Violation of Labour Rights

Arup Kumar Sen

May Day is celebrated all over the world as a milestone in the struggle for labour rights. However, violation of labour rights is the order of the day. Making the workers footloose is the central tenet of neoliberal capitalism.

The Indian State facilitated the dilution of rights of workers through reform of labour laws in COVID-times. People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) documented major reforms in labour laws in its Statement issued on May 15, 2020. It observed: “PUCL is deeply concerned at the swiftness with which many states in the nation are dismantling the protection afforded to workers under their various labour laws…The country is currently witnessing a massive human tragedy as lakhs of migrant workers found themselves stranded during the lockdown, without any means of getting food or work…Many of these workers have not been paid for months. Again, had the laws relating to timely payment of wages been enforced, many of these workers would not have been forced to take desperate measures like walking thousands of kilometres back to their homes.”

In the above context of documenting the predicament of migrant workers, PUCL observed the dilution of labour laws initiated by the different state governments. To put it in the words of the PUCL Statement: “As the country is slowly emerging from the lockdown, the working citizens of this country are at their most vulnerable, facing threats of mass layoffs and firings with depleted reserves of cash and food. This is the time when they most need the protection of labour laws to ensure that they are not unduly exploited. PUCL is alarmed by the ordinances cleared by Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat cabinets, which would indiscriminately suspend all labour laws except a few basic ones, for close to three years. Notifications by the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana have also suspended crucial portions of their labour legislations. We fear that these moves would force a large proportion of our population to inhuman servitude and destitution, and condemn them in no uncertain terms.”

There is no concrete evidence that the general conditions of workers have improved in the post-pandemic period. An article carried in The Hindu on May1,2023, observed: “By extending the hours of work and ensuring job insecurity, we are setting the clock back to the 19th century in the name of ease of doing business. Due to lack of political unity as well as trade union cooperation, save a few instances, States are able to change labour laws without much opposition… Trade unions have a lot to be concerned about this May Day.”

In fact, the dominant Left parties and trade union federations have failed miserably to give protection to vulnerable workers. Workers should look for new forms of labour organisation to protect their life and livelihood. It may be mentioned in this connection that the eminent Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, argued that the “true process of proletarian revolution cannot be identified with the development and action of revolutionary organisations of a voluntary and contractual type, such as the political party or the trade unions” as these organisations are born on the terrain of bourgeois democracy and political liberty. Gramsci identified ‘factory council’ as the alternative form of workers’ organisation and argued that its formation coincides with the consciousness of the working class in pursuit of autonomous emancipation from Capital. (See Antonio Gramsci, ‘The Turin Workers’ Councils’ in Robin Blackburn ed., Revolution and Class Struggle: A Reader in Marxist Politics, Harvester Press, UK, 1978)

Whether the existing labour organisations would come forward in facilitating the birth of new forms of grassroots labour organisation and labour politics is an open question.

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Vol 55, No. 46, May 14 - 20, 2023