The collective gathering of hundreds of workers employed in different sectors to protest against the Modi government’s recent move to amalgamate the 44 existing labour laws into four different categories related to occupational safety, wages, health and work conditions, social security and welfare and industrial relations has really compelled us rethink such a move.
The workers who collectively staged the protest against the government’s move had gathered at Delhi’s Parliament Street on Friday.
This protest of the workers had been called collectively by ten central trade unions. The trade union known to be associated with the RSS called the Bhartiye Mazdoor Sangh did not take part in the protest.
The government has claimed that the new codes will allow for the simplification and rationalisation of the laws and make it easy for them to be implemented and complied with.
However the trade unions feel that there is an overarching bias in the codes towards the employers rather than the workers.
The new codes seek to widen the legislative ambit of the labour laws and bring into its fold workers across sectors(presently only those sectors which are listed in the scheduled employment list are included within the purview of the law).
The codes also seek to reduce the multiplicity of definitions regarding litigation and make the system more standardised and uniform.
The trade unions that took part in the protest have pointed at the many problems with the Code on Wages Bill and have said that it has excluded apprentices from being defined as employees while according to the present laws they are considered as employees. Moreover what is also important is that the trade unions have warned that the revision of the minimum wages(which in India is amongst the lowest in the world) has completely been left to the committees instead of being according to the Supreme Court’s judgement.
The unions had demanded that the decision on minimum wages be revised, but their demand was not taken up seriously. The bill also states that the amount given to workers as wages cannot be revised before a period of five years.
The trade unions also allege that the new codes will expose workers to ready exploitation and will render their own authority toothless. It will delay justice and prosecution.
Moreover if an employer does not comply with the existing laws such as Payment of Wages Act,1936, Minimum Wages Act,1948 and the Equal Remuneration Act,1976, he/she is exempted from imprisonment at least in the first case of violation.
Earlier such an employer would face either imprisonment or be compelled to pay a heavy fine even in the first instance of non-compliance.
Moreover, the new codes will allow employers to compel workers to work beyond fixed working hours because they could now easily misuse Section 13(2) of the bill which allows exceptions to the mandatory 8-hour work day citing cases of emergency, intermittent work or preparatory/complementary work.
The unions have alleged that these changes are all favourable to employers and have do little to do to improve the pathological condition of Indian workers.
They allege that giving topmost priority to creating a ruthless and employer centred business culture is likely to only dehumanise work spaces and tamper with workers’ rights.
The 44 labour laws that were in place had emerged out of a long and sustained history of labour union struggle and the sustained efforts of workers of all sectors.
The labour laws took into consideration that the demands of different sectors are diverse and took into account these specificities- however they fear that the new legislation is not capable of governing over such a wide variety of occupations.
The protests taking place in different corners of the country reminds us of the disillusionment of a large section of workers with the present regime’s decision on altering the existing labour laws, it will remain to be seen if the government complies with some of the demands made by the trade unions or whether it continues the implementation of labour laws that workers allege are unfair and hold a pro-employer bias while tampering necessary workers’ rights.