In the past one month, the Centre has notified Draft Rules for three labour codes passed during the monsoon session of Parliament – Industrial Relations (IR) Code, Social Security Code (SSC) and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSHWC) Code. These codes have been billed as a transformative exercise in improving industrial relations in India. Transformative or otherwise aside, the Draft Rules should have been more precise and ironed out ambiguities. Take, for instance, the IR Code Draft Rules which should not have been notified without prescribing a time-frame for the adjudication process for an industrial dispute. If the purpose of the new law which subsumes the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Trade Unions Act, 1926 and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946, is to ensure that existing statutes are implemented smoothly, a stricter and prescribed time frame to cut out long adjudication processes is a prerequisite.
Then there are omissions such as the failure to define a Model Standing Order as had been mandated in the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Central Rules. The SO is a statutory force that defines categories of employees – permanent, temporary, casual, fixed-term etc. It lays down tenure of probation and conditions for regularisation as also shift working, types of leave, termination of employment, specific acts of misconduct et al . Although Section 29 (1) of the IR Code refers to the Model Standing Order, the Draft Rules fail to define it. Similarly, regulations prescribing the rights of the recognised unions need to be clearer.
The crux of this exercise was to streamline and amalgamate 100 State laws and 40 Central laws across industries, as also to expand the umbrella of labour protection beyond the organised sector. Much has been made of the Social Security Code (SSC)’s extension to the ‘gig’ and ‘platform’ workers whereas they do not figure either in the IR Code or the OSHWC Code. What this arguably means is that they are entitled to social security but not labour rights. To avail themselves of social security, they have to update their particulars on a portal. The Rules insert ambiguities in critical areas where the Code itself is quite clear like nomination of representatives of the workers and employers of the unorganised sector to the National Social Security Board (NSSB). While Section 6(2)(i)(ii) of the SSC provides for “compulsory” nomination, the Rules make it discretionary. The lack of clarity in the OSHWC Draft Rules over what constitutes “spread-over” hours (which can be interpreted as the total hours that can be spent at the workplace, including working hours, overtime and intervals) is a serious lacuna, as it could translate into disputes in the event of negotiations on hours worked. The Labour Minister has already said that he is open to suggestions. The leadership should steer the rules towards simplifying compliance and improving labour market governance.