Labour Law Reform: Was a Sledgehammer Needed When Employment Itself Is Uncertain?

While most of the laws may not be strictly enforced, does that justify doing away with them completely?

In the last week, several important labour laws, meant to safeguard the welfare of the workers and ensure industrial safety, have been “suspended” for a few years in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Although the orders put out by each state government have their own tweaks and variations, these decisions collectively come with far-reaching implications. One hopes the Union labour ministry and the Centre are aware of what is at stake here.

From news reports, it appears that the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020 has suspended the operation of the following labour laws:

1) Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979,
2) Factories Act, 1948 (amended post-Bhopal accident),
3) Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952,
4) Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972,
5) Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970,

While most of these laws are not being strictly enforced by the states, this does not mean the laws should be rendered inoperative.

For example, had the Centre and the states strictly enforced the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, the human rights violations that we have witnessed over the last three weeks as a result of the ill-planned lockdown and an equally ill-planned lockdown relaxations, would not have taken place.

Also read: Neyveli: Eight Workers Injured in Boiler Explosion at NLC Thermal Plant

The heart-rending scenes of migrant workers trudging along from the places where they were dis-employed abruptly to their far off home destinations and the indignities suffered by them as seen throughout the country, have eroded the credibility of governance in the country. At such a crucial time, to suspend the very same laws that exist to protect the migrant workers’ interests, raises serious questions on the motives underlying such a decision.

Coming to the Factories Act, after the Bhopal accident, a number of far reaching changes were introduced in the Act to ensure the welfare of the workers, their safety and the safety of the people living in the vicinity of an industrial unit processing hazardous substances.

Only the other day, some of us residing at Visakhapatnam experienced a disaster in the form of a toxic gas leak at LG Polymers unit that resulted in several people losing their lives and hundreds of others experiencing major health impacts including the severely lowering of body immunity and increasing exposure to carcinogenic substances like styrene.

Also read: Vizag Gas Leak: LG Polymers Operated Without Appropriate Environment Clearance

Toxic contaminants have polluted the major water reservoirs that feed the city and damaged the environment. Had the amended Factories Act been enforced strictly, perhaps such a disaster could have been avoided.

Is it not imprudent on the part of the three States to choose this very moment to suspend the progressive portions of the Factories Act? If a disaster similar to the Vizag accident were to take place in those States, who would assume responsibility?

It is a well known fact that most state governments are increasingly resorting to “outsourcing” of essential services to contractors, who in turn would employ workers to deliver those services. Most sanitation workers in India, the majority of whom are Dalits, are carrying out their duties without being paid minimum wages, without being paid any wages at all on time, without adequate protective equipment and in turn are exposed to various dangers.

Had state governments wholeheartedly enforced the provisions of the Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, such a sad situation would not have arisen. To suspend a legislation that is in place to protect the rights of the contract workers would imply worsening their condition further.

The Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 and the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 are important laws that provide social security cover for the workers. Both the Centre and the States are to be found fault for not registering the names of the workers and for not ensuring that they get the intended social security cover. Once again, that does not mean that the two laws should be rendered dysfunctional.

There is a much larger issue that needs to be addressed in regard to the anxiety displayed these days by both the Centre and the States to resort to such questionable means in the guise of “ease of doing business”.

Should “ease of doing business” imply human rights violations that de-humanise the society? Should it lead to diluting the labour laws, thereby eroding industrial safety and eroding the safety of the workers? Should “ease of doing business” imply allowing polluting industrial units to flourish and damage the health of the people? Both the Centre and the States need to answer these questions.

India is a signatory to several international conventions that safeguard the interests of the workers and conserving the environment. Should we commit a breach of those conventions in the guise of “ease of doing business”? Should we encourage businesses that cut at the root of the basic values of the constitution?

Also read: Rajasthan: No Free Ride for Migrant Workers, Govt Charges Rs 675 Per Person

The labour laws referred above have evolved over the decades, as the offshoots of the Indian constitution, driven by the progressive ideas introduced by those who were instrumental in drafting it.

For example, Article 43 says:

“The State shall endeavour to secure, by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way, to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities.”

Should workers be left to the whims and fancies of their employers in the matter of payment of minimum wages, working environment and security of employment? No doubt, the business houses are known to fund the political parties. Should that mean that they can dictate the policies of the government?

Every new disaster, every new calamity and every new situation, has taught us to improve upon the existing laws and make them more progressive. Should the Centre and the States cast aside this approach to accommodate the limited, often people-unfriendly demands of the business enterprises?

If the Centre chooses not to intervene in the case of the sweeping changes being brought about in UP, MP and Gujarat, many more States will follow suit and they will soon pave the way for more Bhopals, more Vizag-like disasters and more humanitarian crises like the one we are witnessing in the case of the unfortunate migrants.

Note: A version of this article was sent by the author in the form of a letter to various departments and officials within the Narendra Modi government.

E. A. S. Sarma is former secretary to the government of India.