October 04, 2020

Enslaving Labour

THE three labour laws passed in Parliament at the fag end of the truncated monsoon session constitute a grave assault on the working class of the country.  The Industrial Relations Code, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code and the Social Security Code, along with the Code on Wages adopted last year, were ostensibly meant to simplify and modernise the host of laws related to labour.  However, the entire exercise was aimed at fulfilling a vital element of the neoliberal reforms, which is to usher in a regime of hire and fire, labour flexibility and removal of all protections which hamper the drive for profit maximisation by capitalists.

The new labour laws have undermined the limited rights and protection provided to the workers in the existing labour laws.  The applicability of labour laws to the size of factories has been revised in such a way as to remove a bulk of the industrial establishments outside their purview.  Earlier, factories using electricity and employing more than 10 workers, or, 20 workers without electricity were subject to labour laws.  Now these limits have been increased to 20 and 40 workers respectively.

At one stroke, the Industrial Relations Code has brought 70 per cent of industrial establishments and 74 per cent of industrial workers under the hire and fire regime.  Earlier, factories with 100 workers and above were required to take permission from the state government for layoffs and retrenchment of workers.  That threshold has been now increased to factories having 300 workers. Moreover, the government is empowered to raise it further through notification. Factories with below 300 workers do not require standing orders which is a legally binding document on terms and conditions of service.

These enactments are seriously flawed as they provide for the executive to over-ride them or frame rules to dilute the original provisions. For instance, it is stated in the Code on Industrial Relations that the appropriate government may “in public interest” exempt any new industrial establishment from the provisions of this code. A preview of this draconian provision was seen when the Madhya Pradesh BJP state government issued a notification, during the pandemic, suspending labour law provisions for industries newly established in the state. The delegated legislative powers to the states will lead to a race to the bottom as far as dilution of labour protection laws are concerned.

The new labour laws promote informalisation, contractualisation and casualisation of labour. A new form of short term work through fixed term employment has been introduced. This is supposed to cater to seasonal work but there is no limit to the renewal of such fixed term employment which will make it a regular form of work without providing any social security benefits.  The earlier version of the bill had made the contract clauses applicable to establishments which employed at least 20 contract workers; that limit has been raised to 50 workers in the bill which was adopted.  By this, two-thirds of the industrial establishments are outside the purview of the contract law.

There is no serious effort to address safety and working conditions of workers.  It may be noted that during the Covid-19 pandemic period itself, there have been 30 industrial accidents which have killed 75 workers and injured hundreds. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions  Code – which deals with safety standards and maximum work hours – exempts small establishments from its purview.  Further, the specification of safety standards and the threshold of application of various social security schemes are either to be prescribed through rules, or, delegated to state governments. 

The right to organise and unionise is also circumscribed by the Industrial Relations Code.  There is no criteria for recognition of unions; the longstanding demand for secret ballot for recognition of unions has been ignored and the process of collective bargaining has not been specified.  The absence of standing orders will mean there will be no homogeneous working conditions within an organisation and the bulk of workers will be contract or fixed term workers. This will create difficulties for trade unions to function.

A more serious attack is the virtual prohibition on the right to strike. It is stated in the Industrial Relations Code that a notice to strike has to be given 14 days before (at the same time, it is also stated that strike notice must be given 60 days before). This will automatically kick in conciliation proceedings during which period no strike is permitted.  After conciliation proceedings are over, the strike can take place only after seven days. There is another provision that during adjudication proceedings for three months, there can be no strike.  Workers in essential services have to give a notice of six weeks for a strike.

From this confusing welter of clauses, what emerges is that workers cannot go on strike for months after giving notice till the protracted phase of conciliation/adjudication takes place.
The Modi government has rammed through these three anti-worker bills by muzzling parliament during the pandemic period. The three bills introduced in this session were different from those which were introduced in parliament in 2019 and that had gone through the standing committee.  New provisions were added such as the increase in the threshold limit of 300 workers in a factory for prior permission for layoffs and retrenchments. Such far-reaching bills have been adopted without the bills being scrutinised by the standing committee and a farcical discussion in which the opposition was absent. 

These legislations constitute a class attack and expose the reality of new India – a regime fully at the service of big capitalists and international finance capital.  These measures attuned to neoliberalism have reversed the rights and protections won by workers over decades of struggle.

The labour legislations, along with the three farm related laws, constitute a vicious attack on workers and peasants.  The working class is gearing up to fight this ferocious attack with a united and sustained resistance. The calls for protests by the central trade unions met with a good response and is only the beginning. The situation also calls for building a powerful worker-peasant unity against the twin onslaughts.  The widest unity of the Left and democratic forces can be forged by intensifying and expanding the struggles of the workers and peasants.

(September 30, 2020)