May Day has historically been an occasion to recall the heroic often bloody struggles of workers to earn the right to eight-hours of work. May Day 2020, thanks to Covid-19, is different and even challenging in many ways. Ironically, the classic May Day struggle was about securing 8-hours of work in a day and 48 hours of work in a week. But using Covid-19 as a pretext, some States such as Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana have amended the Factories Act, 1948 to extend hours of work from eight hours in a day and 48 hours in a week to 12 and 72, respectively.
So, this May Day will be unique in the history of labour movement in India as trade unions will be demanding as did workers in the late 19th Century: eight hours a day and 48 hours a week.
Covid-19 has hit all kinds of workers across the board, regular and standard workers and non-standard and precarious workers. But government employees who constitute the core of standard employment are up against salary cuts and a long-term freeze of dearness allowance. Even the Left-ruled Kerala government has in the wake of Kerala High Court staying its order is attempting the “ordinance route” to defer 25 per cent of the salary of government employees and others who depend on government funding. Again, these are unilateral measures.
The Union and some State governments issued tepid advisories for timely income payments without cuts, and not to lay-off or retrench workers. Though several “good” companies have honoured the employment contracts, generally large-scale job and income losses and pay cuts have been reported. To be fair, the micro, small and medium-sized establishments (MSMEs) are as vulnerable as precarious workers and they cannot be faulted. The government has offered so far a meagre relief package, some of which does not constitute relief to workers.
The governments now realise the lack of a database of and access to informal workers even though several laws pertaining to the unorganised workers like the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 provide for compulsory registrations and issuance of portable smart cards to them. Had the governments complied with these, the Covid-19 crises could have been handled better. The criminal governance failure of all the governments persists in the case of construction workers despite the Supreme Court’s intervention time and again since 2009.
At the same time there is discussion around labour law reforms to afford flexibility to employers. Meanwhile, global unions are calling for the declaration of Covid-19 as an ‘occupational disease’ and for the strengthening of the public healthcare system and social protection for workers.
The governments at all levels have ignored social dialogue even though India has ratified the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144). The ILO has placed a strong emphasis on the role of social dialogue in the design of ‘policy responses’ of the government.
For trade unions, this May Day is about the protection of lives and livelihoods. It is about comprehensively conceived health security, sustainable jobs and incomes which means a quick revival of economic activities. It is also about workers/trade unions voluntarily making concessions to employers for the revival of business and joining them to demand bailout packages from the government for business. The government is yet to perceive them as relevant stakeholders.
The writer is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI