New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) demands that governments retract changes in labour laws

The states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have been twisting labour laws for corporate benefits during the lockdown


The migrant crisis in India has increased manifold since the coronavirus lockdown came into force. It’s as if that the problems which were brewing behind the scenes, burst through, coming to the fore to expose the apathy of the government towards the people who shoulder its core responsibilities.

As migrants lost jobs, lives and dignity, the brunt of the lockdown seems unrelenting. Migrants could not travel to their native villages due to the ban on interstate and intrastate transport. When their cries were finally heard and trains and buses to take them back home were started, they were asked to pay their own fare.

Now as the lockdown enters the 4th stage, the Central government has asked everyone to be ‘Atmanirbhar’ or self-reliant, effectively asking the States to manage what the Centre failed at managing.

Trade unions called for a protest at Rajghat on May 22 to withdraw the changes in labour laws. Supporting the fight, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) demanded that the all workers get full wages by their employers, termination of workers be stopped, retraction of 12-hour workdays, overruling of the labour law amendment ordinances and expansion of MNREGA to 150 days of work of all adults.

In a press statement issued a day before the protest, NTUI in this regards said that the call for self-reliance from the people of the country at a time when thousands of migrants are walking hundreds of kilometers to reach home, is painfully cruel.

Government of corporates, for corporates

NTUI says that the current government is of the corporates and for the corporates, saying that the Centre has been writing to the state governments to change their laws so that the burden on industry is minimized. Acquiescing, the Governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have done so speedily.

Sabrang India earlier reported that it has been said that states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are paving a way to dilute the rights of these workers, in short aiming for diluting labour laws. The ordinances cleared by Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat cabinets, which would indiscriminately suspend all labour laws except a few basic ones, for close to three years. Notifications by the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana have also suspended crucial portions of their labour legislations. These moves could force a large proportion of our population to inhuman servitude and destitution.

Uttar Pradesh, through an ordinance called ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’, has suspended 35 out of 38 labour laws for a period of 3 years. Ithas sought to introduce an ordinance suspending all labour laws for all types of establishments with the exception of Workmen’s Compensation Act, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, clause 5 of the Payment of Wages Act (time of wage payment) and possibly the Maternity Benefit Act and the Child labour Act for a period of three years.

On May 7, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced that his government will exempt new manufacturing units from almost all provisions they have to follow and comply with under the Factories Act, 1948 for nearly three years. It has effectively suspended all labour laws for establishments employing less than 300 workers.

NTUI said that the government of Gujarat has offered all new investors freedom from all labour laws for 1200 days with the exception of the Minimum Wages Act and the Workmen’s Compensation Act.

These three states along with the state of Assam, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh Karnataka, and Tripura have also increased the length of a permissible a single shift from 8 hours a day to 12 hours a day with Bihar promising to follow suit. The governments of Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan too have increased the shift to twelve hours with two additional provisions that the additional 4 hours’ work will be double overtime wages and the order is valid for three months. The increasing of the working day turns back the 150 year struggle for the 8 hours which is in fact ILO Convention No 1 that India ratified in 1921.

NTUI said that the BJP government has encouraged labour law ‘reform’ since it came to power in 2014. Through its state governments it speeded up ‘reform’ with four labour codes – three of which – the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code are still pending before the government.

These are a problem because, the Code on Wages passed in 2019 already introduces a floor wage creating the potential of a wage below the existing minimum wage undermining the very existence of the minimum wage. The other three effectively place barriers on the right to association and the right to collective bargaining along with all associated worker rights. With this agenda some distance away clearly both capital and government think it best pressed through state governments.

Lockdown a way to crush workers and unions

The government is also using the lockdown as a new approach to crush workers and unions says NTUI. It says, “While extending the lockdown into the fourth phase, the Union Government withdrew its own order of 29 March 2020 effectively allowing employers to be free to not pay wages and retrench workers as they wish from 18 May onwards. This is in response to the petition filed by the employers in the Supreme Court challenging the order of 29 March. Government is yet to put up a robust defence as the court engages in double speak.”

In reality, the NTUI said, nobody, irrespective of the political parties they belong to, made efforts to ensure that wages were paid and workers were retained across the country. Speaking of the thousands of migrants walking home, it said, “The most visible crisis of the working class is that of the non-resident migrant workers which was precipitated by an uncaring government that ordered a lockdown without a warning and was promoted by a mean, small minded and mendicant capitalist class that was not just willing to pay wages for the month of March but possibly in many cases had not paid wages for earlier months too. If government restricted free movement of people, the capitalist class promoted the freedom of this country to march towards starvation.”

Fiscal package only promoting debt

The fiscal package that followed – the Rs. 20 lakh crore package, the NTUI said was nothing but a package to promote debt. NTUI pointed out, “The BJP has come to realise that the economic crisis it has triggered since coming to government in 2014 is now with the lockdown beyond control. The domestic capitalist class did not invest in the last six years and they are not going to now. If it must attract foreign investment which is its only hope then it must seem fiscally prudent and not make fiscal concessions in order to maintain the country’s credit rating.”

In effect, the NTUI states that through the ‘five tranches’ of the package announced last week, the BJP government promised to privatize the entire public sector and deregulate key sectors along with a slew of loans that public sector banks would hand out without collateral. It says that the BJP was aware that it must offer more to make it all attractive for capital. “The only ‘factor of production’ the BJP believes it can control and that is labour. Hence a holiday from labour laws is part of the ‘package’ The BJP left no doubt about this when its government in Karnataka expressly asked the union government to stop the trains taking non-resident workers back home that workers are indeed a mere ‘factor of production’ for the BJP that will move and be moved at will and be at capital’s beck and call.”

The plan to ‘test, trace and isolate’ is yet to be put into place as the country enters the fourth phase of the lockdown and the plan to scale up medical facilities has not been implemented. NTUI says that while the private sector medical services have shut shop, the public sector remains under financed, understaffed and unprotected.

Mentioning that the attack on the working class working at the frontline has never been greater, NTUI says, “The battle to save the people affected by the pandemic rests on the shoulders of the country’s underpaid and overworked public medical and healthcare workers. The responsibility of keeping our cities and towns clean and the rest of us free from virus rests with tens of millions of our comrades who are safai karmacharis, ASHA and Anganwadi workers and ANMs who in large numbers are contract or ‘honorarium’ workers. The rest are all too having to return to work under unsafe conditions so that they have food at homes and can send their children to school. Like at all other times no one has contributed to the economy as has the working class. And no one has been exposed to lack of safety and insecurity as has been the working class.”

The clarion call by NTUI, “We are workers, we are not for sale”, is an apt depiction of what the labourers in India have been reduced to. However, with dissent being silenced at the CITU protest by the arrest of several union leaders, some even before the day of the protest, the action of the government is only a show of the long road the workers have to tread to claim their rights and their dignity.


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