Reports that mention an impending policy change by the Centre to tide over the country’s labour markets, due to disruptions triggered by the lockdown due to COVID-19, have invited doubts from academics and central trade unions. Experts cite deficiencies in formulation and the execution of such moves, owing to the fidelity of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government to a neo-liberal agenda.
It is to be mentioned that media reports are fanning such concerns, with both labour experts and union leaders feeling “sidelined”. They have alleged that all stakeholders are not being taken into confidence while such policies are framed.
The nationwide lockdown, announced on March 24 with less than a four-hour notice period, hit hard an already struggling economy. The 500 million workforce was not spared its ill-effects – which, as seen by now, took most of the brunt of the decision in the form of job losses and wage cuts. It forced migrants, the more vulnerable among them, to make a desperate dash for their homes.
The unemployment rate in India has risen from 8.8% in March, to a whopping 24% during the lockdown, according to numbers released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
With the risk of infection due to the novel coronavirus still in the air, the economy staggered back into action after a two-and-a-half month halt. The centre is now looking to re-employ the migrant workers to meet the labour shortage.
To do this, an eight-member group of ministers was formed under the chairmanship of Thawar Chand Gehlot, the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment. In a meeting on June 15, PM Modi asked the group to focus on employment generation and skill development for migrant labourers, according to a report in The Economic Times.
A National Employment Policy (NEP), also in the pipeline, will reportedly aim to formalise the country’s workforce, including migrants, to ensure they have job and social security.
The Centre, according to the above reports, is attempting to attract new enterprises through incentives, while considering a centralised scheme to enable social security for the migrant workers, who will be identified under various skill development programmes.
Admitting that while such policies “sound good”, Tapan Sen, General Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that “these are nothing but a public relations exercise.”
“While the government speaks of providing social security, it annuls the central labour laws, taking away the existing protection,” Sen said. “The demolition of all the bottom lines – through increasing contractualisation – at the grass root level, has rendered all the employment relations to become so fragile that it has become very difficult for the workers to assert their rights,” he explained.
Sen cited the Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979, which seeks to protect the migrant workers, and has provisions for the registration of workers. Had the law been properly implemented, the migrants’ exodus could have been averted, he said.
The law is set to be subsumed by the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Condition Code Bill, which is pending in Parliament. However, it is silent on several provisions, including equal pay for equal work. In a report in February this year, a parliamentary standing committee had recommended the labour ministry to include an exclusive chapter on migrant workers, rather than a few provisions.
“We are not opposed to the skilling of the workers. However, the current schemes only prove beneficial to the employers, who see the trainees as nothing but ‘cheap labour’,” said Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Kaur cited the Apprentices Act, 1961, the rules under which were eased twice by the Modi administration to benefit industries.
She further complained of the “outcasting” of trade unions from decision-making processes in matters related to labour. To this date, the labour ministry has only conducted one meeting, on May 6, with the central trade unions. “It is criminal neglect; it speaks of the intentions of the government which is nothing but to pacify corporates,” she added.
The Indian labour market has predominantly been informal, owing to the chosen path of development, said Jayan Jose Thomas, a professor of Economics at IIT Delhi. “If we speak only about the manufacturing sector, out of the 60 million workers employed, as many as 48 million were with informal enterprises,” he said, citing the Periodic Labour Force Survey of 2017-18.
K.R. Shyam Sundar, Professor of labour studies at XLRI, Jamshedpur, said that the outbreak of COVID-19 “exposed the vulnerabilities” of the Indian economy, which is marked with “dominant informality and decreasing jobs.”
“At least ten states have brought threshold changing reforms in the labour laws since 2014, which resulted in putting formal enterprises out of the purview of regulating authorities,” he said, adding that this is contrary to what is needed, which is “universal legal coverage.”
To address the current disruption in the labour market, Sundar suggested that the Centre aim for a “golden marriage between economic, employment and labour welfare policies.”
A mere focus on the quantity of jobs will not do much, as long as policies do not focus on the quality and enhancement of jobs through temporal frameworks, he added.