‘Workers’ rights cannot be trampled in the rush for investments’

AM Jigeesh New Delhi | Updated on May 13, 2020

Bhartruhari Mahtab

Covid-19 has exposed the fault lines of our labour laws: Bhartruhari Mahtab, Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour has sought explanation from eight States which have circumvented all major statutes in labour laws through recently passed ordinances and notifications. Senior Biju Janata Dal MP and Chairman of the Committee Bhartruhari Mahtab told BusinessLine that immediate corrective measures are needed to re-establish the balance in industrial relations. Excerpts:

Are the States overstepping their legislative boundaries by taking recourse in the extraordinary pandemic situation and the Disaster Management Act as most of the statutes that they seek to circumvent fall under the Centre’s domain?

Whatever changes they are making in the law have to be done through the Ordinance route. Some States have changed the laws through executive orders which they may be competent to do. Legally, I don’t see how that State governments are in conflict with the law. But whether they will be approved by the Assemblies or Parliament is another thing. Even if they do, whether these Ordinances stand the scrutiny of the courts is the next step. You cannot have two sets of laws for the same segment. UP has drawn a line between the established industries and the new industries that are going to come. They said labour laws, except three laws, will not be applicable to the new industries for thousand days. They cannot make a distinction between old and new industries. I don’t think their Ordinance will stand the scrutiny of the law.

The argument is that a number of companies are leaving China and are coming to India...

That is not the issue; the issue is relating to investment. United States was withdrawing from China even before the Covid-19 crisis. They are headed towards Vietnam and other South Asian countries, Bangladesh, and some are coming to India as well. Western companies are looking for cheap labour. But in our eagerness to invite investment, we should not do certain things which will trample the rights of the labour.

The content of most of these Ordinances are similar to the three labour Codes considered by your panel at this moment such as the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, the Code on Social Security and the Industrial Relations Code. One code is passed and three codes are to be passed by Parliament. Why didn’t the States wait for the outcome of House’s decision?

It is in a grey area. For instance, the Gujarat government, during their interaction with us on the Occupational Safety Code, said the working hours should not be restricted to eight hours and should be increased to 12 hours. They argued for some flexibility as technology has changed. They wanted to put this in the code. They have now brought an ordinance and said the working hours will be 72 hours in a week and said they are eligible for half day wage for the extra four hours they work. Odisha Government said the extra four hours will be considered as overtime, meaning that the workers will get 100 per cent more wages. States are proceeding on their respective paths. What we had intended that there should be uniformity throughout the country. There should be central guidelines.

On the provision of taking consent of more than 100 employees, if a company has to shut down, our recommendation that the number can be increased to 300 workers was opposed by trade unions. We had cited the instances of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Some stakeholders said there will be loss of jobs if the limit is increased. But a study said employment increased when it was raised from 100 to 300. Industry was more comfortable. More number of people got employed. Earlier they were limiting the employment to 100.

What is your next step?

We have written to eight or nine States seeking information about the changes they have made. After getting the replies, we can think how to go about it. Overall, our stand is that productivity can increase only when labour and capital work in tandem.

Another major issue is the exodus of migrant workers. Trade unions have demanded a policy for migrant workers and that the Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act of 1979 should not be merged with the Occupational Safety Code.

The migrant workers law existed since 1979. The Nation suddenly woke up to the issue after migrant workers started walking on the streets to go back to their homes. Migrant labourers are the invisible labour force of this country. Neither the government nor the trade unions ever cared for the migrant worker. The law is cumbersome and unimplementable and no one cares about it. Neither the State Governments nor the Union Government had ever thought on how to implement that law. Today we have millions of migrant workers moving from one State to another in a very pathetic condition. So is the case of the unorganised labour.

We cannot blame only the government. Have the trade unions ever looked into this aspect? Nobody has cared about it. Government says it is unimplementable. When we were trying to bring domestic workers and gig workers into the industrial relations code, the government said it is unimplementable. They asked, where is the industry? But we said there has to be a redressal mechanism. The Government is totally out of the frame of social security in the code on social security. It is the individual and the insurance sector who are responsible according to the Code drafted by the Centre. We are tackling that issue now.

Basically, the trade unions have been fighting for the eight per cent employees of the organised sector. Unorganised labour, of which migrant workers also are a part, has been left in the lurch. This government, I must say, has recognised the necessity to bring in a redressal mechanism. We are trying to strengthen it. Covid-19 has exposed the fault lines of our labour laws. This is the right time to take corrective steps.

Published on May 13, 2020

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