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No love lost for labour

Last updated on May 20, 2020

Far from looking after the interests of their vast  workforce, states like UP and Gujarat seem to be exploiting their desperation by doing away with their right to decent, regular employment 

Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to suspend all labour laws, except three, for three years has come as a shocker. The stated intent is to improve ease of doing business, at a time when the whole nation would like to see migrant labour being enabled to find work in their home states.

However, a measure like increasing shifts from eight to 12 hours defies all logic and norms of a welfare state. Moreover, it will lead to an increase in forced and bonded labour, believes Lenin Raghuvanshi, Dalit rights activist and one of the founding members of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR).

While the UP government has left out the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 from its hatchet job, this law may find itself toothless now that the Minimum Wages Act has been nullified. In fact, other states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha have also suspended a few laws, but none have excised workers’ rights with such surgical precision as the UP government.

What it has retained, along with the Act against bonded labour, is the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996; Workmen Compensation Act, 1923; and Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936 (the right to receive timely wages). It has also said that the provisions related to children and women in the labour laws would continue.

But other labour laws now remain defunct. This is cause for worry, Raghuvanshi says. “We need to become stricter on implementations on post labour activities, bonded labour and laws related to women and children. If you (the government) want to sustain capitalism you have to strengthen the welfare system. We need to create shares for the rich but also share it with the labourers otherwise it will not sustain. Instead, it will create conflict.”

HOLDING PROTEST: A few labourers stand outside the Coca Cola bottling unit in Mehdiganj, which has not being paying their monthly incomes // PHOTO: AJAY

He believes the current movement of migrants back to their home due to lockdown leaving them jobless, creates an opportunity for the country. The countrywide lockdown imposed since 25 March has had an unexpected fallout, with lakhs of migrant labourers trudging hundreds of kilometres homeward. A journey which is sometimes their last, with some dying at almost the end of their arduous trek or being killed in accidents on the road or by a train as they slept – as seen in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad where 16 migrant workers died after being mowed down by a freight train.

The human tragedy taking place now, could have sensitised governments to work for the benefit of those labourers who have returned, Raghuvanshi believes, with home states creating self-reliance. “They must have smart de-centralised systems and integrate Gandhian ideas of a republic and those of social democracy of BR Ambedkar. But now you are removing these laws, and benefits of the workers. We should have flexibility but that doesn’t mean escaping from the labour laws.”

“One of the links to bonded labour whose law the UP government has removed is the minimum wages, and the maximum working hours. This will only create more incidents. India will not be going forward but in fact regressing to a feudal structure. With this it’s very hard to succeed in a global economy. These are big contradictions (of policies).”

Patriot also spoke with Narasingha Mishra, MLA from Balangir in Odisha, which happens to be one of the biggest source states of bonded labourer. Besides, Balangir is one of the poorest districts of the state. He pointed to the failure of not just UP but also Madhya Pradesh governments to protect their rights by curtailing labour laws. “You see, wherever there is a BJP government, they are interested for the haves and not the have-nots; for the rich and not for the poor”.

While Madhya Pradesh has not gone all out to scrap its labour laws, it has amended the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. This includes basic health and safety facilities, allowing working hours to be extended to 12 hours instead of eight and weekly hours up to 72 hours, while also barring the raising of complaints and disputes under the Industrial Disputes Act.

Furthermore, many provisions of Industrial Disputes Act, 2000, in MP have been disabled for new industries that will be set up in the next 1,000 days. MP chief minister Shivaraj Singh Chouhan defended the state government’s decision to amend its labour laws saying, “Industrial reforms were long-awaited. We plan to increase job opportunities for the people by wooing investors to the state. MP is blessed with ample resources such as water, land, forests and skilled youth power. This is the right time to amend the rules as per new requirements and to simplify them to attract industries that are willing to shift from other places”.

MLA Mishra has a problem with just that. “This is done with the intention of attracting foreign investment, and those companies that want to now leave China (in the wake of Covid-19). The initial reaction of those companies who want to leave China is not to come to India but make their way to Vietnam. So probably they want to impress the corporations that we will give you labourers who can be kicked out at any time you desire. Outsourcing of employment is prevalent from Odisha in terms of labour. When people don’t earn anything and depend on someone’s mercy, wherever they feel there’s a possibility of earning they will go.”

And while even with existing labour laws there was abuse of labour and the employer’s power, he wonders how the daily wagers will now be protected. In his words, “The condition is going to be disastrous”.

While we will get to know much later about the consequences of removing critical labour laws by states like UP, Raghuvanshi points to instances currently taking place which show that labourers are already being subjected to labour violations due to these changes.

Shruti Magvanshi, founding member and managing trustee of PVCHR, also told us that at least three labourers she had spoken to in Baghpat, UP were stuck in abusive conditions. “Their work in the agriculture field finished on 10th May but they are being made to work extra hours without any payment.  They asked for our help, to be brought back home to eastern UP. We are making efforts through calling the toll-free numbers of the government and trying to speak to them. We also spoke with the MLA of Baghpat (Yogesh Dhama) personally for help in transporting them. But it will take time.”

She also informed us about another situation in Mehdiganj, Varanasi where workers in a Coca Cola factory have had erratic days of work in the past few months, leaving them with little income to bank upon.

Ajay, 33, works as a packer and loader at the Coca Cola plant in Mehdiganj, which was in December 2019 divested by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd (HCCB) to Ladhani Group entity, SLMG Beverages. We tried to contact Coca Cola India over email for a comment, but recieved no response.

He says he has been working at the factory for the last six years. “Before SLMG Beverages took over, we used to get paid Rs 329 per day for working eight hours. When this group came, they cut our salary and since February we have received Rs 287 for a day’s work. But since the lockdown, we have not received anything for the month of April.”

Ajay says his family of six, consisting of his wife, parents and three young brothers, all depend on his wages. In the hard times since the lockdown, his mother’s ration card has provided the bare minimum to sustain them. “The factory has been making us work for a few days and paying us for that day’s work. In April, I got work for only three days, so they have paid me for only those three. Likewise, there are several others in my village who have gone a few times.”

According to him, 300 persons work at the factory in different roles of packers, loaders and housekeepers. The factory has appointed one person in their village who is informed about how much labour is required. “But this much work is not enough. How will we live on a pay of 2-3 days?”

Now with all laws diluted, can companies like this be held accountable for keeping their labour out of work for days on end, and not compensating them? Therein lies the tragedy of workers in India’s backward states.

(Cover Image: HOMEWARD BOUND: Thousands of migrant labourers returned to their home state UP, where labour laws have now been scrapped //  PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)