Led by industry bodies and drawing upon reams of justifications churned out by analysts supporting global capital, a chorus of voices in India has been demanding that labour laws should be changed. The Modi government has proposed a merger of 44 labour laws into four Labour Codes though these are yet to be passed by Parliament. These changes, supposedly being done for ‘ease of doing business’, actually help the industrialists in boosting their bottom lines while worsening the working and living conditions of workers. Despite being committed to these changes, the govt. has been treading cautiously because the BJP doesn’t yet have a majority in the Rajya Sabha and, more importantly, the proposals have sparked off angry country-wide protests, led by all trade unions.
This has led the BJP and the industrialists’ lobby to adopt a different strategy: push the labour law changes in states. Labour laws are in the concurrent list in the Constitution, meaning legislative power is shared by the States and the Centre. In 22 out of 29 states there is a BJP government. All of these states, and some in which other parties are at the helm, have gone ahead with significant changes in labour laws, on the lines dictated by the central govt. Here is a summary of the major amendments in labour laws made in BJP ruled states, which also happen to include the more industrialised states.
Reforms affecting job security.
In Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana, the threshold of the minimum number of workers in a factory required so that an employer is obliged to seek permission from the government to retrench workers, has been increased from 100 to 300. 93% of factories in India have less than 300 workers working in them. Hence, in majority of the factories, it is now very convenient for employers to fire workers.
Ironically enough, Rajasthan has passed an amendment to increase the compensation awarded to workers, in case of their retrenchment. This is meant to be a ‘deal sweetener’, something like a golden handshake. But enforcement of labour law provisions has become so patchy that it is doubtful even this will actually be implemented.
A major blow to workers’ job security has been struck by the central govt. through its recent notification on fixed term employment. This has been smuggled in by amending regulations under the Standing Orders Act, thereby avoiding any legislative scrutiny. What this does is to given employers a free hand to hire and fire workers at will by appointing them only for fixed periods after which their service would automatically stand terminated. This would clearly put the workers in a precarious position as far as their employment is concerned.
Reforms affecting working conditions
In Rajasthan another amendment that has been passed that allows up to 49 workers to be employed through a contractor without a license. This implies that employers can evade labour laws for up to 49 workers employed on contract, in both public and private undertakings. Existing laws grants contract workers the same rights as regular workers, including wages, social security, and other facilities such as a canteen, sitting area, bathroom etc. By allowing unlicensed contractors, the govt. is allowing the principal employer to evade all these laws. This would encourage employers to hire more contract employees and lead to poor service and working conditions for the workers. The amendment to the Factories Act, passed in MP, AP, and Rajasthan, has increased the threshold limit of workers from 10 to 20 (with power) and 20 to 40(without power) for factories act to be applicable. This means that workers will now be deprived of various benefits available under the Act like proper drainage system, ventilation, cleanliness, water facilities, healthcare provisions etc. A large number of workers will now be legally condemned to toil in inhuman conditions.
Reforms affecting democratic rights of workers
In Gujrat, a controversial amendment has been passed, that calls for "out of court settlement” of disputes between workers and the management ostensibly to reduce "endless litigation". This, in effect, would mean that the protective nature of labour laws will be destroyed and employers will insist on taking the option of arriving at an out of court settlement thus ensuring that they neither have to give the workers their due, nor face legal action for not doing so.
Another nail in the coffin offor the democratic rights of the workers, is the amendment passed in Rajasthan, that has increased the minimum percentage of the workers of a factory in a trade union, for it to be registered, from 15% to 30%. Hence it is all the more difficult for workers to now form a union so that they can collectively bargain with their employers over the share of the fruits of their labour, that they are entitled to. Another amendment in the Trade Union Act which has been passed in AP, Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and, Uttarakhand, which allows the concerned government tohe disposeal of the application for the registration of a trade union varying from a period of 15 days to 4 months. While this may look like a reasonable provision, in practice it is a bureaucratic weapon to dismiss the application for registration of a new trade union since often various procedural obstructions are put up when an application is received and workers need some time to comply with all these.
It is clear from the above summary that the loyalties of the BJP government lie not with the large mass of working people but with wealthy employers. Through enacting reforms like those mentioned above, the BJP government has unleashed a reign of terror on the working people of this country, making them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation at the hands of their employers and simultaneously dismantling all legal means of resistance that the workers had. The true nature of "democracy" in our society is becoming clear: it is democracy and freedom for the wealthy and slavery and destitution for the poor.
It must be noted that workers in India have responded to this wave of attacks robustly by mass protests, strikes and other forms of agitation. Ten major central trade unions have jointly organised two successful all India strikes in 2015 and 2016, followed by a massive sit-in (Mmahapadav) at Delhi in 2017. On 5 September 5, 2018, a historic rally of workers and peasants is going to be held in Delhi, highlighting various demands including a reversal of the labour law ‘reform’ strategy of the govt.