Degeneration of Labour laws: a workers epidemic

Picture credit: The Indian Express

COVID 19 is tantamount to typhus not in a way that typhus was used to target Jews but in a way that it is the marginalised section that is facing the burnt. After being forced to walk back home barefoot they are now up against another tragedy. This tragedy is no less ruthless and inhumane. Just like the former one the latter tragedy emanates from the indifferent attitude of the government towards the working class. The only difference now is that the State governments are to be blamed for unleashing the tragedy this time.

When the workers will again board the train to go back to the factories and industries the situation will not be the same for them. Most of the labour laws will be gone by then. They will have to work more than eight hours and there will be no overtime payment. It raises again a perturbing question of forced labour that has been defined by the Supreme Court in case of PUDR V. UOI as performing any task with no alternative to shift to even if workers want to leave the place of their work but they can’t leave because of their compelling situations of working to feed their family members. Suspension of labour laws has provided a fertile ground to the private sector for using this opportunity as a sort of boon given by the state to harass workers or we can say in the language of Marxist theory to fill their coffers with surplus-value. 

Eight hours of work a day is not ever prevalent. During the industrial revolution, it was “sun up to sun down” workday. The eight-hour workday was achieved after winning a long drawn battle. Robert Owen started a campaign in 1817 with the slogan, “eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Later on the cause for eight hours work a day became more political in nature with Tom Mann forming an “Eight Hour League” in 1884. Tom managed to convince the Trades Union Congress to make eight hours of the workday as one of their primary goals. Still, the road ahead was not simple. After a series of strikes and demonstrations, it was only in 1914 that the Ford Motor Company implemented the Eight Hour workday policy. Along with providing the workers with more human life, this policy also increased the profit of the company with time. In the US the struggle for eight hours workday culminated in the form of Fair Labour Standard Act which stipulated no more than 44 hours work per week and anything above 40 hours was to be paid with overtime bonus.

In India the struggle for labour rights and freedom movement was inextricable. They went hand in hand. Gandhi started his fight against the British authority by securing the rights of the peasants in Champaran followed by another fight for the Ahmedabad mill workers. Amid all the struggles for labour rights and independence, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar aggressively pursued the cause for implementing eight hours of the workday. As a chairman of the Indian Labour Conference, he mandated the eight hour workday policy in the 7th session of the conference in 1945. Ambedkar became the pioneer of bringing in-laws, such as mines maternity benefit act; women labor welfare fund; women and children labour protection act, which is deemed important for securing women labour rights in India. It was imperative that the Constitution was being framed to restrict the excessive power possessed and secure the basic rights of the rank and file against the rapacious tendency of transgressing boundaries by the state. But here it was ingenuity of the Ambedkar who argued that it’s not only that state has this propensity but also the dictatorship of the private sector on the employees has to be equally annihilated to realise the principles enshrined under our Constitution. In this case, the states are funneling their power towards the private sector which is like plunging workers into the den of a lion where they will be exploited until their last breath. 

With time the most prudent thing to do would have been to reform the existing laws in favour of the workers. But several states have taken upon themselves to exploit the rights of the labours. States like UP, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat have decided to dilute the labour laws with UP taking the front seat by suspending almost all labour laws in the State for three years. The permissible work hour has been stretched from eight hours to twelve hours. The policy of hire and fire has been approved. The suspension of these legal provisions will also deny the workers basic working facilities such as cleanliness, proper ventilation, drinking water, canteens, and restrooms. All these were done to increase production and to gain the confidence of the investors. Interestingly, all the measures that have been taken for providing stimulus to the economy are unscientific. Researches have shown that output increases only when there is more investment. Increasing the working hour without increasing investment would mean nothing. In the past also the government’s measures have fallen flat when it tried to provide tax relaxation to the corporate sector for ushering in investments. All the past events as of now show that the idea to do away with the labour laws doesn’t stand a chance to succeed in the long run if the policies for investments are not formulated.

The way labour laws have been diluted is very curious in itself. Until recent times Ordinance power was meant to fill a vacuum created by the absence of legal backing for any executive decisions taken under compelling situations but here it has been brought in to secure its vested interest by the state government. The UP government has drawn flak from the judiciary for its callous attitude of displaying the names of anti CAA protesters, alleged to destroy public property, without any legal backing to buttress the claim. But this time it didn’t leave any stone unturned. This is a flagrant violation of ordinance power mandated by the constitution. On top of that, the States have tried to set an unprecedented precedent by using the Ordinance power to repeal laws. It seems that the UP government wanted to lead the pack for setting unprecedented interpretation of the Ordinance power. UP had repealed the labour laws for three years. This was a fraud on the constitution and was against the SC judgment in Krishna Kumar Singh v State of Bihar. An Ordinance is valid only during the period before reassembly of the State legislature. But the UP government has eventually withdrawn the notification. It’s the other States that need to follow the suit. Moreover, the laws that have been suspended were central. Recently when some of the States sought not to implement the CAA there was a huge backlash from the ruling dispensation and its supporters. They termed this non compliance of the States with a central law as unconstitutional. But now that the BJP ruled States are at the forefront in suspending central laws there is silence all over the place. This silence from the upholder of the constitution is deafening.

It is no secret that the workers around the world and particularly in India have been worst affected by this pandemic. They have lost their jobs and are without money. Deaths from hunger is reported almost every day. The conditions of the labours are already worsening and it can’t be allowed to exacerbate any further by sacrificing the hard-won rights. It’s time that we give them what they truly deserve: life with dignity.   


Fahad Ghani studies Law at Aligarh Muslim University. He tweets at @FahadGhani6


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