India’s two-month-long lockdown—the strictest in the world—to battle the coronavirus pandemic has led to an exodus of millions of migrant workers from cities to their native towns and villages. With the government suddenly halting bus and train services in late March, these workers had little option but to walk—often hundreds of kilometres—to their homes. These workers may now face even tougher times.
As India looks to reopen the economy, despite a continuous rise in the number of virus infections, many states are modifying labour laws to encourage companies to restart their factories and offices. These changes include increasing the daily working hours to 12 from eight, suspending wage hikes and even the formation of labour unions.
While the states argue their aim is also to provide employment opportunities to workers who are losing jobs because of the lockdown and the economic slowdown, critics and activists say these changes will worsen working conditions and even encourage bonded labour.
So, are such laws really detrimental to the interests of labourers?
Experts generally feel such laws are indeed detrimental to the interests of workers as they take away any sense of job security or the promise of a minimum wage. Several experts have said that doing away with such laws will be exploitative. Even labour unions including the BJP affiliate Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh are opposing these changes.
The flip side is that more investments into the country’s manufacturing sector will generate more jobs, especially at a time when unemployment in India has gone past 20%.
Are there any safeguards still in place to guard labourers against societal ills like bonded labour and non-payment of wages?
Technically, yes. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, three major laws have been retained. These relate to bonded labour, time-bound payment of wages and ex-gratia payments in case of accidental disability, death or disease at the workplace.
So, even while suspending almost all laws, the government has, at least on paper, sought to protect labourers from exploitation. However, how effectively it may be able to implement these remaining laws, remains to be seen.
Could such a system of diluted labour laws mean the end of labour contractors who supply daily wagers?
While a relaxed set of rules may not end this system completely, it may substantially dent it. If companies get the freedom to hire and fire workers at their discretion, they may not need to hire daily wagers or contract labourers, and may instead hire them directly on their rolls.
To that extent, millions of daily wage earners who do not presently have access to a provident fund or healthcare benefits, could end up coming under the safety net, if employers regularise their services.
Can such sweeping changes to basic labour laws face a legal challenge?
While labour unions or other interest groups can approach the high courts and India’s Supreme Court, such changes are unlikely to be struck down completely, unless someone can make a strong case that they go against the basic tenets of the constitution and impinge on fundamental rights of citizens.
At present, these changes have been brought about via ordinances, which will need to pass legislative muster. But since almost all the states have governments with comfortable majorities, any challenge on this count is unlikely.
Having said that, the parliamentary committee on labour has already questioned the dilution of these labour laws, and has reportedly written to states demanding an explanation on this matter.
Interestingly, states have only suspended but not abolished the labour laws, because the moment a state law is abolished, the central law on the subject automatically kicks in. To avoid this, laws have technically only been suspended and not abolished altogether.
Isn’t the Centre itself working to completely overhaul the labour law regime?
Yes, the Centre has been working to codify these laws. The Code of Wages 2019 has already received presidential nod. This effectively means that it has already subsumed at least four key legislations related to wages—the Minimum Wages Act, the Payment of Bonus Act, the Payment of Wages Act and the Equal Remuneration Act.
Moreover, Uttar Pradesh has said it will seek the central government’s nod before introducing the ordinance in the state assembly. So, it remains to be seen how the legal position vis-à-vis these laws plays out.