Saji Narayanan, president of the RSS-affiliated trade union Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, is glad that many of the states are finally waking up to the plight of migrant workers. But he tells Outlook's Lola Nayar that changes initiated by few state government on the labour front are not reforms but "wholesale burial of all labour laws". Edited excerpts:
At this juncture what is the biggest challenge you see for the economy, industries, employment and the labour force?
The entire world is facing a major health crisis. International Labour Organisation (ILO) has forecast that 52 per cent of the jobs will be lost due to the pandemic. The World Bank has also stated that nearly half of the global economy is at a standstill as several countries face recession. But India may not be affected to that extend as we have been able to control the situation better than many other countries.
In India, right from the onset, we gave more preference to human lives and opted to close down businesses. This is one major reason why we were able to have lower causalities. Unfortunately, the crisis is not over and in certain pockets of the country, the number of cases and causalities is rising.
With large scale reverse migration continuing, states like Uttar Pradesh have sought to take steps to stop the migration of labour. How is it going to affect the labour force, businesses, industries and other economic activities?
The fact that migrant issues have come out into the open is a good thing. Till two months back, they were not given due importance and were neglected. In many states, they were earlier called “second class workers” but now many states are calling them “best class workers”. The pandemic has revealed the pathetic conditions under which the migrant workers were kept in the host states. In many states, migrant workers have had to live in inhuman conditions without proper wages and social security.
Now reverse migration has started because of psychological and social reasons, particularly due to worry about families back in the villages. No state government should stop them from returning home to their villages and families. Till the rainy season, they may want to stay back in their villages before returning to urban centres in search of income-generating jobs.
We have suggested to the government that if industries want these migrant workers, they should provide incentives including cash advances and train tickets.
In terms of wages, do the migrant get paid less than local workers?
Yes, the migrant labourers are bottom level of workers engaged in the skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled work where they are engaged as daily wagers, casual labour, contract workers, etc. Only a small proportion would come into the skilled workers' category. Only the settled migrant workers are unionised and get better wages.
Despite easing of lockdown, why are people still opting to move back home to their native places?
Things will settle down, but it will take time and in varying degree across various sectors the economy will pick up. As far as migrants are concerned it will take time as the workers are not too sure of what future holds for them in urban centres. It is expected that those engaged with essential and semi-essential services may normalise but non-essential services like travel and tourism, automobiles, luxury goods etc. may take time to revive.
Even among existing workers, there are two types of problems. First, due to large scale exodus, enterprises are not getting cheap labour. This is bound to create a problem. On the other side, 15 state governments have increased working hours from 8 to 12 and in the case of Karnataka, to 11 hours. They claim to be paying overtime wages, but this move is posing problems. When there is an army of people waiting outside, the industries asking those inside to work for extra time is something against our need for job generation. Instead of asking workers to work for extra hours, they need to employ extra hands.
Are the new labour laws being enforced by many states leading to dilution of social security for workers? BMS has raised this issue with the President of India. Do you hope for a stronger central government intervention to protect workers' interest, particularly in the unorganised sector?
Regarding the recent ordinances in three states- Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh - you cannot call them labour reforms. It is a wholesale burial of all labour laws except in case of three or four provisions. In these three states, the fundamental principles of labour are not there. Rule of law is fundamental to a civilized society. In case of dispute, the labour has no recourse to justice. This is in sharp contrast to China where a website clearly spells out labour laws to be followed by prospective investors. The fact is that investors are not worried about labour laws but bureaucratic red-tapism. What BMS is demanding is comprehensive bureaucratic reforms that will address almost all the issues related to ease of doing business in India.