On May 20, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) affiliated to the RSS conducted a nationwide agitation to “fight against the anti-workers’ Ordinances of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Gujarat and also on other labour issues”. On May 22 (Friday), the 10 Central trade unions (CTUs) and federations and associations operating in various sectors are carrying out “nationwide protests against the anti-worker and anti-people onslaughts of the government”.

Nine States have extended the maximum hours of work, in most cases with the attendant overtime pay as per the Factories Act, 1948 (FA). A few States have invoked Section 5 of the Factories Act, which empowers governments to exempt factories from any or all provisions of it only under a public emergency (which clearly means threat to security of India due to external aggression or internal disturbances), which the Covid-19 crisis does not readily satisfy.

Madhya Pradesh has invoked clauses in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 (IDA) to exempt the new factories from most provisions of the IDA for the next 1,000 days; as well as the provisions of the FA, save safety and health, overtime pay, etc. But the biggest shocker comes from UP, which has exempted industrial establishments from almost all provisions of around 38 Central and State labour laws. These changes effectively mean suspension of the right to eight hours of work in a day (and 48 hours in a week), right to unions and collective bargaining, to decent conditions of work, to raise industrial disputes, to access State dispute settlement institutions like conciliation, labour courts, to ask for abolition of the contract labour system, to salary higher than minimum wages, to decent working time, etc.

The employers have demanded that these changes be replicated at the “national” level. The Union Labour Ministry has responded by writing to the State governments to initiate changes concerning at least hours of work to 12 a day!

While the codification of labour law processes is on at the Centre, State governments have introduced the changes in labour laws under the pretext of economic distress, and attracting firms vacating China. Covid-19 has suspended all political processes, including opposition to government measures.

Government spokespersons and academics are talking of Covid-19 being the “right time” for introducing changes. Covid-19 dynamics disables mobilisation and protests on the streets and at the work-sites.

It is pertinent that all trade unions, including BMS, have complained of the absence of effective social dialogue which is a trait of pluralistic society. The new changes violate several ILO Conventions.

The grand financial packages offered nothing but “liquidity” to industry, cheap credit to street vendors, promise of cheaper rental facilities in the distant future to the inter-State migrant workers, and “disguised compensation cut” in terms of reduced EPF contribution from 12 per cent to 10 per cent, free food-grains to the stranded migrant workers without documents — while all voices urged the government to make a simple direct benefit transfer (DBT) to the millions of workers, or at least a wage subsidy to the MSMEs.

If only the governments had implemented the existing laws concerning migrant, construction and unorganised workers over the decades, put in place a universal unemployment allowance/insurance programmes as per the Second National Commission on Labour’s recommendations and drawn up a database of vulnerable sections of workers, consulted political (regional) and social stakeholders (trade unions and industry associations), the Covid-19 crises could have been tackled better.

The writer is Professor, HRM Area, XLRI, Jamshedpur