The Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh governments have moved to relax a string of labour laws with the stated objective of attracting more investment and making industry operations smoother during the economic crisis induced by the covid-19 lockdown. After these changes, the employers can increase workers’ daily shifts from 8 hours to 12 hours and are not bound to provide basic working conditions to workers such as ventilation, toilets, protective equipment, etc. The working hours have been raised in a few other states as well, namely Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
Aruna Roy, one of the oldest members of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, argues that the suspension of fundamental rights of workers to privilege the employers is exploitation. In addition, an expansion of the Employment Guarantee Act in villages, and even extending it to cities, she suggests, would be the most inexpensive way of rebuilding the economy. Roy was at the forefront of movements that led to the legislation of right to information (RTI) and right to work (NREGA) in the country. She spoke to outlook about the implications of this move and how it will impact the labourers. Here are the edited excerpts.
What are your thoughts on these changes in labour laws?
The perverse disregard for workers was heralded with the proposed changes to labour laws by Parliament in 2019. This use of the Covid-19 lockdown to pass these immoral and inherently undemocratic orders by the UP and MP governments will push India back many decades, reducing the worker to bondage. Workers are the worst hit by Covid-19 restrictions on travel and are beaten and detained like criminals fleeing from authority. This is betrayal by a democratic government, elected by a large number of working people.
Governments are calling these changes ‘reforms’, intended to give ‘more freedom’ to firms. As somebody working for rights and freedoms of workers, how do you feel about this?
Reforms usually indicate a change for the better. The more appropriate word would be regression, or the stripping of rights. The suspension of fundamental rights of workers, in order to privilege employers, is exploitation. The ordinance passed by U.P, and proposed by Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat governments, is forced restraint on protest, mobilisation and freedom of the most vulnerable for claiming their rights. We can hardly call such governance democratic.
The incentive to increase production does not have to come at the cost of the workforce. The denial of basic human decency - provisions of ventilation, lighting, toilets, sitting facilities, first aid boxes, protective equipment, canteens, crèches, weekly holidays, rest breaks, minimum wages and drinking water - reminds us of the days when slavery was the accepted practice. Even early Bollywood films portrayed the inhumanity of those conditions that free India has managed to reduce dramatically.
Constitutionally speaking, can the states do it? If not, why are they able to do it?
Government’s attempt to suspend labour laws is constitutionally abhorrent. Many of these labour entitlements such as the Right to Minimum Wages have been held by the Supreme Court to be an integral part of Fundamental Rights (in this case Article 21 and Article 23) enshrined in Part III of the Constitution. It is not only immoral but also wholly illegal for the government to strike at the core of fundamental rights of the labour class in this fashion. Nothing warranted the urgent passage of this ordinance.
According to Article 254 (2), before enforcing any Bill or ordinance relating to a subject in the Concurrent List, the approval of the President is needed. Whether that process will be followed or not is uncertain.
Finally, the Supreme Court could take suo motu cognizance of this contravention of basic fundamental rights.
Are the workers’ rights being encroached upon only during this pandemic, or it been happening earlier as well?
Governments have turned a blind eye to violations and there have been periodic and systematic attacks on labour rights by industry. The recourse to laws protecting workers rights and mandated by orders of the Courts, enabled them to fight these battles. The organised and unorganised sector trade unions were also a force to reckon with and a deterrent. But the proposed changes to labour laws by Parliament in 2019 would potentially disempower trade unions considerably. Four labour codes were proposed by the NDA by merging approximately 44 federal labour laws, that outlined rights related to wages, industrial relations, social security, health and safety etc. Most of the trade unions were against codifying the labour laws in four categories, and contested that the government was benefitting the employers at the cost of the worker. Many of these proposed amendments to labour laws have lapsed in Parliament, but one can see the inclination of the ruling party when considering labour rights, long before the Covid-19 lockdown.
A train ran over at least 15 migrant workers in Aurangabad today. Earlier, Karnataka CM cancelled the trains meant for them after a meeting with the builders. After outrage, he resumed the train services. There are several reports of labourers dying due to exhaustion on cruelly long walks to their homes, in accidents on the way, committing suicides due to hunger, and being stranded without food or money. Why is this happening? How could all this have been avoided?
This is a tragedy which illustrates the callousness of a government denying trapped people the right to go home. The global pandemic has turned systems of governance, participatory democracy and the guarantee of rights upside down. For the millions of workers in India, it has been hell on earth; forced to stay in camps or cramped accommodation, foregoing the comfort of family, food, and mental peace. It is systemic cruelty that a country dependent on the work of the informal sector (92%) should sacrifice these people invoking the fear of infection. While great efforts were made to bring back affluent people stranded abroad, workers were given 4 hours to pack and leave for destinations across the country.
Can economic crises warrant impinging on the rights of workers?
In simple terms, no. In fact, the advice given by eminent Indian (and global) economists to handle this economic crisis nowhere mentions such draconian measures of suspending labour rights. Economists across the spectrum of ideology have emphasised the need to protect the socio-economic classes that will be worst hit by the lockdown and Covid-19 crisis.
In the neoliberal rush for economic growth, we have always short-changed the rights of the labourer and worker. However, before this period, there was the space for dissent and protest, and many rights for workers have been won through collective mobilisation and struggle. The suspension of fundamental rights, egregious and unconstitutional in itself, but especially in the absence of normal modes of dissent and legal recourse, is completely immoral.
What must the government do to protect the labourers and farmers, those who are most vulnerable economically?
A minimal level of livelihood and income security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector. One cannot fight the spread of the virus by wishing away a massive humanitarian crisis.
This mandate can be met with an expanded Employment Guarantee Act as a human response to this pandemic. There is no alternative to ensuring a regular cash flow to all those affected. The Employment Guarantee Act would provide work with dignity, and perhaps be the most inexpensive way to rebuild a shattered economy.
Instead of suspending fundamental labour rights, an Urban Employment Guarantee should also be put in place. The shock of the lockdown, and the loss of employment will be countered only with guaranteed tenure and security of income to help persuade workers to return to their former places of work. As industry revamps and struggles to restart, many casual, and even regular workers in various industries, need fallback employment.
Apart from the regular public works which must continue with sufficient safety measures, home-based activities must be permitted in the expanded employment guarantee programme to enable “work from home” for this class of workers as well.