As 10 central trade unions prepare to launch an agitation against the implementation of the four new labour codes on April 1, GYAN PATHAK explains why informal sector workers across India are apprehensive of these labour ‘reforms’.
ON April 1, as India begins the 2021-22 financial year, the country’s labour, force under the joint platform of 10 Central trade unions, will be tearing up or burning copies of the four new labour codes as part of their agitation against these laws.
This will be just the latest in a spate of workers movements that have come up over the last few months against several ‘reform’ policies of the Union government, such as the actual or proposed privatisation of several Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), Public Sector Banks (PSBs), General Insurance Companies (GICs), and the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), as also against the three farm laws that are feared to bring encroachment by the corporate sector into farming in the country.
This has led to certain solidarity within the country’s vast labour force, as PSU employees and farmers are supporting each other in their respective demands and agitation plans.
That we are witnessing such collective labour unrest in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic maybe because the pandemic has triggered conditions of modern slavery across the world. The International Labour Organization has warned all countries to keep eye on such a trend that is surfacing due to little government action, and which may worsen in the near future.
No reasonable person will disagree with the Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s view that freedom from slavery is non-negotiable.
The section of our labour force that is likely to be trapped into modern forms of slavery comprises of informal and unorganized sector workers, especially those who work as casual or contractual labourers. Overall, informal sector workers account for 92 percent of our labour.
That we are witnessing such collective labour unrest in the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic maybe because the pandemic has triggered conditions of modern slavery across the world.
They are extremely vulnerable since they can’t even voice any grievances against their working conditions because of the fear of losing their jobs. Their jobs are so precious to them since they have no meaningful social security systems to fall back on to take care of their nutritional, medical and educational needs and those of their family members.
Devastation of economy by pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdowns and other restrictive containment measures have caused unprecedented damage to the economy and the livelihoods of these workers.
Millions were put out of work, as they were either fired from their jobs or couldn’t restart their enterprises. Millions more had to settle for reduced wages and other benefits.
Workers engaged across all sectors fear that the economy will not return to normal conditions in the near future. This fear is not groundless. Take the example of commercial real estate: people have no money to purchase houses, and builders are consequently hesitant to invest when there are no buyers. Thus, construction workers, in turn, are competing for a reduced pool of jobs. The sector may not recover in the near future unless appropriate steps are urgently taken by the government.
How modern slavery plays out
In this modern form of slavery, the working class is forced, by its miserable financial conditions, to work on whatever exploitative terms an employer wants to employ its members for.
In several cases, workers don’t even make the national minimum wage, which is Rs. 176 per day at the national level, and which works out to be merely Rs 4,576 per month.
It is another matter that many among us may not agree on such a low wage to be given to anyone. Moreover, people are not getting work daily, so their actual earnings are much less than the minimum monthly wage.
It is in this context that the four labour codes were brought in by the State.
The draft rules that have been prepared to do away with 44 central labour laws in favour of the four new labour codes – the Code on Wages, 2019, the Industrial Relations Code, 2020, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, and the Code on Social Security, 2020 – have united all of the labour force. This is because they believe these codes will favour businesses and industries at the cost of workers.
In this modern form of slavery, the working class is forced, by its miserable financial conditions, to work on whatever exploitative terms an employer wants to employ its members for
These codes, which the Union Government claims are necessary to bring the national economy back on track, shall be implemented after the proposed rules are notified.
Workers’ grievances against labour codes
Trade unions allege that the rules will give sweeping powers to employers against the workforce. They would put workers at the mercy of their employers, and working conditions shall further deteriorate.
Several states have meanwhile effectively suspended labour law protections for workers, such as in Uttar Pradesh, where, for example, the amended law allowed employers to set 12 hour working days. This provision was ultimately withdrawn by the UP Government after being heavily criticized by the Allahabad High Court.
As it is, even with the provision of an eight-hour working day, most workers end up working far longer. They thus fear even worse exploitation.
Workers across the country fear that the economy will not return to normal conditions in the near future. This fear is not groundless.
The labour codes also provide employers with flexibility to hire and fire at will. Such insecurity of tenure will lead to even more fluctuation in employment rates than what has been recorded in the last few months, and surely increase the unemployment rate.
All these are indicative of grave labour unrest in the country in the near future; it may very well escalate to social unrest. The Union Government must be watchful and should not rush through its proposed labour reforms in the present circumstances, but must instead meaningfully consult with labour unions to assuage their misgivings. (IPA Service)