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The Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved the Code on Occupational, Safety, Health and Working Conditions Bill, 2019 (OSH Code) which seeks to merge 13 central labour laws into a single code.
This is the second major labour reform bill that has been approved by the Modi government after it cleared the Code on Wage Bill last week which aims to replace the existing laws relating to workers’ remuneration and enables the Centre to fix minimum wages for the entire country.
Both the bills will be presented during the current session of Parliament, with Code on Wage Bill ready to be introduced in Parliament in “two or three days”, according to Labour and Employment Minister of State (Independent Charge) Santosh Kumar Gangwar, reported The Hindu.
At this juncture, when the bureaucrats of Modi government 2.0 are pushing for the passage of two out of the four labour codes – that aim to amalgamate 44 labour laws – in the June-July session of Parliament, it becomes imperative to assess the vicissitudes that these codes will cause upon the India’s industrial environment.
The Code on Wage Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2017 by the previous Modi government which sparked off angry country-wide protests, led by all trade unions. The bill, however, lapsed after the 16th Lok Sabha was dissolved in May 2019.
On July 3, the Union Cabinet of the re-elected Modi government approved the Code on Wage Bill, which seeks to replace the Payment of Wages Act, 1936; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965; and the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.
NewsClick has earlier reported on how the code makes a mockery of the idea of a ‘national minimum wage’ by providing for different national minimum wages to be fixed for different states – instead of providing for a uniform national minimum wage for the entire country.
Currently, in the public sector sphere, there are mainly three systems of calculating wages in India. For government employees at the Centre and the state, the wages are calculated through the recommendations given by the Pay Commission – an administrative mechanism whose panel comprises of members of the Union Cabinet of India. The wages of the employees in most of the public sector units are revised through bi-partite agreements between the representatives of the management and the workers. The excluded are the piece-rate workers, employed in different sectors, for whom, a demand was raised of a ‘national minimum wage’ by various trade unions in the past.
Though the wage code does propose a ‘national minimum wage’ – an argument being used repeatedly by the proponents of the bill – it is rendered meaningless for the workers as the sections of the bill allow for different ‘national minimum wage’ for different states or different geographical areas.
According to a document critiquing the bill which was released by Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), “the whole concept of ‘National Minimum Wage’ is a deceptive ploy to mislead the people.”
Newsclick spoke to Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) to understand the implication of such provisions on the industry. She said that the wage code amalgamates everything and leaves questions unanswered on the future roles of pay commissions and bi-partite settlements. Even the formula for fixing the minimum wage that was recommended by the 46th Indian Labour Conference in 2015 was ignored by the government.
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“The whole exercise of codification,” she said, “is supposed to simplify the process, but what the proposed codes seem to achieve is the exact opposite.”
Reiterating similar emotions, a historic two day general strike was observed on January 8 and 9 this year – a third country-wide strike during Modi government 1.0 – which was supported by all central trade unions except for the RSS-affiliated Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
In August 2018, workers joined farmers for a jail bharo agitation and nearly five lakh people courted arrest in 394 districts of the country, which was followed by a historic march to Parliament on September 5, jointly called by trade unions and farmers and farm workers unions, demanding the rolling back of the labour law ‘reforms’ initiated by the Modi government.
NewsClick has earlier reported on how the Wage Code also seeks to render trade unions toothless by doing away with the right of trade unions to legally access the audits of the establishment’s accounts.
According to Kaur, the social segment that the Modi government represents does not include the workers of this nation and thus the idea is to tame and limit the scope of trade unions, which are the organisers of the workers, through stringent rules and high risk of de-recognition, provisions of which are also included in the Industrial Relations Code.
The bottom line for the need of a reform in labour laws is to favor the big industrialists, which was very evident even in the Union Budget speech of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she mentioned how the four codes will facilitate the employer in easy filing of income tax returns among other things, she added.
The recently approved Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions is in similar vein. It curtails the rights of workers in securing better working conditions and safety measures and destroys protective provisions related to migrant workers and other vulnerable sections of working class.
AITUC has called for a three-day nationwide protest from July 15 to 17 against the codification of the existing labour laws and the anti-poor Union Budget among other things whose objective is to improve the ‘ease of doing business’ however, at the cost of the worsening living conditions of the workers. The protest will be followed by a meeting of all central trade unions to plan for a joint call in the coming days.
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