Undoing decades of gains in labour jurisprudence


The year that has passed by is the most momentous year that Indian labour has seen. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector informed us that out of 500 million in the workforce, about 7% are in the organised sector and the rest (93%) are in the informal/unorganised sector.

The year has witnessed the reversal of more than a century of labour jurisprudence. Workers and their trade unions took part in the independence movement fighting at once for their own rights and for the freedom of India. New laws relating to wages, dispute settlement, social security, working conditions were enacted.

Lost spirit of truce

Above all the spirit of “truce” between capital and labour was emphasised through “Industrial Truce Resolutions” in 1947 and again in 1962 (Chinese Aggression). Labour was seen as a partner, collective bargaining and tripartitism was fostered. However, the Congress brought in “Washington consensus” in 1991 and neo-liberalism promoted the idea of “flexible labour” (meaning no regulatory labour law). Under the BJP, this anti-labour policy reached a new peak. Repealing laws has now become a fetish. Four new Labour Codes have been introduced. During its drafting labour was not seriously consulted, but capital was deep in the green room.

The outcome?

Collective bargaining has been dismantled and consequences are visible. Workers in the iPhone manufacturing unit near Kolar went on a “wild cat strike” and caused severe damage to property.

These workers were harshly exploited under a free for all contract labour adventure (not because there is no law but because labour administration is paralysed as never before). The political leadership believes that “ease of doing business” means doing away with all protection to labour not realising that too much of this business goes against the interest of business itself. In the 1970s industries came to Bengaluru in search of peace and good industrial relations. Now through the consequences of the ill-conceived labour policy many industries may get attracted to neighbouring Tamil Nadu (Hosur etc.) where labour administration is still working.

People of nowhere

Two calamities have come together. One is repealing labour law that has evolved through almost 10 decades and the other is COVID-19. Employers used both against workers. The sudden lockdown announced by the Prime Minister came in handy. They obeyed the Prime Minister to close the factory but ignored orders under the Disaster Management Act to pay wages, and protect workers. Lakhs of migrants who were working in Bengaluru from Bihar, U.P., Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, etc. were left without jobs, not even earned wages, no health facilities and no houses.

The government listened only to the employers’ lobby and even tried to prevent the return journey. Some were able to go home, thanks to the untiring effort of trade unions, civil society, the labour department, and humanitarian orders of the Karnataka High Court.

Those who reached home soon discovered that there was no livelihood there and hence the return journey has now begun. Back at the work spot, the situation is precarious.

The old Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979, which gave some protection is now repealed. The Wage Code, 2019, does away with “Scheduled Employments” which provide the frame work for enacting Minimum wages.

The Industrial Relations Code, 2020, destroys the frame work of collective bargaining. The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 provided both for State abstention (through collective bargaining) and for State intervention (through reference for adjudication) along with the power of the appropriate government to ban strikes and lock-outs. This regime is foolishly abandoned and instead links it up with de-registration of trade unions.

The Social Security Code, 2020, discriminates between the organised and the unorganised. Finally, the OSH Code, 2020, even contemplated doing away with the eight hour working day (ILO Convention No:1 of 1919) but fortunately restored the same-after the ILO also intervened.

Lacking political will

Ironically, the silver lining comes from the “Apple” company. They have put Westron on probation for management failure and Westron has sacked its own top executive. Sadly, the Government of Karnataka is seen to be molly-cuddling the company, which itself feels they failed to maintain minimum labour standards.

For the rule of law to prevail on the industrial front, we need political will (now absent), along with good labour laws and rules for Karnataka, a good labour department, and strong trade unions.

(Prof. Babu Mathew is Adjunct Professor and Director, Centre for Labour Studies at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.)

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