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Suspension Of Labour Laws: “Govt. Is Hiding Behind The Pandemic To Destroy The Rights Of Women”

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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.

migrant labourers amid lockdown
Representational image.

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:

  • The Factories Act 1948 is welfare legislation enacted that provides for the regulation of a factory’s functioning to provide health, safety, and welfare measures to the labour force employed in the factory. The Act was amended a few times to include special provisions for women workers like Shelters, restrooms, lunchrooms, lavatory, and urinal facilities, washing and bathing facilities, the setting up of crèches, and women representatives canteen managing committees. The Act empowers the State Government to prohibit employment of women in dangerous operations, to prohibit the employment of women during night hours, to safeguard women against the dangers arising out of lifting to heavyweight.
  • The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, enacted for the elimination of gender-based discrimination against women in jobs. Under the Act, the employer is obliged to pay equal remuneration for the same job or work of a similar nature to men and women. The skill, commitment, and obligation required are the same as done in similar conditions of employment.

Social Security Measures Adopted By The Govt. To Protect Women: Will They Save Women During Covid-19?

Representational image/ REUTERS/Ahmad Masood (INDIA – Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT ENERGY SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT) – RTR39ETI
  • The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, is social legislation whereby every woman employed, whether directly or through an agency, is entitled to maternity benefits at the rate of the average daily wage. The Act extends to factories, mines, plantations, shops and establishments, and establishments to which the provisions of this Act have been declared applicable. The Act covers permanent workers, full-time workers, workers with identifiable employers, and/or designated workplaces, who form a tiny segment of the workforce, especially in rural India. Its relevant provision involves the right to Payment of Maternity Benefit, leave for miscarriage or illness, protection against discrimination, nursing breaks, no deduction of wages.
  • Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, Women workers in both the unorganized and organized sectors can seek remedies under this ActAct’s provisions. The Act mandates the constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) by the employer to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

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.

How This Repealment Will Expose These Women Labourers To Discrimination By Employers

Representational image/KNN India

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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