During its first term, the Modi led BJP government fast tracked the process of dismantling the labour laws that provided some protection to the workers, though to a very small section of them. It embarked upon codification of the 44 central labour laws into 4 codes. When this met with stiff resistance from all central trade unions with massive countrywide strikes, it was the BJP led state governments that carried the baton to amend labour laws in their respective states, Rajasthan taking the lead. BJP government at the centre directed all state governments to follow suit.
After returning to power with increased mandate, labour law amendment was again taken up by the BJP government led by Modi as a priority. All the labour code bills were introduced in Parliament. But, despite its majority in Lok Sabha, BJP government could pass only the Code on Wages. Even as it wanted to push through the others – the Code on Occupational Health and Safety and Working Conditions, the Code on Industrial Relations and the Code on Social Security – it was compelled to refer them to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour. Before it could get them enacted, the Corona pandemic struck.
The lockdown imposed to contain the pandemic brought the entire economy, which was already sliding, to a halt. It wreaked havoc with the lives and livelihoods of the workers, particularly the migrant workers and the unorganised sector workers. This was seen, by the distorted minds of the ruling classes and their pen pushers, as an opportunity to crush workers’ rights, shove them into slavery and protect their own profits. Again the lead was taken by the BJP ruled state governments, with the silent approval and blessing of Prime Minister Modi and his government. One by one BJP led state governments took up the process of nullifying all labour laws; state governments led by the Congress or other regional parties also followed.
The BJP led Uttar Pradesh government has promulgated an ordinance nullifying almost all labour laws in the state for a period of three years. All establishments in the state are now exempted from all the 38 labour laws in vogue, except four.
The chief minister of BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh announced that his government was going to follow his counterpart in Uttar Pradesh to annul labour laws for 1000 days and liberate the employers. New establishments in the state will be exempt from their obligation under the Factories Act, Madhya Pradesh Industrial Relations Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Contract Labour Act etc through appropriate amendments by executive order or ordinance. They have been assured that there will be no labour department’s intervention in the establishment during this period; no inspections; only self certification. They can hire and fire workers as per their choice. Nobody can prevent them if they want to fire existing workers and hire new workers at lower wages. Trade unions will not be allowed to raise workers’ issues or bargain with the management. Employers are even exempted from payment of Rs 80 per worker to the Madhya Pradesh Labour Welfare Board.
Not to be left behind, the BJP state government in Gujarat reportedly decided to initiate similar measures to give freedom to the employers from the imaginary clutches of labour laws for a period of 1200 days, i.e. more than three years.
The state cabinet in Assam, again ruled by BJP, decided to implement Fixed Term Employment and exempt large number of employers from following labour laws like the Factories Act and the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act. It has decided to increase the threshold number of workers for applicability of the Factories Act from 20 to 40 in the case of factories not using power and from 10 to 20 in the case of those using power. This will throw large number of workers in the manufacturing units out of legal protection under the Act related to occupational safety, health and welfare.
As it is, most of the factories in our country do not have proper ventilation facilities, toilets, crèches, potable drinking water etc. Thousands of workers die every year of industrial accidents due to the neglect of the employers, the latest being the accident in LG Polymers in Visakhapatnam in which 12 people in the nearby village died and hundreds became seriously ill. Besides, when the economy is being opened up even as the fight against the corona virus needs to be continued, it is essential to ensure safe workplaces with facilities for washing hands, sanitisation and physical distancing etc. Instead of doing this, the BJP led governments are putting workers’ safety and lives to greater risk.
Similarly, the threshold for the applicability of Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 in Assam will be raised from the present 20 to 50. Contractors can limit the number of their workers to 49 and exploit them with unlimited freedom.
The BJP government in Karnataka is also on the same path. It is reportedly considering relaxing labour laws related to minimum wages, working hours and also others. It has suddenly transferred the Principal Secretary of its Labour Department, who was reportedly considered a thorn in its attempts.
In addition, several state governments – not only BJP led ones as in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Assam but also Congress led governments in Punjab and Rajasthan as well as the BJD led Odisha government have increased daily working hours from 8 to 12 and from 48 to 72 in a week with 12 hour shifts. The BJP led governments in Karnataka and Tripura too are joining the bandwagon. Tripura government has also decided to increase the threshold number of workers in establishments to 300 for the employers to hire and fire as per their wishes.
On 9th May the Congress government in Punjab withdrew its own notification issued on 1st May increasing DA to industrial workers, which would have increased the minimum wages of workers by over Rs 350 from 1st March.
It is highly significant that in this mad rush to amend labour laws to satisfy the employers, it was only the LDF government in Kerala, where the state labour minister has categorically asserted that the state was not going to amend the labour laws in favour of the employers.
It is to be noted that all these are in total violation of the ILO conventions to which India is a signatory. The first convention that ILO, which India signed stipulates 8 hours of work in a day and 48 hours of work in a week. India is also a signatory to the Tripartite Consultation International Labour Standards Convention, 1976, which requires it to consult stakeholders – employers and workers’ bodies – before taking any policy decision. But the state governments did not engage with trade unions, thus violating the Tripartite Consultation Convention C144. This is not the first time that the BJP government led by Modi is ignoring tripartism. CITU had to raise this with the ILO, during the first tenure of the Modi government.
That the government is acting as per the demands, rather dictates of the employers is very clear. Representatives of 12 employers’ associations and industries including Council of Indian Employers, FICCI, ASSOCHAM and PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry have demanded government of India to suspend labour laws for the next two to three years and to increase working hours to 12 per day. The Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry demanded that trade unions be prohibited for at least one year. They complained that minimum wages were too high and bringing them down was nearly impossible; and they reiterated their long time demand for freedom to hire and fire.
These demands and the response of the governments are nothing short of cruel. The corona pandemic has further increased the distress of the working class whose situation was already worsening due to the economic crisis. The workers are now facing unprecedented deprivations. ILO has estimated that half the workers globally would lose their jobs; in India around 40 crores workers are estimated to be pushed into poverty. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has reported that 120 million Indian have lost their jobs. Unemployment rate has risen to around 27%. Crores of migrant and other workers who have lost their jobs suddenly find themselves homeless and hungry; lakhs of migrant workers have been walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes, hundreds succumbed to exhaustion and accidents on their way.
It is in such conditions that the employers and the governments serving them are trying to push workers into conditions of slavery. The employers don’t want to pay them wages; but they also won’t allow them to go back to their native places either. They want the workers to be available, homeless, starving but ready to work with low wages and without any legal protection whenever the establishments are open. But, that is what capitalism is. In their rush for profits, capitalists trample underfoot workers, human beings, nature, anybody and anything; no feelings of justice, humanity or morality here.
This atrocious annulment of labour laws, meant to push workers into slavery is being done ostensibly in the name of attracting investment and supported by some in the name of weaning foreign firms from China. In the context of the corona pandemic, ‘China has become unpopular and many companies would exit from China. India should take this as a big opportunity, attract these firms and replace China as the ‘factory of the world’ – so goes the argument.
Commending the UP, MP and Gujarat government’s initiatives as ‘one of the boldest and bravest initiatives since reforms in 1991’, Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Ayog recommended further reforms in other sectors as well. ‘It’s now or never; states are driving bold reforms; we will never get this opportunity; seize it’, he egged on the corporates.
However, this argument that foreign companies would relocate themselves from China to India is totally misplaced. Even Indian firms are not investing in the country, particularly during the last few years. The major reason is the deteriorating purchasing power of the people and the inability to sell the manufactured products. Further suppressing demand through these measures will only worsen the disease.
In addition there is no empirical evidence that prohibiting labour laws or reducing wages would lead to economic growth. In Rajasthan, while the labour law amendments of the former BJP government were hailed by the corporates, what followed was fall in wages, increase in unemployment and decline in the state GDP. The Economic Survey of 2018-19 stressed that a high minimum wage does not impact employment generation. Besides, it is not only the trade unions, even eminent legal experts point out that ‘to say our labour laws are strictly implemented is a myth and thus to infer that their implementation is the primary cause for losses in productivity would be very erroneous’.
Within the serious constraints of the lockdown the working class in the country has made it clear they were not going to take these attacks lying down. In almost all the states wherever these changes were being carried out or being considered, in Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar etc protests were held in front of the labour commissioners’ officers, work places, or houses etc, by CITU independently or jointly along with other trade unions. On 14th May the central trade unions in the joint trade union platform discussed on line about the future course of action to resist these measures. The secretariat meeting of CITU scheduled to be held on line on 15th May will finalise its campaign and struggle programmes on the basis of the call of its 16th conference ‘to defy and resist’ anti worker policies of the government.
These attacks on the hard won rights of the working class, its display of authoritarianism are part of the attacks on the basic democratic and human rights of the toiling people by the desperate capital in crisis. These must be defeated and reversed through united struggles, not only of the working class but by the entire toiling masses.