Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shaken up the condition in India. The widespread virus has resulted in nationwide lockdown and, it has not only affected the public but also worsened the economy. The Government of India has since taken all necessary steps to ensure that we are well prepared to face the challenge and threat posed by the growing COVID-19 Corona Virus pandemic. But the economy is struggling with the lockdown and a lot of firms and representatives suspect a doubtful future, a part of the state governments chose to roll out huge improvements in the labour laws. These alterations were made considering it a good measure to boost monetary movement in a few states. But on the other hand, this move may undermine the enthusiasm of workers, who are one of the most defenseless slabs that have been affected by the pandemic. Our Indian labour laws are regularly portrayed as “firm1 “. At the end of the day, it has been contended that gratitude to the difficult lawful prerequisites, firms vacillate from recruiting new labourers since terminating them requires government endorsements. Indian labour laws are made to defend the interests of the labourers. In the outbreak of the COVID-19, numerous states have loosened up the labour laws in the favour of the businesses/employers so outside ventures can be attracted in their states. But this exemption may cause infringement of labour laws in India. It is appropriate to say that the pandemic is a once in a blue moon chance to push through labour reforms. All these things accounted, it is muddled that the whole scale revocation of the labour law framework benefits either work or industry. On the off chance that anything, this is a well-suited second for the administrations, at both the Centre and in the states, to re-establish their responsibility to the DPSP.
Amidst the lockdown due to the fatal covid-19 pandemic, the states were quick to take an important step to relax the labour laws. While at one hand the exemption was to encourage industrial setup and to pump up investments, on the other hand it might increase the difficulties of the workers. The Indian economy has had a major letdown due to the lockdown extended to almost 60 days. In order to revive the economy it is equally important to make a balance between both the employees and the employers. And a sudden exemption of 1000 days in major labour laws has created a disarray of opinion among the decision makers and labour law experts including organizations such as ILO.
But a question arises. From loosing employment, to walking miles to reach home, from starving to death, to getting run over by train while sleeping on tracks, did exemption in labour laws add to the plight of labourers?
RELAXATION IN LABOUR LAWS
In a recent survey by Azim Premji University, 67% of workers have lost their jobs during the lockdown. In addition, the officials have failed to fulfill the needs of the agonizing workers, the migrant labourers who then decided to walk their ways out to their home. The plight just doesn’t end as humanity was shocked when 16 migrant labourers were run over by a goods train while resting.
Now, in the middle of the fatal covid-19 lockdown, many states have urged to bring changes in the labour law by the way of amendments. The sole reason of the urge seems to immune the employers from the labour laws for a while. Most of them have provided an exemption of about 1000 days which is approximately 3 years to the businesses and the employers. However, the laws for deployment of women and children, timely payment of wages will not be relaxed.
In India, there are around 200 state laws and close to 50 central laws for labour. There are many central laws that are not supposed to brush aside by the state alone without considering and consulting the centre. The ones in favour of the move feel that this will give flexibility to the industry, while the others including labour law experts call it ‘atrocious’.
“Relaxation in labour laws” for three years could result in “exploitation of workers”, and workers needed “some guard rails” in times like this,” said Ravi Vishwanath, Finance executive at TeamLease. Even if there are a bunch of pros, the fear of exploitation still haunts the workers.
What were the changes?
There are various amendments introduced by the state governments which took place due to Covid-19 outbreak. Those amendments are:
- Working hours in factories can be extended from eight to twelve hours. Employers are also allowed to extend working hours up to seventy two hours per week in overtime, after consultation with the employees.
- Now the factory registration can be performed in only one day instead of 30. And the license renewal can be done after 10 years, rather than in a year. The officers not complying with the deadline can be penalized for non compliance.
- Industrial Units will be exempted from majority of the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. Organizations will be in a position to keep employees in service at their convenience. The Labour Department or the labour court will now not interfere in the action taken by the industries.
- Contractors who will employ less than 50 employees/workers will be in a position to work without registration under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970.
Several industries faced tremendous stress due to nationwide lockdown and slump in aggregate demand tweaked labour laws of their respective states. Several state governments in order to boost economic growth and revive these industries have initiated changes in labour laws. These changes were meant to protect their interests and provide them options against the pitfall they faced.
Uttar Pradesh government through a very large and ambiguously worded ordinance, exempted all factories and establishments engaged in manufacturing process from the operation of all Labour Laws for a period of three years; (with some exceptions). The state has exempted 10 Minimum Wages Act 1948, Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Industrial Dispute Act 1947 and Trades Union Act 1926 to name a few. The laws exempted from this ordinance are Payment of Wages Act 1936 and The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976. Some provisions of Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 and Factories Act, 1948 will continue to apply that are related to ex gratia payments in case of work-related diseases and disabilities. The ordinance is yet to be approved by the President as it seeks to amend Central legislations.
Similarly, Madhya Pradesh Government promulgated an ordinance which has amended two state laws i.e. Madhya Pradesh Industrial Employment Act, 1961 and Madhya Pradesh Sharam Kalyan Nidhi Adhiniyam 1982. The 1961 Act regulates the conditions of employment of workers and applies to all establishments with 50 or more workers. The Ordinance increases this threshold to 100 or more workers. Therefore, the Act will no longer apply to industries with between 50 and 100 workers that were previously regulated. The 1982 Act provides for the constitution of a fund that will help labours for finance activities. The Ordinance amends the Act to allow the state government to exempt any establishment or class of establishments from the provisions of the Act through a notification. Government has further amended certain provisions of Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 1 to exempt new establishments from the requirements under the act as long as it feels that there exist a mechanism of dispute resolution in new establishments. Shops and Establishments Act has also been amended, shops are permitted to stay open from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. (which appears to be a typo for 12 a.m., midnight).
Gujarat has also amended certain labour laws exempting establishments from various obligations pertaining to the welfare of labour. The state has increased working hours from 48 to 72 a week with no overtime pay required Gujarat has also exempted all factories registered under the Factories Act, 1948 from various provisions relating to weekly hours, daily hours, intervals for rest etc., with effect from April 20, 2020, with the following conditions until July 19, 2020: • No adult worker shall be allowed or required to work in a factory for more than twelve (12) hours a day and seventy-two (72) hours in a week. • No worker shall work for more than six (6) hours before he has had an interval for rest for at least half an hour on each day. 11 • No female worker shall be allowed or required to work in a factory between 7:00 PM to 6:00 AM. • Wages shall be in proportion of the existing wages. (E.g. if wages for eight (8) hours are Rs. 80, then the proportionate wages for twelve (12) hours will be Rs. 120).
Rajasthan has also tweaked their labour laws in the favour of industries and other manufacturing establishments, both the states have increased the working hour from 8 to 12 per day with overtime.
Was it a good decision?
The relaxed labour laws might have made it easier for the businesses to run, but the question is, did it put the interests of labourers and workers at stake? This is because amid the covid-19 breakdown, workers and labourers are more prone to risks. This risk came along with the relaxed labour laws which exempted the essential provisions such as healthcare, sanitization and working conditions. While there is no doubt that a great challenge for businesses is created by the pandemic. The relaxation in the laws will promote an environment for industries to start off at new speed. It will help India to work on their pre-planned programs like ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill in India’. But on the other hand, it will create a new phase of problems for the workers who already have nothing in their pockets.
The State Government should improve the ambience of industries. This is especially required in the times of pandemic. The virus can be fatal and in contemplation of their lives, sustaining the living condition, working condition, sanitization is very important. In addition, maintaining social distancing is the need of the hour. All of these can only be ensured by the government when they will enforce the industries to abide by it. Another strand to this is the ‘Exploitation of workers’, which is yet another threat. As soon as the lockdown lifts, the people who are already desperate for wages, work and means of livelihood will be the target of exploitation. Extension of work hours from 8 to 12 hours per day has solved the problem of shortage in supply of workers. But this will cascade the old methods of abuse of the helpless labourers. Thus, it is necessary to assure the well being of the workers. The skilled and productive workers will be given adequate opportunities while the weaker ones will be exempted from proper wages and protective environment. This problem is not unpredictable and thus the Government is obligated to resolve the same.
One would suggest that with manipulation of workers, the industries, businesses and workplaces need to ensure the living condition, health and hygiene, no abuse, fair treatment, social distancing, sanitization, interests and well being of the workers ad labourers too. The Government is supposed to requisite such instructions and enforces them without any flaw. Perceiving the risk of exploitation and unfair treatment, several Trade union activists have joined the battleground. They exclaimed that the decision of government ‘completely lacks sensitivity’. They have demanded for proper sanitizers and masks in order to save their lives. Moreover, proper cooked food for the stranded workers. In fact, the informal women workers are barely getting anything. Due to the huge gender based wage cycle, the women who work for informal sectors such as domestic work, waste picking, construction work, street vending etc are hardly being paid. The Government need not overlook this and cannot have a lockdown exit strategy which ignores women.
It is a speculation that with uplifting the bar of labour laws, Indian markets are competing with the authoritarian markets of China. With removal or relaxation of all but three laws in some of the most impactful states has created chaos among employers and employees. While the labour reform was the most anticipated one by the industrialists and businesses, it can be a curse for the labourers. India is a democratic country and holds a socialist economy which ensures equity and welfare of the general public. The most important thing to be kept in mind is to create a balance between the rights and duties employers and employees. For providing bread to a person, we cannot snatch it from the other, similarly to boost the economic growth we cannot take away protection from the workers. In an already lethal situation which the country is, we cannot make workers to put their life at cost. But the labour reform was always something the country needed, keeping this in mind; the decision cannot be claimed as a bad move. The economy was not in a good condition at first place and as many companies are seeking to withdraw their hands from China, we cannot have a better opportunity. Many have the view that the laws must be relaxed permanently, so that the relaxations will help industry get back on its feet. “At the very least, ease some of its current pain—which, in the long run, will benefit workers more than the immobilizing labour laws that were enacted to ensure the workers’ interests were preserved.”
But with that the government must ensure living conditions, adequate pay, wages and opportunities. India has come through facing worker exploitation since ages, it has improved a lot but we cannot afford to go all the years back.