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Impact of COVID-19, Reforms And Poor Governance On Labour Rights

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Eminent Labour Economist and Professor, Human Resources Management Area at XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Dr K R Shyam Sundar’s new book titled Impact of COVID- 19, Reforms and Poor Governance on Labour Rights, was released today at a virtual event. He dedicated the book to the premier international academic body (co-founded by former President Shri V V Giri), the Indian Society of Labour Economics.

In the context of COVID-19, the induced pandemic, and the recent labour reforms, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, and Xavier School of Management organised a book discussion as part of the IMPRI series with Centre for Work and Welfare, The State of Employment #EmploymentDebate as Impact of COVID-19, Reforms and Poor Governance on Labour Rights.

The event was co-organised by the Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi, Working People’s Charter and Counterview.

Introduction to the Book

The book provides a critical analysis of the impact of the policies, laws, government regulations issued concerning workers, especially the migrant and informal workers, the poor labour market governance and labour law reforms on labour rights in a pandemic-struck economy in India.

It comprises essays providing a commentary on the contemporary developments during the pandemic-hit period 2020-21 concerning migrant workers, unorganised workers, labour rights, complete failure of the governance of the labour market, the labour codes that were hurriedly enacted by the union government and regional labour reforms measures. 

It also discusses the responses and strategies followed by the trade unions. The book critically analyses contemporary developments and provides valuable recommendations based on the people-centred ILO approach.

The book was published by the well-known publisher Synergy Books, India. 

In a formal web function, the book was released by D Narasimha Reddy, professor of Economics (Retired), the University of Hyderabad, in the presence of Prof Babu Mathew, National Law School of India University, Prof Praveen Jha, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, Ms Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan, ILO consultant and Leading Labour Advocate, Chennai, and Dr Radhicka Kapoor, Senior Fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi.

Author Speaks

Dr K R Shyam Sundar.

Talking about the book, Dr K R Shyam Sundar said, “Ever since the introduction of economic reforms in 1991 in India, employers and critics of labour regulation have argued for the introduction of reforms of the labour laws and the inspection system. They demanded codification of labour laws and the introduction of employer-friendly reforms in the process. 

“The Central government, irrespective of the parties in power, is committed to labour laws reforms, more so the NDA government. On the other hand, the trade unions have stridently argued that in the era of globalisation, job losses have become rampant, the quality of jobs has deteriorated considerably, and hence, demand that labour laws need to be universalised and effectively implemented. 

“The COVID-19 Pandemic has resulted in havoc both on the lives and livelihoods of people in all the countries. However, the adverse impact has landed far more severely on the vulnerably placed informal and unorganised workers, people below the poverty line, and thereby exacerbating existing inequalities in the economic system. 

“The ILO strongly recommended a four-pillar approach that is a comprehensive and balanced approach arguing for designing policies and measures based on social dialogue to ensure employment generation, income and social protection, and workers’ rights and support to the firm. But the tale of policy-making in India during the pandemic does not conform much to the healthy perspective of ILO. 

“My book is based on the fundamental premise that labour institutions and social dialogue are indispensable for promoting sound labour market and industrial relations policies that would at once protect both employers’ and workers’ rights and concerns, especially during the crisis-ridden crucial time such as the one we are facing now.”

In Context of COVID-19

Migrant Workers Headed Back To Their Home In Panic Amid Three Week Lockdown To Curb COVID-19 Coronavirus
A wave of migrant workers seen at Anand Vihar Bus Terminus near the Delhi-UP border. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Dr Sundar further added that the play of pandemic in the lives of the millions of distraught workers would have been better had the government:

  1. Consulted the social partners in designing a comprehensive policy architecture to provide relief, even life-saving measures, especially to the small enterprises and informal workers but also in their delivery.
  2. Implemented even a fraction of the even conceptually defective labour laws concerning the unorganised and the migrant workers.
  3. Consulted global organisations like the ILO, UN and academics in tackling the workers’ woes.

When unemployment (as per CMIE data) has been stubbornly hovering around and over 7%, is it not worrying that India does not have a macro level unemployment allowance/insurance scheme even for the workers in the organised sector?

During 2007–2017 a total of 10,728 workers availed unemployment benefits under the stringent ESI-covered unemployment scheme. This means an average claim of 978 workers per year. Will we see a repeat of poor labour market governance witnessed during COVID-19? 

Such a question arises because we are witnessing inordinate delay in taking corrective measures such as creating a comprehensive database concerning migrant and unorganised workers and framing policies and creating governance mechanisms.

The Draft Migration Policy was released just recently. The labour bureau is set to launch five employment surveys covering migrant and domestic workers, strangely leaving out workers in the emerging sectors like the gig and the platform economy and informal professional service providers. 

These are welcome measures, but there is no credible gestation plan for implementation of them. The whole tragic story of workers’ rights is the shoddy or non-implementation of even the meagerly legislated rights. A comprehensive database work and employment are essential for devising universal social protection, which would help better implement the four labour codes. 

The Resurgence of COVID-19

india migrant worker
A migrant worker as he walks towards his home state during the nationwide lockdown. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

When 68.4% of workers in the non-agricultural sector work in the informal sector, about 70% did not have written contracts, more than half of them did not have paid leave and any social security (PLFS 2018-19). Given the extreme precarity of the workforce in the non-agricultural sector, which is unlikely to have reduced (in fact, precarity would have been intensified thanks to COVID-19), the resurgence of COVID-19 poses serious and grave concerns for workers in particular and society and economy in general. 

More worryingly, the pandemic period witnessed undue haste in enacting the three labour codes and the passage of several unilateral and highly questionable legal measures and the unveiling of structural reforms like privatisation and FDI-easing measures.

Worse still, the lessons of the pandemic’s disaster have not led to the formation and implementation of governance reforms concerning the delivery of legally mandated reliefs to the migrant and the unorganised workers. We are witnessing COVID-resurgence and the hurt-shy migrant workers have begun their second wave of reverse migration.  

Firms and workers alike are apprehensive of a potentially more severe if not a macro lockdown. In the absence of a macro unemployment benefit or insurance scheme and social security, what is the meaning of the passage of the four labour codes when the historic governance deficits are still prevalent? Eventually, the passage of the labour codes remains more symbolic given that implementation goalposts are being delayed. 

Need for Dialogue in Policy

The lack of social dialogue, absence of federal dialogue (Labour Ministers’ conference or other appropriate federal consultations) and the unwillingness of the governments (both the Central and the State) to consult ILO for technical support in drafting the regulations would not only delay the implementation of the labour codes but could potentially result in poorly conceived and drafted regulations. 

The lessons of the first wave of COVID-19 strongly call for the abdication of fiscal conservatism and frame a comprehensive and durable social assistance comprising direct benefit transfer as economists across spectrum and trade unions have been urging the government to extend, urban employment guarantee scheme (at least during the COVID-19 period) and strengthening of MGNREGS.

Lives and livelihoods are at risk once again, and this time around, the government must be wise, as must the people, lest the damage to both the economic and social fabric of India will be severe. 

Employment and work are the surest cures to unemployment and poverty, which are sure to haunt the people during the second wave. However, Indian democracy is sturdier and its pluralistic approach is still dynamic. It is with hope I see distinct possibilities of “corrective actions” both inside the Parliament and Assemblies and outside.

It is important that workers feel safe. That involves more than gestures and indirect actions like infusing liquidity in and providing no-collateral soft loans to firms, people and street vendors in the economy.

A female worker has piled coal on her head while she is
In a bid towards “ease of doing business”, the government has grossly neglected “core labour standards” and “decent conditions at work”.

Reviews of the Book

While releasing the book, Prof D Narasimha Reddy commented, “Here is a book that tells you the precariousness of the migrant and informal workers during the pandemic COVID-19 due to the conscious failure of the state and the apathy of the judiciary. In much more detail, it exposes the deficits of the reforms emerging in the shape of the four labour codes.”

Dr Radhicka Kapoor observed, “India’s labour regulatory framework has witnessed substantial changes over the last year from the introduction of the four labour codes by the central government to the relaxations and amendments made by several state governments to key labour laws. 

“Prof Sundar’s compilation of essays not only provides a systematic exposition of these changes but also critically analyses each of them, the various shortcomings, and how these can be addressed. 

“His lucid writings help us navigate the labyrinth of India’s labour regulations and understand how we can move closer to this goal. Importantly, he urges us to expand the horizons of the debate on the subject beyond the narrow agenda of ‘flexibility’ to issues like a minimum set of decent conditions of work and wages to all workers and a minimum basic level of social security.”

Speaking on the occasion, Prof Babu Mathew said, “I recommend this book to serious students of labour studies: one must carefully read both the explicit message and the one between the lines to decipher the glaring and ill-informed swing of the Indian State towards ‘ease of doing business’ while grossly neglecting ‘core labour standards’ and ‘decent conditions at work’ for the impoverished millions.”

Prof Praveen Jha said, “Prof Sundar has been a major scholar of Industrial Relations in India and has a substantive body of work to his credit. The current book focuses on the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for the world of work. 

“He has chronicled these with care, empathy and an eye for detail while providing a persuasive analysis. It is a fine balance that the book offers in terms of description and powerful insights. I recommend it as a must-read for those interested in the subject.” 

Ms Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan observed, “The book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of workers in the country and the changes in the labour law landscape in the new normal world. I commend Synergy Books for bringing out such a book and also the author for his excellent writings.”

XLRI Media and IMPRI Team, IMPRI, New Delhi. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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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