gender inequality in India’s workforce, the impact of the latest reforms in labour laws on women is dramatically different from men.
India’s Female Labour Force Participation has fallen unprecedently low of 23.3% in 2017-18, which means that over three out of four women over the age of 15 in India are neither working nor seeking work. The FLFPR for rural areas has declined by more than 11 percentage points in 2017–18. The Workforce Participation Rates (WPR) of women has fallen substantially in the past seven years. And with the changes in the labour laws, more women will be pushed out of work, causing a further decline in the Female Labour Force Participation.
Women confront numerous obstacles to enter into the labour market and access to fair jobs and face several difficulties related to lack of equal pay, lack of unionization, recognition of employment, recognition of unpaid work, lack of maternity and childcare services, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, lack of access to credit and productive assets. Furthermore, women are disproportionately concentrated in the informal economy, where they are usually most vulnerable to the risk of violence and have the least formal security available.
Analysis of NSSO data (1970 – 2018 ) reveals that women have predominantly been engaged in labour-intensive, home-based, and informal jobs, concentrating on low-productivity sectors. Because of the traditional position of women as household caretakers and child caregivers when they get married, many women either do not have the choice to be working for paid work or do not pursue the choice because of the existing responsibilities of the child care and household maintenance obligations.
Therefore, the proportion of women relative to men in the paid labour force is often considerably lower than the number of men in the labour force. The rural communities are rigidly divided based on gender determined by patriarchal norms, which are further perpetuated by religious taboos and cultural prejudices.
The Indian labour laws were passed to provide women workers with equality before the law and fair treatment by creating provisions of health, safety, and welfare for women workers. Labour laws and their enforcement are specified in the Union List, and the Concurrent List as set out in the 7th Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
Therefore, the Parliament of India is empowered to legislate on the matters listed in the Union List, and both the Parliament of India and the Legislature of any State are empowered to make legislation on the issues listed in the Concurrent List. The primary laws that were passed to protect labour rights, fair and minimum pay, working conditions, and women’s non-discrimination are:
Apart from the laws discussed above, there are other laws for the welfare and safeguard of women workers like Mines Act, 1952, The Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923, The Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948, Unorganized Workers Sector Social Security Act, 2008. The Trade Unions Act, 1926, The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, etc.
The UP government, along with various other states, is hiding behind the pandemic’s excuse to destroy the rights of women workers that took years to achieve. With women at the lower end of the wage pyramid, the gender pay gap will increase, leading to more women’s exploitation. Many women will not have access to social safety nets. Many social security acts that give protection, such as health care, paid sick and maternity leave, unemployment, and pension benefits, acts are repealed.
The state’s power to hire and fire anytime will have a particularly devastating effect on women. With the COVID19, temporary workers are the first to lose jobs, and a large part of working women work under temporary contracts. Very few of these women earn enough to have accumulated a financial safety net.
The combination of low pay and compulsory overtime work would raise abusive and intrusive incidences. Also, the stress workers facing at home and in the factory during pandemics, especially when experiencing economic insecurity, leads to increased intimate partner violence incidences. This can also create a condition where women workers are forced to make unwanted sexual advances to secure their jobs.
Women workers who will lose their jobs suddenly and without pay, especially those who are a vulnerable population already, will be at risk for extreme forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, scam recruitment offers, and sexual exploitation. Another critical aspect of the COVID-19 crisis is that it involves large-scale closures of daycare centres and schools, which means that children remain at home where they need to be cared for. This poses particularly severe challenges for women who are ideally expected to take care of children at home.
The move by the state governments to repeal labour laws gives employers a free hand to flout safety codes and treat them at their whims and exploit them. There was a genuine need for multiple labour law reforms in India because they are considered outdated and inflexible. Reforms, simplification, and rationalization of labour laws were needed, but what has happened in different states over the past two months is the suspension of major labour laws such as Minimum Wage Acts, Factory Acts, Trade Unions Acts, Industrial Dispute Acts, etc. Particularly at times like this, these cannot be regarded as reforms.
These suspensions welcome further discrimination and the flouting of labourers’ fundamental human rights. Is this what industries need for growth at this time, as claimed by various state governments? The industries required simpler norms and their cost of compliance to come down. So it is hard to understand how suspending laws that provide underlying sanitary and healthy working conditions will help boost the economy.
Labourers are the worst affected because of the COVID crisis. The economy is already slumping due to low demand and pushing labourers into this kind of situation where their wages will fall will further depress the demand. This cheap labour and freedom to hire and fire in the hands of the employers would only help increase low-cost output and ramp up production. This comes with a cost of wages of the workers, but this will not lead to an increase in demand, and the current economic crisis industries don’t want to ramp up production with no need. Taking away the human rights from the people to boost up the economy and ramp up a business is nothing but a recipe for disaster.
The abolition of labour laws protecting fundamental principles and rights of women and men in the workplace will expose workers to harm, harassment, and mistreatment. It will also breach the obligations of the Government of India under international labour standards. Working women are always a symbol of sacrifice. In the absence of any stringent labour regulations, discrimination, and atrocities against women, labourers will likely continue to rise unless this problem is addressed on a war footing.
Even though RSS-affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) claims that President Ram Nath Kovind has rejected the ordinances proposed by Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat to suspend the majority of labour laws, there was no confirmation by the Labour Ministry. The centre should understand the socio-economic implications of these suspensions of labour laws by the States and reject such ordinances. How we respond to this crisis is crucial and should be looked at not just with immediate relief measures but also concerning the long-term impact on workers and their rights.