The working class in India is facing a lethal crisis that promises to push their lives back a century, and turn them into modern day slaves. As Newsclick had warned earlier, a savage attack is being unleashed on the workers through wholesale changes in protective laws, patronised and sanctioned by the Narendra Modi-led Central government, and implemented by diverse state governments, mainly ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Thursday, it was reported that the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh government had passed an ordinance to keep all labour laws in abeyance, barring four. Another BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, formed by a coup d’etat recently, has exempted new businesses from labour laws for a thousand days.
These legislative changes follow the extension of working days to 12-hours in five states, three of them BJP-led while two are Congress-run.
This is happening at a time when workers and employees across the country have already been pushed to the brink by the ongoing lockdown that started about 40 days ago. Unemployment is at a staggering 27%, according to Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy or CMIE’s latest estimates, wages have been denied to lakhs of employed workers despite government advisories to the contrary, and millions of small businesses are closed, perhaps permanently.
As if this mountain of misery was not enough, death continues to stalk hapless migrant workers with over 15 of them mowed down by a train as they fell asleep with exhaustion after walking 65 kilometers in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, while many poor villagers and workers died in a chemical gas leak from a polymer factory in Visakhapatanam, Andhra Pradesh, which was reopening after the lockdown.
What Does Exemption From Labour Laws Mean?
Of all the possible measures a government could undertake to revive the economy and boost productive activity, why this single-minded focus on labour laws? Will it really help in increasing employment and production?
Have a look at the reported changes in UP: only laws related to bonded labourers, construction workers, and for compensation for injuries or death will be exempted, as also Section 5 of the Payment of Wages, which says that wages should be paid by the seventh day of the next month. This means that all other laws about working hours, shifts, wage scales, overtime, benefits of diverse kinds (like a canteen) are no longer applicable. Also, industrial disputes will be kept in abeyance, enabling employers to, say, hire and fire at will. And, finally, trade union rights, collective bargaining and the right to protest will be gone.
This is the kind of situation that existed last in the 18th and 19th Centuries in the capitalist world, and has since existed as fantasies of the corporate class.
But, why this obsession with labour laws? The answer is that this is the only way corporate profits can be kept afloat in conditions where demand has virtually disappeared due to the lockdown.
Although the chief secretary of UP was quoted as saying that these measures are being taken to deal with influx of migrant labour and need to maintain employment, the reasoning is faulty, if not delusional.
“Unless there is demand for products, no amount of tinkering with labour laws will help. Who will buy the products?” asks Surajit Mazumdar, economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
“The only way to increase employment – and revive the economy – is to increase public expenditure in a big way. The private sector cannot do this. And in any case, the segment covered by labour laws is only a fraction of the economy. So, these changes in labour laws will have no impact on employment,” he added.
In fact, it is possible that these changes will lead to increased anger and discontent among workers, and production will suffer as a result. The increase in work day to 12 hours is a measure to achieve the same production levels with fewer workers. So, there is no question of any employment increase!
These muddled policies are all a fig leaf for the real intention of labour law changes – which is to boost corporate profits that are flagging in the current tailspin, Mazumdar argues.
The recent changes in labour laws must be seen in the context of the BJP government’s overall approach to labour or the working people in general. Since last year, the Modi government has been pushing for labour law changes. It proposed four Codes to replace 44 separate laws and in the process diluted all of them, providing for immense power of the government to notify changes on any aspect, including wages, working hours, dispute resolution and trade union formation. Two of these Codes are already cleared and the other two are in the pipeline.
The Modi government has also been launching an economic attack by refusing to increase minimum wages. Trade unions have been demanding Rs.18,000 as a minimum level, based on a well-known and accepted formula. The government has refused to even talk about it, while groping around with other fixes, like setting up a committee (then rejecting its recommendations). Unable to contain unemployment, the Modi government has contributed to keeping wage levels low by having such a large army of unemployed at the factory gates.
“The problem in India is that wages are too low. Real wages have declined over the past 25 years, according to the Annual Survey of Industries data. This prevents demand from growing and keeps the economy in perpetual crisis. Labour law relaxation can never increase wages – it is ludicrous to think so,” Mazumdar says.
As part of this hostile vision towards labour – something that has its roots in the RSS or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology – the Modi government has been chafing at the reins to remove all protection for this class. It has found a golden opportunity in the current pandemic, or rather in the sudden lockdown that it imposed in such an ill-thought out manner. It is using it to push through all that was otherwise difficult in normal times. For the corporate class in India, yesterday’s dreams are today’s reality. For the working people, it’s a nightmare come true.