Millions of Indian workers stripped of their rights

State governments remove key labour laws to protect business interests at the expense of India’s impoverished workforce, denying them the little rights and protection they had.

Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has left India’s impoverished and migrant workers battered, several state governments have announced sweeping and alarming changes to labour laws. Among many other rights abuses, these changes will allow companies to hire and fire workers at will, extend working hours up to 72 hours a week and deny workers a guaranteed minimum wage. 

The regressive decision to weaken labour protection, many critics say, has stripped the country’s vulnerable workforce of their basic rights, left them at the mercy of exploitative employers and given the green light to bonded labour.  

On the pretext of revitalising the struggling economy and attracting foreign investment, the most significant changes were announced by three states: Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. All three are ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Other states including Rajasthan, Haryana, Odisha and Punjab have also relaxed some labour legislation, effectively stripping workers of any bargaining power or safety net.

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The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, was first to announce the sweeping changes that summarily suspended the application of almost all labour laws for the next three years. The state government exempted factories, business establishments and industries from the purview of 35 out of 38 labour laws under the new Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020. This effectively suspended key labour laws such as the Minimum Wages Act and Payment of Wages Act, as well as laws related to settling industrial disputes, occupational health and safety, and working conditions. Laws related to trade unions, contract workers and migrant labourers have also been affected.

“The idea is that in the present circumstances, where we need to provide employment to workers who have migrated back to the state and to protect the existing employment, some flexibility has to be given to business and industry,” Uttar Pradesh chief secretary RK Tiwari told the Indian newspaper Business Standard.

A free hand to hire and fire

The western state of Gujarat announced changes under which businesses are given a free hand to hire and fire workers and extend working hour limits in factories to 12 hours a day, with a weekly limit of 72 hours until 19 July. Also halted are any labour inspections. The role of trade or labour unions has also been limited. The Madhya Pradesh government, too, announced the exemption of all establishments from obligations under all labour laws for 1 000 days. Businesses are free to lay off workers, firms with fewer than 50 workers will face no inspections, factories can now raise working hours to 12 hours from eight, and overtime of up to 72 hours is permitted. The states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab also extended working hours from eight to 12 without amending the Factories Act. 

12 May 2020: Workers wearing face shields on a mobile phone assembly line in Noida, India, after some restrictions were lifted during the extended nationwide lockdown. (Photograph by Reuters/ Anushree Fadnavis)
12 May 2020: Workers wearing face shields on a mobile phone assembly line in Noida, India, after some restrictions were lifted during the extended nationwide lockdown. (Photograph by Reuters/ Anushree Fadnavis)

Following this move, representatives of 12 employers’ associations and industry bodies also urged the Modi government to suspend labour laws for the next two to three years “to help the industry come out of the present crisis”. The representatives of business lobby groups asked Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Gangwar to relax the Industrial Disputes Act in order to treat the lockdown period as “lay-off”, which means workers can be temporarily removed. They also want working hours to be increased to 12 hours a day and for industries to be given an appropriate economic stimulus package to ensure job retention. Other suggestions made by the industry bodies included treating wages paid during this period as corporate social responsibility funding. They also want to increase the maximum workforce to 50% from 33%. They say the federal suspension of some labour laws for three years will help them achieve that.

Labour laws in India come under the jurisdiction of both the federal and state governments. State authorities can amend certain legislation for their respective regions. There are 44 central laws and more than 200 state laws that overlap with each other. About 90% of India’s workforce operate in the informal sector and often lack any legal and social security. Many workers who work on the fringes of the formal sector now face the prospect of losing rights.

An inhuman decree

These labour law suspensions have come in for strong criticism from labour unions and human rights groups in the country. India’s central trade union (CTU) bodies, which represent labour at the national level, said they are considering approaching the International Labour Organization (ILO) and would call for nationwide protests against the decision.

“CTUs consider these moves as an inhuman crime and brutality on the working people, besides being a gross violation of the Right to Freedom of Association (ILO convention 87), Right to Collective Bargaining (ILO convention 98) and also the internationally accepted norm of an eight-hour working day espoused by core conventions of the ILO,” the unions said in a statement.

They noted that ILO convention 144 relating to tripartism has been undermined by state governments and that others would also implement such “anti-worker and anti-people autocratic measures”. They called on the working class to prepare for country-wide resistance against “these designs of imposing slavery” on workers and employees in the interests of the employer class. “This retrograde, anti-worker move came in the second stage after six state governments have enhanced the daily working hours from eight hours to 12 hours through an executive order in violation of the Factories Act, taking advantage of the lockdown situation,” the statement said.

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The principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, also attacked the BJP for lacking any concern for the poor. They said that the move reflected the motive of Modi’s government to strip the workers of hard-fought protection instituted by previous governments. The party’s spokesperson, Shaktisinh Gohil, said that suspending the labour laws in three BJP-ruled states would turn factories and industrial premises into “forced labour camps”.

According to Gunjan Singh, head of litigation at the Human Rights Law Network, a Delhi-based collective of human rights lawyers and activists, the implications of suspending laws such as the Minimum Wages Act would effectively force labourers into bonded labour. “Indian jurisprudence recognises that pay below minimum wages amounts to a situation of bondage,” she told HuffPost India, asserting that the removal of legal protection has put labourers in “a very precarious” situation. “We have already done a very poor job of the implementation of labour laws, but with this ordinance there is no statutory backing for basic rights,” she added.

Uncertain prospects

India’s estimated 400 million workers, who earn daily wages or are casually employed in construction, small manufacturing, transportation, head loading and agriculture markets, have been badly affected by the loss of wages and jobs due to the lockdown imposed by the government in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. Thousands of migrant labourers have been stuck in various industrial towns or cities without any money or food, while thousands of others have been undertaking perilous walks back home in the absence of public transport.

22 April 2020: Migrant labourers rest in cement pipes in Lucknow, India, during the country’s nationwide lockdown. Many of them were stuck without food or shelter after it was imposed. (Photograph by Reuters/ Pawan Kumar)
22 April 2020: Migrant labourers rest in cement pipes in Lucknow, India, during the country’s nationwide lockdown. Many of them were stuck without food or shelter after it was imposed. (Photograph by Reuters/ Pawan Kumar)

As many as 378 people have died from causes not related to the disease since the lockdown was imposed. Of these, 69 died in rail or road accidents, with 16 workers crushed to death by a goods train while attempting to make their way to a railway station to catch a train home. At least five were killed and 13 injured when the truck in which they were travelling overturned in central Madhya Pradesh.

A recent survey of 11 159 migrant workers by the Stranded Workers Action Network revealed that almost eight out of 10 have not been paid at all during the lockdown. There were several cases of people who were already on the brink of starvation. About 96% had not received rations from the government and 70% had not received any cooked food from any source.

Now, with the lack of any adequate legal safeguards against employer exploitation, many fear that the decision to scrap labour laws is bound to be detrimental to workers, who are among the most vulnerable in Indian society. 

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“In the continuing sordid saga of callousness and brutality with the millions of suddenly unemployed migrant workers over the last six weeks since lockdown, an interesting fact to note is that employers who mostly had stopped paying them over this period, thus causing widespread hunger and homelessness, have lobbied with state governments to stop sending them back to their villages so that they remain available when the industries restart,” writes Pranab Bardhan, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Echoing similar views, academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta underlined that the ordinances being promulgated are unleashing a wholescale assault on labour. And by increasing working hours, the state wants to literally break their bodies, their freedom and their dignity. “By taking away any serious pretence of grievance redressal, the state wants to immobilise all questions of justice. States want to ensure that labour has no bargaining power left,” Mehta said. He added: “What our chief ministers are doing is not reform: it is indolence and authoritarianism masquerading as reform.”

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