Labour Codes: Imposing a new form of slavery on India’s working class

labour codes violate workers rights
Definitions of workmen, employee, wages and allowances are used interchangeably in a manipulative way in labour codes to deprive a large section of workers of their legal rights.

By A R Sindhu

The four labour codes and India’s workers: There were consistent efforts by various governments since 1991 to change labour laws, starting with the exit policy by the Narasimha Rao government. The design for the current changes was made in 1999 under the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the recommendations of the Second National Commission on Labour. The successive governments were able to move only piecemeal amendments to labour laws due to the resistance of Indian working class.

The BJP government under Narendra Modi which came to power in 2014 rolled out a plan for total codification of labour laws, by subsuming 44 laws into four labour codes. The NDA II government moved with speed to pass three labour codes and the anti-farmer farm laws during the lockdown, thinking people will not be able to protest because of the social distancing measures taken to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. The Wage Code was passed before the Covid-19 outbreak. The BJP government violated the parliamentary procedures to get these acts passed in the most undemocratic way. The recommendations of the parliamentary standing committee were totally ignored.

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Code on Wages Act 2019

The wages code replaced the Payment of Wage Act 1936, the Minimum Wages Act 1948, the Payment of Bonus Act 1965 and the Equal Remuneration Act 1976.

Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code

This Code amalgamate and subsume 13 enactments related to factories, mines, dock workers, building and other construction workers, plantation workers, contract labour, inter-state migrant workers, working journalists and other newspaper employees, motor transport workers, sales promotion employees, beedi and cigar workers, cine workers and cinema theatre workers. The Code, repeals The Factories Act 1948, the Mines Act 1952, the Dock Workers Act 1952, the Building and Other Construction (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act 1996, the Plantation Labour Act 1951, The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, the Working Journalist and other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service and Miscellaneous Provision) Act 1955, the Working Journalist (Fixation of rates of wages) Act 1958, the Motor Transport Workers Act 1961, the Sales Promotion Employees (Conditions of Service) Act 1976, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act 1966, and the Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers Act, 1981.

The Industrial Relations Code

This code replaces the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, the Trade Unions Act, 1926, and the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946.

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The Social Security Code

This subsumes nine Acts — the Employees Compensation Act 1923, the Employees State Insurance Act 1948, the Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1952, the Employment Exchanges (Compulsory Notification of Vacancies) Act 1959, the Maternity Benefits Act 1961, the Payment of Gratuity Act 1972, Cine Workers Welfare Fund Act, the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act 1996, and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act 2008.

All the internationally accepted working-class rights — the eight-hour working day, minimum wages and retirement benefits and the freedom of association and right to collective bargaining — have been taken away by these codes.

The majority of workers — the agricultural labour, scheme workers, domestic workers etc. — continue to be out of the purview of the labour laws. The BJP government has used common methods to keep the workers who were covered by the labour laws out of any legal protection through these codes.

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Contentious definitions in labour codes

Definitions of workmen, employee, wages and allowances are used interchangeably in a manipulative way in these codes. This will exclude large section of workers and deprive them of legal rights by allowing employers to misinterpret and also to discriminate the working people and keep some sections away from ambit of the Codes. For example, the sales promotion employees can raise a dispute because they are covered under the code. They will not get wages/bonus because they are not covered under the wage code. Those who are drawing a wage more than Rs 15,000 per month must be considered in the supervisory category and will be excluded from the coverage in the wage code. It is Rs 18,000 per month in IR code.

The industry has been so defined to exclude all social, charitable or philanthropic services. It means educational, social and health services including corporate hospitals and educational institutions will be exempted from the coverage of the law.

Coverage of labour codes

By increasing the number of workers necessary from 10 to 20 in factories using power and 20 to 40 in factories not using power for the coverage under the codes, a large number of establishments will be excluded. For contract labourers, the number of workers has been increased to 50 from 20 working under a contractor to get the coverage.

The establishments having less than 500 workers need not comply with any safety measurers. Similarly, the establishment employing less than 300 workers need not get permission for layoffs (earlier it was 100). Around 74% of the workforce in the organised sector will be out of the purview of the labour laws by this amendment.

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Right to further dilute labour codes

The most dangerous issue with the codes is that all these can be further diluted or done away with by the appropriate government through an executive order. The authority of the legislature for law making has also been bypassed. There is no restriction to introduce fixed-term employment in any job of permanent nature.

Minimum wages and working hours under labour codes

The Wage Code Bill has totally neglected the criteria for fixation of minimum wages as per 15th ILC and Supreme Court decision on Raptacose Brett case. The recommendations of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board are not binding on the governments. Accordingly, the government of India has fixed a national floor level wage which currently is Rs 176 per day. The bonus ceilings continue, but the right of the workers to get the balance sheet of the establishment has been taken away.

The period of work can be extended by the appropriate government. There is no restriction of eight-hour work anymore. The overtime has been increased to 125 hours per quarter.

Right to strike and unionisation

As per the new law, it will be impossible to get unions registered. The registrar may refuse to grant registration to the union and is free to deregister it.

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Social security under labour codes

The government’s claim of including all 50 crore workers in social security is a hoax. Rather the coverage of unorganised workers in some sectors like construction has been restricted. Agricultural labour, scheme workers, own account workers etc are out of the coverage. All workers will not get social security benefits of EPF/ESI, but will get some benefits of some government schemes if they choose to join them.

The system of labour inspection to ensure the effective application of the relevant extant legal provisions has been given a virtual go-bye in these Codes. The inspectors will now be inspector-cum-facilitators.

The four codes grossly violate and ignore several provisions of conventions, protocols and recommendations of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). More than 40 conventions of ILO are either violated or ignored.

The Indian working class has been resisting the onslaught on their rights and the joint platform of central trade unions has been defending these rights. Now, the Narendra Modi government’s attack on the working class and the peasantry has created the ground for a worker-peasant unity. The recent call for all-India general strike on November 26, the farmers’ Delhi Chalo on November 26-27 and the historic Kisan struggle are slowly developing into a unified struggle for scrapping of the labour codes, farm acts and against the privatisation of PSUs and utilities. The country will witness intensified struggles to resist the onslaught on the working class and the peoples’ rights in the coming days.

(The author is National Secretary, CITU. The views are personal.)