Sunday, 19 March 2023 16:09

Talking Point 3 - Scrap the Labour Codes

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One of the chief defining characters of the present political dispensation’s economic governance, inter alia, is its intransient push for rolling-out the labour reforms in India. The BJP government, immediately after assuming power at the Centre, embarked upon labour law codifications exercise, a euphemism for corporate unbridled process of profit maximisation at the cost of labour, so as to overhaul the entire gamut of capital-labour relations to the tune of neo-liberal regime. It is well acknowledged that super-profiteering by capital is dependent on the flexibility that exists within labour relations. Such flexibility has been made more ruthless by the so called labour reforms. The origin of the neo-liberal assault on labour rights can be seen in the recommendations of the second national labour commission (2002) during the NDA’s first spell under Vajpayee.

The BJP government, immediately after assuming power for the second time under Modi in May 2019, with absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, started to legalise more aggressively all their attacks on whatever labour rights that exist in our labour laws. While the Code on wages was passed in Parliament in 2019, the other three codes were passed in September 2020 without any debate when the entire opposition was absent as it boycotted Parliament over the notorious farm Bills.  

The overhauling of the 29 existing labour laws into four labour codes – the Code on Wages, the Industrial Relations Code, the Code on Social Security and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code- is aimed at substantially eliminating all their protective components in terms of rights, wages, social security, health and safety and welfare benefits. They are part of the neoliberal regime that seeks to change the entire gamut of capital labour relations and push out even major sections of workers in the organised sector, not to speak of the unorganised sector workers, from coverage by most labour laws. It is part of the neoliberal regime.

The Code on Wages, 2019;

The Code on Wages subsumes four wages/ bonus related Acts that existed till then. But in reality, what it does is selectively incorporate some of the provisions while diluting or removing many to the advantage of the employers. It does not incorporate the basis for fixing minimum wage, recommended by the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC), way back in 1957 and reinforced by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the Raptakos and Brett case in 1992. This formula was reiterated again and again in the 44th ILC (2012), the 45th ILC (2013) and the 46th ILC (2015), the last being the only ILC held under the Modi regime. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour also recommended incorporating this unanimous recommendation of the ILCs.

After the Bill was passed in Parliament, the Draft Rules were notified in November 2019, seeking comments. The formula for fixing minimum wage was included in the Draft Rules. The trade unions gave their detailed comments on that. But, strangely, instead of finalising and notifying the Rules, the BJP government has again notified the Rules in July 2020. Till today, the government has not notified the final Rules. Is the inordinate delay in notifying the Wage Code Rules due to the pressure of the employers, to remove even the reference to the formula from the Rules? The workers are genuinely apprehensive of the BJP government’s intentions, given its history of going to any extent to serve its corporate masters.

The fixation of minimum wage, calculation of bonus and their prompt payments without any delay/denial along with ensuring the payments of wages/remunerations and other payments like overtime allowances/incentives and other payments incidental to wages are supposed to be the main focus of this Code. But, everything has been diluted here.

The Occupational Safety, Health and working Conditions Code, 2020

It seeks to amalgamate and subsume thirteen enactments related to factories, mines, dock workers, building and other construction workers, plantation workers, contract labour, inter-state migrant workers, working journalists and other news paper employees, motor transport workers, sales promotion employees, beedi and cigar workers, cine workers and cinema theatre workers.

All basic worker-related aspects of the 13 laws,are going to be repealed by the OSHWC, pertaining to working conditions, principal employers’ obligations in case of contract work, clear-cut definition of wage, basic components and details of occupational safety and health as available in the parent laws, tripartite implementation mechanism etc and above all enforcement - everything has been diluted and/or grossly altered only and only to the advantage of their masters -the capitalists - in their mad drive to ensure ‘ease of doing business’. Through this enactment, violation and loot on workers by the employers are being sought to be legitimised.

One thing needs to be noted in particular. The sector specific Acts, which have been repealed dealt with working conditions, employment relations, safety and other related matters taking into account the sector specific work patterns, processes,  problems and issues. This was the case in Acts related to construction, beedi and cigar, mines, and docks workers, working journalists, sales promotion employees, motor transport workers etc. This ensured some protection to the concerned workers. Repealing all these, the OSH Code seeks to define working conditions of all in the same ‘one model fits all’ manner. As a result, most of the workers in the unorganised sector, as in beedi and cigar, construction, motor transport, and major sections of working journalists, migrant workers, contract workers will be the worst to suffer as their working conditions will be subject to arbitrary interpretation by the employers with a helping hand from the ‘appropriate government’.

The Industrial Relations Code, 2020:

The Industrial Disputes (ID) Act deals with the basic rights of the workers to organise themselves in trade unions, collectively agitate and act against exploitation and intrusions on their basic rights and also the right to grievance-redressal. All these basic rights are sought to be totally curbed in the IR Code. Gross changes are sought to be made in the character of the employment relations by introducing temporary and fragile work relations through fixed term employment, contract work etc in the name of flexibility. Once this is achieved, employers and their representative governments need not bother at all, even if some rights and facilities for the workers remain on paper. They can rest assured that these will remain only on paper so long as workers in fragile and precarious employment relations devoid of the right to organise, the right to collectively bargain and act will be in no position to get them implemented. With the Damocles’ sword of losing jobs and income hanging above their heads, the employers feel reassured that workers will not dare to form unions and fight for the implementation of these rights. Without such rights and initiative from the workers and a supportive government and pliant administration on their side, they feel they will be under no threat or challenge to their unbridled exploitation of workers. 

It legally arms the capitalist class with comprehensive instruments to suppress the workers’ right to strike, drastically curb workers’ rights to fight for their demands, make it almost impossible for them to get organised into trade unions. It is nothing but a direct affront on the workers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining – provided by the core Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). It is nothing but a blatant attempt by this government to ensure a “trade union-free work place” for its corporate masters. In addition, the employers’ liberty to hire and fire has been well assured in the Code. That is the core element of neo-liberal trajectory that BJP government sincerely adopted and implemented through this piece legislation.

The Code on Social Security, 2020:

In fact, in the Code on social security, existing legally prevalent social security rights and provisions for a large sections of workers in the industries like beedi, iron ore mines, mica mines, limestone and dolomite mines are thrown to total uncertainty, practically to oblivion by the government’s own act of abolishing all the related provisions of cess collection. Nothing has been proposed to them in this code. The unorganised workers are left in lurch without any government commitment for fund allocation so as to address the minimum social security measures.

Thus the Code on Social Security, under the deceptive claim of rationalising the existing social security schemes including EPF and ESI, has actually laid the foundation of the process of dismantling this time tested social security schemes by open endedly empowering the central government to reduce the rate of contribution, change the existing EPF scheme (obviously to benefit the employers’ class), exempt any establishment from the EPF schemes and provisions and finally allowing any establishment to exit from the EPF obligations altogether. The Code created the enabling arrangements for self-elimination by empowering the government to demolish the EPF scheme altogether at appropriate time as their corporate masters desire.

On gratuity, the unanimous demands of the entire trade union movement are being continuously ignored by the government and the same is reflected in this Code also. Gratuity is a retirement benefit after long years of service and there should not be any restriction /ceiling either on entitlement, eligibility and calculation. But that just demand is not taken into consideration in the Code.

Labour Codes betrayed the Scheme Workers.

All persons employed in any trade or industry is eligible to register trade unions including unorganized workers. This requirement for registration, ostensibly, similar to that was under the Trade Unions Act, 1926. But the more than one crore-strong militant Schemes workers like Anganwadi workers are left out of this definition in the Industrial Relations Code which subsumed the Trade Unions Act, though they all were recognized as ‘workers’ in the 43rd Indian Labour Conference. Therefore, they do not fall under the ambit of Industrial Relations Code leave alone the rest of three codes.

Thus 29 existing labour laws have been repealed and replaced by these four labour codes. With all their limitations and shortcomings, all these 29 Acts were intended to regulate the workplace from unhindered exploitation by the employers and to provide some rights and benefits to the workers. Once the labour ministry of central government finally notify the Rules, these 29 labour laws would no more exist.

The entire codification exercise is full of stipulations like “as may be specified / as may be prescribed/ may be framed”, in respect of almost all substantive provisions of the Codes for any change to be made in future in the provisions of working hours, safety and health and criteria/norms for minimum wage, entitlement, contributions and benefits and also on the aspects remaining undefined in these Codes. Any future change in many substantive provisions of the Act can be made through executive decision by-passing Parliament and also by-passing all the stakeholders, the workers and their unions in particular.

All these Codes and enactments are thus aimed at institutionalising virtual conditions of slavery on the workers and to facilitate the project of the ruling class and their pet government to eliminate almost all statutory entitlements of working people for defined working conditions, minimum wage, working hours and social security along with right to organise, right to collective bargaining and right to strike etc both directly and circumstantially.  Along with these, the very provisions of inspection, which is the lifeline of implementation of the labour laws, have been practically done away with.

That is why the entire trade union movement is strongly opposing these labour codes and demanding scrapping of these. The organisations of the peasants and agricultural workers, and all sections of progressive people are extending their support to this demand. This is one of the major demands of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally on 5th April 2023.

Let us all, from every village and every workplace join the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally and intensify our united struggles against the labour codes and force the Modi government to reverse its anti worker anti people neoliberal policy regime. As the peasants, with the support of the workers have done in the case of the farm laws.

Read 2610 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 March 2023 05:04