The Uttar Pradesh government passed an Ordinance recently, that exempts most business from the ambit of most of the labour laws applicable in the country for the next three years. The only Acts that still apply in Uttar Pradesh are the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, Bonded Labour Act, 1976, and Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1933. These Acts still apply to the entire state, which in turn means that the other, 40 plus, state and national laws no longer apply to the State. Soon after this relaxation by Uttar Pradesh, similar exemptions were followed by Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The argument for the relaxation of the labour laws is to help restart the economy, create employment in the long run, attract investment and to ensure flexibility in the labour market.
These exemptions have, however, have been highly criticized, and rightly so, by many as a violation of the basic rights available to the labourers, as a method for their exploitation and harassment by the factory managers. Madhya Pradesh, for instance allows industries to be operated without most of the provisions of the Factories Act, which in fact extends working hours of the industrial workers to twelve hours from the usual eight and a large seventy-two hours, per week. Further, the changes will allow factories and industries to operate without following any safety and health norms and instead keep labourers in service as per convenience. These exemptions will lead to slave like conditions and is a violation of basic human and fundamental rights. At a time where lockdown measures have already adversely hit the informal workers and have worsened poverty and susceptibility, the workers are the most vulnerable and would be willing to work at any cost, under any conditions. This leaves them at a higher risk of being exploited easily.
India has ratified a total of six conventions of the eight main International Labour Organization Conventions. These include the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100), Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). Now to check if the exemptions are in violation of these international conventions, it is necessary to check which labour laws have been exempted by all the States or even one State, which could give a chance for the exemptions to be legally challenged.
In Accordance to the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020 only three Acts and a section of a fourth Act apply for a time period of three years and the other 35 laws that generally regulate the labour sector of the State will be suspended. Hence, major Acts such as the Factories Act, 1948, Minimum Wages Act, 1948, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, Payment of Wages Act, 1936 (with the exception of Section 5) and such will not be in force. The exclusion of these acts would be a direct violation of the International Laws since India has ratified them and is also against basic human rights. Under the Ordinance, workers cannot organise themselves into Trade Unions, and hence, will not be able to fight for their rights due to the lack of bargaining power. All regulations that relate to contractual workers also do not exist anymore and they can be hired and fired at will. The Factories Act was enacted with the main objective of protecting that workmen that are employed in factories, against occupational hazards and provides for their health, safety and welfare. The exclusion of this Law puts the workers at high risk, since the factory managers are not mandated to follow any safety regulations and can ask for their service at their convenience. The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976 has also been suspended in accordance to the Ordinance, this in itself is form of discrimination and a violation of fundamental rights. The suspension of the Minimum Wages Act will also make labourers extremely vulnerable and could lead to modern day slavery. Although Uttar Pradesh's Chief Secretary claims that women, and children will continue to be protected by keeping the laws relating to them intact, the ordinance says otherwise.
The Madhya Pradesh government has made amendments in major acts including the Industrial Disputes Act and Factories Act. In effect, these changes reduce the paperwork for companies/factories and help them recover quickly from the pandemic crisis. As per these changes, registrations and licenses will be issued in a day (earlier- thirty days) and license renewals will be for ten years instead of one. The industrial hours will be extended forcing the workers to work longer hours. Factory owners will be able to change shifts as per their convenience and no factory inspections will take place for three months. Third part inspections will also be allowed, and only a single register needs to be maintained. This in essential gives factory owners and managers a free rule and allows them to use the services of the workers as per their requirement leaving the workers vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. In addition to that, the proposed amendments will allow companies to not follow safety standards with respect to health and working conditions of employees. They will not be mandated to follow laws of cleanliness, waste disposal, ventilation, lighting, drinking water, urinals, canteens, restrooms, creches, working hours, wages and such, which are part of basic human rights.
Following the steps of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat also exempted projects from the purview of all but three labour laws. The laws that apply include payment of minimum wages, following safety norms and adequate compensation for workers in case of accidents. No other labour laws are applicable for at least 1200 days. Although, these three laws do protect basic rights of workers, there are a fair share of other rights that are being violated through the exemption of all other labour laws in the State. Equal remuneration, fair working hours, women and children centric laws are exempted, also violating the International Labour Organisation conventions.
Through these changes, it is clear that workers will have to work in deplorable conditions, possibly for less than minimum wage and will not be able to raise their voice against it allowing companies to do as they wish. It seems to be an opportunity to empower industries while also taking away the rights of the workers through a back door. It is not only a violation of human rights but is also in contradiction to the Conventions that India is party to and has ratified. In a crisis situation such as the pandemic, as is today, it is the duty of the government to protect its workers. However, the government seems to be acting as the devil by taking away their absolute basic rights. Several studies have shown the deteriorating conditions of workers in the informal sectors, The British Council Report of 2017, also recorded at least forty-eight thousand worker deaths due to work related accidents in India. At a time, where thousands of migrant workers have been rendered jobless and are going back to their hometowns without any basic resources, taking away labour laws seems to be a low blow, one that clearly paves way for modern day slavery and must not be promoted.
Views Are Personal Only
(The author is studying BA LLB course in OP Jindal Global University,Batch of 2019)