Stop the return to laissez-faire 

#GS3 #PandemicCrisis #GS2 #Constitution 

Labour laws are civilisational goals and cannot be trumped on the excuse of a pandemic 

  • The workers’ right to go home was curbed using the Disaster Management Act, 2005.  
  • No provisions were made for their food, shelter, or medical relief.  
  • Wage payments were not ensured, and the state’s cash and food relief did not cover most workers. 
  • Governments responded by delaying travel facilities for the workers to ensure uninterrupted supply of labour for employers. 
  • The Uttar Pradesh government has issued an ordinance keeping in abeyance almost all labour statutes including laws on maternity benefits and gratuity; the Factories Act, 1948; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Industrial Establishments (Standing Orders) Act, 1946; and the Trade Unions Act, 1926.  
  • The Confederation of Indian Industry has suggested 12-hour work shifts and that governments issue directions to make workers join duty failing which the workers would face penal actions. 
  • Thus, after an organised abandonment of the unorganised workforce, the employers want the state to reintroduce laissez-faire and a system of indenture for the organised workforce too.  
  • This will take away the protection conferred on organised labour by Parliament. 

Colonial exploitation 

  • The move is reminiscent of the barbaric system of indentured labour introduced through the Bengal Regulations VII, 1819 for the British planters in Assam tea estates.  
  • Workers had to work under a five-year contract and desertion was made punishable.  
  • Transport of Native Labourers’ Act, 1863 was passed in Bengal which strengthened control of the employers and even enabled them to detain labourers in the district of employment and imprison them for six months.  
  • Bengal Act VI of 1865 was later passed to deploy Special Emigration Police to prevent labourers from leaving, and return them to the plantation after detention.  
  • The labour laws in India have emerged out of workers’ struggles, which were very much part of the freedom movement against oppressive colonial industrialists.  
  • Since the 1920s there were a series of strikes and agitations for better working conditions. Several trade unionists were arrested under the Defence of India Rules. 
  • The workers’ demands were supported by our political leaders. Britain was forced to appoint the Royal Commission on Labour, which gave a report in 1935.  
  • The Government of India Act, 1935 enabled greater representation of Indians in law-making.  
  • This resulted in reforms, which are forerunners to the present labour enactments.  
  • The indentured plantation labour saw relief in the form of the Plantations Labour Act, 1951. 

Dignity through democracy 

  • The Industrial Disputes Act provides for workers participation to resolve wage and other disputes through negotiations so that strikes/lockouts, unjust retrenchments and dismissals are avoided.  
  • The Minimum Wages Act ensures wages below which it is not possible to subsist.  
  • These enactments further the Directive Principles of State Policy and protect the right to life and the right against exploitation under Articles 21 and 23.  
  • Any move to undo these laws will push the workers a century backwards. Considering the underlying constitutional goals of these laws, Parliament did not delegate to the executive any blanket powers of exemption.  
  • Section 5 of the Factories Act empowers the State governments to exempt only in case of a “public emergency”, which is explained as a “grave emergency whereby the security of India or any part of the territory thereof is threatened, whether by war or external aggression or internal disturbance”.  
  • Hours of work or holidays cannot be exempted even for public institutions.  
  • Section 36B of the Industrial Disputes Act enables exemption for a government industry only if provisions exist for investigations and settlements. 

No statutory support 

  • Labour is a concurrent subject in the Constitution and most pieces of labour legislation are Central enactments.  
  • Even laws to protect basic human rights covering migrant workers, minimum wages, maternity benefits, gratuity, etc. have been suspended.  
  • The Constitution does not envisage approval by the President of a State Ordinance which makes a whole slew of laws enacted by Parliament inoperable in the absence of corresponding legislations on the same subject. 
  • Almost all labour contracts are now governed by statutes, settlements or adjudicated awards arrived through democratic processes in which labour has been accorded at least procedural equality.  
  • The orders and ordinances issued by the State governments are undemocratic and unconstitutional.  
  • Let us not forget that global corporations had their origins in instruments of colonialism and their legacy was inherited by Indian capital post-Independence.  
  • The resurgence of such a colonial mindset is a danger to the society and the well-being of millions and puts at risk the health and safety of not only the workforce but their families too. 
  • Governments have a constitutional duty to ensure just, humane conditions of work and maternity benefits.  
  • The health and strength of the workers cannot be abused by force of economic necessity. 
  • Labour laws are thus civilisational goals and cannot be trumped on the excuse of a pandemic. 
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