By Dr. S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Ten Central Trade Unions have announced a nationwide general strike on 26 November as a protest against the recent labour codes passed by Parliament, which they think would snatch away some of the rights they have earned after 60 years of struggle. Particularly, they are sore over diminution of their right to strike – the most potent weapon in their hands to push their demands.
Three labour codes have been passed by Parliament in the last week of this session, and one on wages was adopted in August 2019. Together they constitute an important codification-cum-fresh enactment of laws regulating labour in the country.
Union Minister for Labour and Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar claims that codification of labour laws will help remove red-tape and rigidities in the laws so as to make establishment of big factories easier. The objective of self-reliant India, promotion of Make in India project, climate of ease of doing business – all require labour law reforms. The task is to promote industries and safeguard labour rights. The two are not antagonistic interests.
India has ratified the Tripartite Consultations (International Labour Standards) Convention 1976, and hence bound to consult stakeholders like trade unions in law-making. Labour laws must be based on social dialogue. Welfare of labour is the concern of both Union and State governments.
Opposition members were not present in Parliament when the bills were passed. But, the Parliamentary Committee on Labour, which comprises a large contingent of 31 members, had gone through the bills. Extensive discussions with all stakeholders were also conducted.
The three codes relate to three major aspects of industrial sector — industrial relations, social security and occupational safety, and health and working conditions and comprise 25 labour laws. Another code on wages adopted earlier includes four laws. It is not mere codification exercise, but some changes in labour laws are made. Health coverage of workers is a separate scheme under Ayushman Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana.
Over 70% of India’s workers in the service and industrial sectors are estimated to be in informal jobs, according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector. This sector suffers from unhygienic and hazardous working conditions, lack of social security for the workers and low wages.
The idea of codifying labour laws was given in the report of the Second Labour Commission (2002) set up by the Vajpayee Government in 1999. Codification can bring about cohesion of the laws passed at different times and eliminate complexities due to different criteria for coverage under labour laws and introduce uniformity. It will also help identify gaps and discrepancies.
The first labour code was adopted in Soviet Russia in 1918 which ensured the right to work and then in many socialist countries in central and east Europe. Canada adopted a labour code in 1985 superseding the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigating Act 1948.
Labour world is changing fast as the world of work is changing under technological revolution and globalisation. Many old notions of labour are becoming obsolete and issues of safety and security need a relook. For instance, casual labour and contract work are now recognised as very important and entitled to security like regular labour. Inter-State movement of labour is so common and necessary that what we call “migrant labour”, which has undergone untold sufferings due to the outbreak of COVID-19, should also be treated and protected like others.
A key element of the Social Security Code, which covers nine laws, is expansion of security cover to unorganised workers and their families. It includes a proposal to define “migrant worker”, and to enlarge the scope of the current scheme of including only contractual employment to cover all those outside the organised sector. The provision for temporary accommodation near worksites has been removed, but a journey allowance from their homes to place of work is added. Registration of all unorganized and platform workers and insurance, maternity, and crèche facilities and old age protection are provided.
Inter-State workers and contract labourers are given equal statutory benefits in addition to existing benefits. Contract workers cannot be employed in core activities. Number of days of work to get earned leave has been reduced from 240 to 180. There cannot be any gender discrimination in wages.
The spread of the pandemic has been making an unforeseen impact on the working classes beyond full or partial closure of many industries and trade causing unemployment and under-employment. While the plight of migrant labour created chaotic conditions, the loss suffered by the self-employed workers, and domestic labour is not less in any way. Their problems are not the result of want of a labour code, but want of any protective law or inadequacy of existing laws.
Codification of labour laws has come at a time when labour rights are receiving big blows under the pandemic. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh have even suspended labour laws for varying length of time. UP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, MP, Uttarakhand, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh increased working hours from 8 to 12. And UP and MP scrapped key labour laws for the next three years. In UP, only three labour laws pertaining to building and other construction workers, workmen’s compensation, and abolition of bonded labour were retained. About 35 labour laws were suspended. In MP, MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises) can hire labour according to their requirements to increase productivity. Ordinances, however, are subject to challenges in the Supreme Court.
Trade unions object to cancellation of labour laws and the ILO has appealed to Prime Minister Modi against diluting labour protective laws. Suspension of certain laws like Equal Remuneration Act, and Minimum Wages Act violate fundamental rights under the Constitution.
Social security is a subject under the jurisdiction of State governments. In March 2020, Union Ministry of Labour issued an advisory to States asking them to issue advisories to the public and private establishments to extend their cooperation by not terminating employees, particularly casual and contract, and another directly to employers also not to reduce wages.
The PM has not endorsed suspension of labour laws and expressed concern over the action of some State governments. Union Ministry of Labour took immediate action and reminded them that “States cannot abolish labour laws in the name of reforms. India is a signatory to ILO Convention…”
A major change which has brought the trade unions together to fight against the entire exercise of codification, pertains to the right to strike. The threshold relating to layoffs and retrenchment in industrial establishments is raised as 300 workers from the present 100 providing more flexibility to employers for hiring and firing without government permission.
The right to strike is also restricted by making 60 days notice mandatory to all establishments after holding arbitration proceedings by a tribunal. Public utility service worker has to give six weeks’ notice before going on strike. Strikes and lockouts are prohibited during pendency of conciliation proceedings.
Any change sought by labour advocates in the codes can be sorted out by discussions instead of street protests. On the whole, the codes are labour-friendly and also helpful to industries. — INFA