Change in labour laws and the exploitation of workers in India

Anupam Banerjee

The post 2014 Modi regime has witnessed autocratic anti-worker and anti-people measures of the centre and the draconian changes in labour laws by state governments to facilitate more brutal and cruel exploitation of workers. Like all the other sectors, Modi’s pro-corporate and anti-people labour policies have forced the working class of India to embark on a series of country-wide general and sectoral strikes. The government has projected the reforms in labour laws to be essential for enhanced flexibility to employers, for ease of doing business and for inviting increased foreign investments. In reality, the so-called reforms and amendments in labour laws will lead to systematic disempowerment and enslavement of large section of the working class and will facilitate the selling of natural and human resources to global capital. The governments are ensuring that the modified labour laws doesn’t aid and abet the big corporates in looting cheap labour from the country. As a result, the governemnets are subverting the minimum rights gained by the working class through decades of relentless struggles.

For Modi government and its allies, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity to fulfill its agenda of drastically changing the labour laws where the terms of employment, working hours, wages, over time, occupational health and safety have been relinquished in the garb of disaster management and economic revival. Even the right to protest or challenge these anti-labour policies have been suspended by the union and state governments. The government of Uttar Pradesh has issued the ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’. According to it, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996; Workmen Compensation Act, 1923; Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; and Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936 (the right to receive timely wages), will apply in the state. Other 38 labour laws related to settling industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers, and those related to trade unions, contract workers, and migrant labourers will not be functional for the next three years. New trade unions cannot be registered and there will be no mechanism for addressing grievances of the workers. The denial of rights also includes the protection against the arbitrary and unfair dismissal of workers (under the Standing Orders Act, 1946, and Sections 2 and 11-A of the Industrial Disputes Act) and illegal deductions (Payment of Wages Act, 1936), gratuity (Payment of Gratuity Act, 1971), employment security for workers in shops and commercial establishments. The UP government also attempted to increase the daily working hour limit in manufacturing units from eight to twelve hours although it was not successful. Further, it abused powers under Section 5 of the Factories Act which can be implanted in times of war, national emergency or internal disturbances. Saurabh Bhattacharjee, associated with West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata has rightly noted ― “The Supreme Court of India has recognised that the mandate to pay the minimum wages stems from Article 23 of the Constitution and non-payment of minimum wages, therefore, amounts to forced labour. The obligation to provide decent, safe and secure conditions of work has also been acknowledged as a part of the fundamental right to live with dignity under Article 21. The right to unionisation and social security also constitute international human rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Abrogation of almost the entirety of the existing labour laws would arguably mean an abdication of this constitutional and human rights mandate.”

The situation has been no different in Madhya Pradesh. Eleven categories of industries (such as textile, leather, cement, iron and steel, electrical goods, sugar, electricity, public motor transport, engineering including manufacture of motor vehicles etc) will be excluded from the Madhya Pradesh Industrial Relations (MPIR) Act of 1961. By virtue of these exemptions, the trade union will have no recognition to “act as a bargaining agent for settling disputes or engaging in a discussion related to terms of employment of workers in a particular industry at the local level.” The government has also put an end to statutory inspection as there would be no factory inspection for 3 months, no inspection for firms with less than 50 workers and third-party inspection will also be allowed.  The state government has further disabled the major provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 for new manufacturing units for the next 1000 days which will ease regulations to lay-off workers. The workers will not have the right to exercise their freedom of association and collective bargaining for this mentioned period. Labour economist K R Shyam Sundar commented “The ID Act has a provision for government referring industrial dispute cases to the labour courts. This will no longer apply in MP. In such a situation, employees will have to go to civil jurisprudence. This is a repression of workers’ rights,” He further noted “The near-complete suspension of labour laws in UP and the selective but crucial denials of labour rights in MP will lead to anarchy in the labour market. These changes will be terrifying for workers.”

Following the “model” of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Gujrat announced “For all new projects that seek to operate for at least 1,200 days or are operational for 1,200 days, they would be exempt from all the provisions of labour laws, except three. The state government has also identified over 33,000 hectares of land for global companies seeking to relocate their projects from China.” The three laws that are not exempted include Minimum Wages Act, Industrial Safety Rules and Employees' Compensation Act. The acts are related to the payment of minimum wages, safety measures and minimum compensation for workers in the case of industrial accidents. The Gujrat government ensured free hand to employers to hire and fire workers with no labour inspection or government intervention and drastically curbed the powers of worker unions in the state.

The aforementioned states are BJP-ruled. But the current regime of Punjab under Congress rule followed the footsteps of the BJP. The Factories Acts were amended in the month of April to increase the work time to 12 hours every day and 72 hours every week, compared to 8 hours every day and 48 hours every week. In January 2020, the current Chief Minister of Congress proposed ordinances for making amendments to the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, Factories Act, 1948, and the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. He exactly replicated what BJP–led governments did in the past few years in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Assam, Haryana and Gujarat– all in the name of ‘business-friendly labour reforms’ while making the livelihoods of the workers more insecure than ever. It will not be unjust to point out that a study of four states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh by the VV Giri National Labour Institute found that amendments in labour laws neither succeeded in attracting big investments, boost to industrialisation or job creation. Regression analysis studies of Indian experience have shown that growth in labour market flexibility does not have any statistically significant influence on employment growth.

If we look back in August 2014, the Vasundhara Raje-led Rajasthan state cabinet amended four labour laws—the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Factories Act, 1948, the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 and the Apprentices Act, 1961. The first amendment of the Industrial Disputes Act allowed industry to lay off 300 employees (which was 100 previously) without prior government permission. Data shows 86% of industries employ less than 300 workers and will now be free to exploit workers using this provision. The modifications also make it tougher to register labour unions — instead of 15% of workers, now 30% of workers in a factory need to join hands to form a union. The Contract Labour Act was revised to let the principal employer employ 49 contract workers without a license. According to the Business Standard, “The amendments in the Factories Act propose to increase the threshold limit of employment for factories operating without power from 20 to 40 and from 10 to 20 for factories operating with power. Complaints against the employer about violation of this Act would not receive cognizance by a court without prior written permission from the state government. A provision for compounding of offences has been added.” Rajasthan paved the way for other states such as Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, to introduce similar amendments which diluted the rights of workers and relaxed rules for employers in the last six years.

Although the state government of West Bengal has not formally announced modifications in the labour law in these months of lockdown, the government played a silent role thereby choosing to ignore the act of exploitation against the working class. A sample of the Howrah industrial belt depicts the real picture. Right after the state government instructed jute mills authorities to start work with 15% workers, the mill management floated a proposal of 12-hours work shifts to the mill unions. However, surprisingly none of the mill unions except one union in the Bauria jute mill and the temporary workers union in the Premchand jute mill opposed this proposal. The workers got agitated and they started protesting across all mill premises. Although the Gloster jute mill, the Bauria jute mill and the Delta jute mill started work in 12-hours shifts, massive protests broke out before the end of A shift in day one itself thereby leading to the temporary shutdown of the three mills. After this incident none of the trade unions dared to put forward the idea of 12-hours shifts in front of the mill workers. The workers were able to ensure that all the jute mills in the Howrah region (after remaining closed for a week) started work with 15% of workers adhering to the established 8-hours work shifts. However, the finishing department of the Bauria jute mill remained open during the week and the workers toiling in 12-13 hour shifts got a daily wage of Rs 300 as opposed to the fixed minimum wage of Rs 353 per day set by the state government.

A jute mill remains open for 24 hours where work is carried out in three shifts. The A shift lasts from 6AM to 11 AM and from 2PM to 5PM. The B shift lasts from 11AM to 2PM and from 5PM to 10PM. The C shift lasts from 10PM to 6AM without any break. While the C shifters were allowed two tiffin breaks, the A shifters and the B shifters were allowed to go for their tiffin breaks between 6AM to 11AM and from 5PM to 10PM respectively. The workers used to go out together for their tiffin breaks but presently, in the garb of the coronavirus pandemic they are disallowed to do so and are instead instructed to go out in turns for their tiffin. This has resulted in the machine remaining on for the entire duration. The authorities were also against time outs in between shifts, but the workers united were able to resist such an arrangement.

Since then the mills were operational with 7-8 hours continuous working shifts and the workers working 7-hour shifts were asked to forego their paid leave of one day per week. With this arrangement, the weekly working hours remained constant, but the workers right to one day paid leave per week was compromised. The workers adhering to the continuous working hours instead of the regular 5hrs+3hrs or 3hrs+5hrs working schedule were allowed to have tiffin breaks and toilet breaks only in different time intervals. The canteens were supposed to be kept closed unless 100% workers were back working in the mill premises. During this time, the sirens were put off and the workers were asked not to sign in the attendance registers. This ensured that the mill authorities would not be responsible for any accident or mishap that took place during the working hours. [If the siren rings in the mill premises during the beginning and end of each of the shifts and if workers come inside and go out of the mill by signing in the attendance register, a mill is said to be officially running. During this time, the mill authorities are responsible for any kinds of accident or any kinds of injury to a worker. Additionally, if the mill authorities cannot provide sufficient work to the workers during a particular time the affected workers are entitled to a lay off wage for the concerned time period.]

According to the new rules, the tiffin break of workers in the C shift was also reduced from 40 minutes to a 20 minutes time period. Again, after extensive protests in the Bauria jute mill followed by protest in the Gloster and Ladlow jute mills, the mill administrations were forced to roll back the continuous work shifts and the siren along with the attendance register were back in place. However, the workers in the Delta and Premchand jute mil are still working in continuous shifts.

As the mills are back to working with 100% of the working force, many new workers are being appointed who are now paid a meagre Rs200/ Rs150 per day. Needless to say the workers are deprived of any ESI or PF benefits. [There are three types of workers in a mill. There are the permanent workers (although there are permanent officers and office staff there are very few permanent workers), mill hands (they are contractual workers on the payroll of the mill with relatively more stability and with PF/ESI along with a paid leave for one day each week) and casual workers (enrolled with private labour contractors and working on a no work no pay basis without any job security whatsoever).]

It is surprising to note that all the established trade unions have conveniently ignored these issues and the state government have also turned a blind eye to the plight of the workers. The deputation submitted by workers of Premchand jute mill to the Uluberia labour commission was accepted but further no steps were taken to solve the problem. However, none of the other trade unions have submitted any kind of deputation in this regard.

The ever-deepening economic and political crisis in the country as a part of the overall crisis of capitalism in the international arena have made the ruling class more violent than ever before. The anti-worker policies taken by the central or state governments (irrespective of the colors/banners) during this lockdown once again portrays their class character. In spite of this, the workers are increasingly participating in spontaneous struggles today and are getting rid of the illusions they had on the leadership of the established trade-unions.

Anupam Banerjee is an independent researcher and an ex-student of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Jadavpur University

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Aug 2, 2020

Anupam Banerjee

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