While NGOs have been silenced and muted, there is a need for labour unions to work in the interests of workers

thakerBy Gautam Thaker*

The Central government is committed to make reforms in labour laws. Recently, a labour conference of all the states was convened at the central level. Looking at the deliberations made therein, it can be said that reforms contemplated in the labour laws will harm the rights of the labourers. The government will confer liberty to the owners to lay off employees or to close down the industry at their sweet will or volition and will, moreover, encourage contract labour. The labour ministry is of the opinion that, in order to generate more employment, a new law should be enacted by merging three different important Acts – Trade Unions Act, Industrial Disputes Act and Industrial Employment Act. As per the new ideology, the government is thinking on the line of engaging workers on contract basis, offer them job on casual or piecemeal basis, engage them on a fixed salary, offer different wage rates for the same type of job, and extract work for 12 hours instead of 8 hours.

By doing so, naturally, the owners will stand to gain, and this is what they had thought of. Looking at the amendments proposed by the government into these three Acts, more than 70% of the labourers will get excluded from the purview of the labour laws. An industry with less than 40 workers will be exempted from labour laws. Where the number of workers is more than 300, then for closing down that industry, it will not be mandatory to obtain permission from the government. The factories will be required to furnish labour law related information/data to the government only once in five years. In plants or factories, where less than 40 workers have been working, there will not be any need to implement the Minimum Wages Act, Provident Fund Act, Factories Act, Insurance Act, Gratuity Act, Bonus Act, or Workers’ Compensation Act etc.

For registration of labour unions, it has been proposed that instead of seven workers, the minimum requirement will be 10% of the total number of workers or 100 workers, whichever is less. For overseeing implementation of labour laws, now there will not be any factory inspector. Work shift will be of 12 hours instead of 8 hours. Salary will be deposited in the bank account and hence there will not be any requirement of disbursing salary on the 7th of each month. In case such newly stipulated laws are implemented, the voice of workers will be strangulated or choked. Since the number of workers engaged in the unorganized sector in the country is more than 90%, it is not possible to predict as to what will be the fate of Minimum Wages Act, Unorganized Labour Act, Bonded Labour Act, Migrant Labour Act, Child Labour Abolishment Act etc.

In a country like India, labour laws were in force in favour of the poor people and were quite strong. Its main four pillars – opportunities for employment and income, protection of rights at the place of employment, social security, and the system of collective bargaining – will be endangered. After attaining independence, strict laws were framed in favor of the labourers owing to the socialist ideology. Its benefits were gained during the decade of 1950s, thanks to collective fight. All this will suffer damage now. After the NDA government came to power, everything has changed in favour of industrialists, and as a result, the needs of the market driven economy are being thrust upon the labouring class. With efforts to snatch away of benefits of 90% of the work force, what will be the condition of peace and harmony in the country, will be known in coming days only. If adequate salary and benefits are not offered to the workers, then their purchasing power will diminish. The economy will tilt in the direction of recession in place of growth momentum.

It is indeed good that principal central labour unions of the country – Hind Mazdoor Sabha, Indian National Trade Union Congress and labour unions of the Left parties – have come together to give a fight for a common cause. The thought of industrial policy or development without proper social security will ruin the country’s progress. Before and after Independence, thanks to the fight by labour unions, workers got freedom from inhuman exploitation. For improving the work conditions and making available benefits of social security, labour laws came into existence.

Reforms which have been contemplated in the labour laws at the behest of industrialists will once again push the labourers into the ditch of unsafe and exploitative atmosphere. The country’s industrial development has become possible due to labour laws, and only because of its various provisions, present industrial peace has been maintained. In fact, there is no need at all on the part of the NDA government to make any labour reforms in haste. Now that the ball is in the court of the Labour Ministry, reforms will have to be brought about by taking labour unions into confidence. No good would result merely by favouring the industrialists alone.

Country’s labour unions are displeased and disturbed with all the reforms that have been contemplated and as such there is a need to put into practice a new view, “Development of all, co-operation of all”.  For this joint committees of Central and State governments, Owners and Unions should be set up by the Government of India to look into the reforms process. If this does not happen, labour unions will have to canvass in and around industrial areas and labour colonies that the new reforms are anti-labour in nature.

It will be necessary to think of a plan of action to demonstratively protest by awakening labourers and enlisting their support and cooperation. At present, the voice of both the labour unions and that of the leaders of society who have been known to talk in favor of, or support the workers, has been strangled or choked. While voluntary organizations have been silenced or muted, there is a need for the labour unions to work in the interests of workers.

*Chairman, Indian National Bank Employees Federation, Ahmedabad

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