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Modi Govt Uses COVID-19 For Savage Attack on Workers

Subodh Varma |
India is likely to become the only country in the world to have an official 12-hour working day.
Modi Govt Uses COVID

Representational Image.

Under the pretext of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the latest reported proposal of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Narendra Modi government betrays a savage intent to squeeze already exploited workers to benefit corporate houses.

A leading national daily quoted two bureaucrats saying that a proposal to enhance the working day from 8 hours (six days a week) to 12 hours (same six hours a week) is under “active consideration”. The two unnamed bureaucrats are reported to be members of one of the eight Empowered Groups set up by the Modi government to deal with the ongoing pandemic. This would make them very senior bureaucrats in the ministries concerned.

This change will require a change in Section 51 of the Factories Act (1948) which stipulates the worldwide standard of an 8-hour working day. The government will have to make this change either through an ordinance or an executive order. Since various Acts, like the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemics Act, have already been invoked, and they provide over-riding powers to the government, pushing through this far-reaching change will be easy for the government.

What the new proposal says is this: instead of eight hours the standard work day will now be 12 hours. Wages will be increased “proportionately”, the report quotes the officials as saying. Presumably, this means that the extra four hours will be paid on the basis of the same rate as the previous eight hours.

This would prima facie contradict another stipulation of the law that over-time work (work done over and above the 8-hour work day) has to be compensated with double the normal rate of wages. But presumably, this part of the law will be taken care of.

It is argued that most workers are unable to come to the workplaces due to restrictions and so, with a smaller workforce, normal production levels will be reached by making this change.

Savage Intent

First, have a look at the real, ruthless intention of this likely change. Suppose a worker gets Rs.100 per hour as hourly wage. In eight hours he/she will earn Rs.800. Under the prevailing law, if he/she has to work for another four hours, over and above the 8-hour standard work day, then payment will have to be at double rate. That means over-time wage payment should be Rs.100 x 2 = Rs.200 per hour. So, for four hours of overtime, he/she will get another Rs.800. Thus on a day when he/she puts in a 12-hour work day, the wage for that day will be Rs.800 (for first 8 hours) + Rs.800 (for 4 hours of overtime = Rs.1,600 total.

But, once the new proposal is notified, this equation changes dramatically. The four hours overtime is scrapped, and the total earning will be: Rs.100 x 12 = Rs1,200 per day.

The worker thus loses Rs.400 per day. Who is the winner in this? Obviously, the owner/employer because he/she saves Rs.400 per worker every day. If there are 2,000 workers in an industrial unit and about 1,000 of them put in four hours of overtime, then the owner saves 1,000 x Rs.400 = Rs. 4 lakh every day. If this overtime goes on for a month, then the owner saves Rs.4 lakh x 26 (working days) = Rs.1.04 crore! And that’s just one owner we are talking about.

The worker doesn’t just lose out on wages. He/she is put under considerable strain as the body burns to put in this much work day after day. This consideration for the well-being of the workers was what had prompted the demand for an eight-hour limit to the working day in the late 19th Century.

After immense sacrifices and valiant struggles, workers in country after country won this precious right to work only eight hours a day, so that their weary bodies could regain strength, they could spend some time with their families, have proper rest and sleep (eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest - was the slogan). With a single stroke of some faceless bureaucrat’s pen, and at the direction of our Prime Minister and his colleagues and advisers, this right is going to be snatched away.

In a statement on Saturday, CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) alleged that the main motive of the government is to help its masters in corporate/employers’ class by relieving their obligation of paying overtime wages and get the extra-working hours by workers free of cost. It says, “The corona situation is being utilized as a bonanza to the corporate/employers’ class and a straight cut in wages/earnings of the workers”.

Part of A Bigger Plan

Perhaps, the skeptical reader may think, this is necessary only because of the current extraordinary crisis, with the country already under lockdown since March 24, thousands of industrial units closed, workers imprisoned in their homes and output at rock bottom levels. If things were normal then maybe such extraordinary measures would not be necessary, it might be thought.

But this idea of increasing the working day has been mooted much before the world was even aware of the coronavirus. Last year itself, the Modi government had prepared and presented to Parliament a set of labour law related Codes that contained this idea. Indeed they paved the way for this increase in working hours.

The Code on Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions, specifically replaced the Factory Act provision of 8-hour working day by stipulating that “appropriate government” may notify such working hours as it wants, among other things. This replaced the existing Section 51 of Factories Act.

Even the new Code on Wages merely retains the definition of a working day as existed in the Minimum Wages Act, which says that the appropriate government should decide the number of hours in a working day.

Other elements of the new Codes – like revamping the calculation of minimum wages, introduction of ‘fixed term’ employment, destruction of workers’ organisations, etc. – complete the picture of the savage dreams of India’s corporate sections, which are so piously being implemented by the Modi government.

In a nutshell, this deliberate destruction of India’s labour law framework is meant to benefit industrialists/owners by increasing the exploitation of workers – and thus increase their profits.

This whole plan has continuously met with strong resistance from the working class, including a historic one-day strike as recently as January 8. But the Modi government has found an opportunity to smuggle it in at a time when people are struggling with the fear of coronavirus, and also facing loss of earnings and jobs. Unemployment has shot up to a staggering 23%. Thousands are facing starvation, while others are surviving on handouts from trade unions and NGOs mainly.

Amidst all this uncertainty and fear, the Modi government has seized the opportunity to push through this proposed change which puts India in the unenviable position of being the only country with a law that stipulates a 12-hour working day. India has been pushed back a hundred years.

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