Arjun Kumar, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Ritika Gupta, Mahima Kapoor, Swati Solanki

In 2020, the Union Government of India finalized rule under 4 labour codes, with the aim of rebooting the economy and building a future of work that is safer, greener, and more resilient. In line with this idea, the Center for Work and Welfare (CWW), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi, and Counterview organized a #WebPolicyTalk on The Future of Labour Codes: Impact and Way Forward from Trade Union Perspectives under the State of Employment#EmploymentDebate series.

The Future of Labour Codes: Impact and Way Forward from Trade Union Perspectives

Workers and Unions Response

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The chair of the session, Fr. Dr Denzil Fernandes, Executive Director, Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi began the session with an understanding of what these labour codes will entail for the Indian economy. He focused his remarks mainly on how they were received by the workers and the trade unions. Many trade unions have compared the labour codes with “modern-day slavery”, given the amount of unhinged power that the employers will now possess.

Implementation

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The moderator of the event, Prof K R Shyam Sundar, Professor, HRM Area, XLRI – Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, defined the premises and circumstances when the labour codes were passed and the slow pace with which they are being implemented. Many big states like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Kerala have not notified the Center about the adoption of these four new labour codes yet.

He also explained the effect that the codes are going to have on the occupational safety, social security, and overall health of the common workers. There still exists a huge void in implementing them among the Indian states. He expressed grievances in the lack of consultation with the International Labour Organization during the drafting by the Indian Government.

Implications for Workers

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Mr Amitava Guha, National Secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), focused his remarks on the future of Indian Trade Unions vis-à-vis the new labour codes. He reiterated how the CITU time and again submitted their own amendments to the Government when these codes were still in the process of being drafted.  Further, he expressed his objection to the way they were passed in the parliament without any proper discussions and debates.

Mr Guha explained how the codes can prove discriminatory to the agricultural workers who have failed to be taken into the purview of the codes. This meant that 49% of the entire Indian working force has been kept away. A vast amount of workers have not been covered under the threshold of these new laws.

The increase of the working hours postulated under the codes are also violative of ILO laws. The imposition of defence sector ordinances under these codes is also violative of many ILO regulations. The fixed-term employment clause will equally prove detrimental to the interest of the Indian labour force. The employers now have the choice to throw the workers at any time they want and the 5years time period given in the labour codes will not be accessible to the workers, in practical life.

The codes thus have legalized the process of throwing out permanent workers and substituting them with contractual workers, at the sweet whims of the employers.  The 10 percent eligibility criteria given for registration will be immensely disruptive for large firms.

Laws and Workers’ Rights

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Mr Chandra Prakash Singh, National Vice President, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), began his session describing how the employment scenario in India has changed.  Employers today are keener to take in contractual workers and the new labour codes have just eased up the process more.

He remarked that there is a big conspiracy to take away the constitutional, legal, and fundamental rights of the working force.  The Central Government has closed down the Indian Labour Conference since 2015 impinging upon the rights of the labour force.  The Union Government is not ready to accept the ILO’s proposal as well into the codification of the labour laws.

Mr.Singh is of the opinion that the Government should immediately call the Indian Labour Conference, given the economic condition of the country, labour issues that have been augmented by the Covid 19 pandemic.  The Government has also completely put on hold complaints regarding issues and their grievances. Complementary to this, he reiterated Mr Guha’s remarks as to how the Government has taken away the right to agitate of the common working force.

According to Mr Singh, the labour laws have been drafted mostly to ease up the process towards privatization and for the benefit of the employers. The government in the new codes has not mentioned a single thing about the universal minimum wage, or the social security, job security of the labour force. A big question now arises about the future of these working classes.

Historical Background

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Mr Virjesh Upadhyay, Research and Intellectual Work, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS); Director-General, Dattopant Thengadi Foundation, mentioned how India has lagged after so many years since independence in bringing coherent, worker-friendly labour codes. Despite having 93 % of the working force in the unorganized work sector, the new labour laws barely cover 3 to 4 % of the entire Indian workforce. According to Mr Upadhyay, the new laws only focus on the expansion of business.

He brought in the example of the infamous migrant exodus of 2020, to portray how these laws have yet again failed to safeguard the rights of the unorganized sector. He is of the opinion that the labour laws should be drafted afresh. Mr Upadhyay also mentioned how the enforcement and implementation are lagging and the trade unions have failed to safeguard the rights of the workforce in India. Trade unions also need internal introspection. The lack of unity, coherence among the myriad trade unions is hampering their proper functioning.

He focused on the need to distinguish between politics and labour welfare, so as to ensure the relevance of these trade unions. Labour welfare should be the core concern, instead of petty politics among these trade unions. In discussing these drawbacks of the trade unions, he also mentioned the success that BMS has made so far in protecting worker rights in India.

Federalism and the Labour Codes

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Ms Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), reiterated that she does not support these new labour codes and the laws need to be revisited. The laws should pass the test of the parliament as the opposition was completely absent. Whatever good existed in the labour world, was taken away by these new laws.

Land and labour both being state subjects, the new codes as well as the three new farm laws have interfered with the functioning of federalism in the country.  Without consulting the state governments during the formulating stage, the federal ethos of India has been hampered. No other actors were taken on board, except the employers and only their unilateral view was taken into account.

The trade unions could not build up resistance as well as they should have been.  Bigger, substantive agitations are needed because the attack on the rights of the workers is too hefty. Ms Kaur is of the opinion that a much more strenuous campaign is needed to raise awareness about the dangerous character of these new codes.  If these laws are implemented it would simply take away the dignity of the common workers. 

She reasserted that these new codes are a stain on constitutional morality.  Deviating from Mr Singh’s argument, Miss Kaur remarked that labour politics and welfare have existed side by side right since the time of independence. Politics today is needed to fight the arbitrary attacks on labour rights by the Government.

She asserted that trade unions need to be free from the influence of political parties if they actually want to work for the betterment of the workforce in India.  Many fundamental rights of the common citizen are under attack by these new codes. The labour codes will entirely destroy peaceful conciliation, adjudication, and ways of agitations of the workers.

These laws are simply biased towards the management and the employers. Many previous safety laws like the Payment of Minimum Wages Act will now become redundant following the implementation of these new codes. The Labour history of India is put under challenge by the new codes.

Labour Codes and Economic Justice.

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Dr Rashmi Venkatesan, Assistant Professor of Law, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, asserted that the very first need should be to look at the term “labour” in a broader context.  There is a disconnect that exists between the intellectual understanding of issues and the larger public discourse. Unlike the agitation that followed among the public at large following the passing of the farm laws in 2020, the codes failed to garner that same level of resistance from the common people.

The transition from labour to the public did not happen which became a big hindrance in generating awareness about the broader impact of these codes.  They negate the ethos of economic justice are now just moving towards concentrating economic prowess at the hands of a very minute section of people.  The critical narrative centring on labour laws has largely been restricted to legal criticism and failed to highlight the issues of intersectionality.

Public Narrative

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Mr Prashant K. Nanda, National Writer, LiveMint, focused his discussion around the worker and the public narrative. Mr Nanda thinks that it is imperative for the labour market to be part of the entire thought process centring around these laws. The trade unions should improve how they function and should act as a catalyst.  He reiterated that the Indian trade unions lack an intellectual backbone.  The trade unions are entirely missing from the public view and are not seen. Thus they are not in a position still remains pretty minor in the entire political discourse.

The disjuncture between labour politics and welfare is the main hurdle towards reviewing the codes. The lack of job security among the general population is another cause of the feeble nature of the composition of many of the existing trade unions.  The trade unions today largely talk about the formal salaried section of the workforce, which Mr Nanda considers to be another big drawback.  The growth of the trade unions will depend largely o how they represent these informal sectors. He also highlighted the difference in agitation between the labour movement and the ongoing farmers’ movement.

Conclusion

The event culminated following the concluding remarks of the chair Fr. Fernandes.  He discussed what the role of the trade unions should be in organizing and mobilizing the resistance movement against the codes. He also focused on the ways like digital media through which the broader public base and the youth can be mobilized in the agitation process.

Mr Chandra Prakash Singh while answering follow-up questions reiterated the need to view the labour movements and the farmers’ agitation separately.  Mr Upadhyay in giving his concluding remarks asserted the need to keep up with the dynamic character of the society and economy at large. The trade union’s form of working based on the 60’s economy will not work in the modern-day.  And for that, they need to be changing their mindset, perception, and our approach keeping pace with modern times.

Ms Kaur in her concluding remarks mentioned the drawbacks associated with the agitation process. She also laid emphasis that how the new working force also needs to be taken into the trade union’s discourse.  She reiterated the need to bring the informal sector into the purview of the functioning of the trade unions.

Acknowledgement: Anondeeta Chakraborty is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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