The relaxation of labour law provisions aimed at protecting workers may be the final straw following a string of iniquities suffered by India’s working class. Could it spark unprecedented labour outrage?
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”James Baldwin, African-American novelist, activist
This is no common Indian mid-summer. Particularly not for India’s invisibly toiling workers. First, there was an abruptly announced lockdown. Factory shutters were downed. Contractors absconded. Wages remained unpaid. Rapacious landlords began knocking. When they tried to escape the misery, they realized that trains & buses, that’d take them home, weren’t running either. The intrepid ones – desperation driving their intrepidity in most cases – set off on foot, preferring the great hazards of the journey to the cruelty of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Many died due to heat and exhaustion on the way. More than a month after the lockdown was imposed, the Government announced running inter-state trains, known as Shramik special trains, for the stranded workers. But the exercise was poorly organized and surrounded by chaos. Relevant information was either scant or fuzzy. Amidst the bicker between the Union & state Governments over bearing the travel expenses, many workers, despite being penniless, quietly paid the fare and boarded the trains. Others were not so lucky. With anxiety and uncertainty swelling over when their turn might come, they embarked on their homeward journey on foot like hundreds before them. This time, some were crushed under the wheels of a cargo train. Others were run over by cars. But the exodus continued.
An Egregious Attitude
Thrown into a tizzy by the flight of those whose labour sustains their empires, industrialists, industry bodies and employers’ associations approached those in the highest echelons of power and entreated them to stop the workers’ exodus, even as nothing was said about looking after, feeding, and paying them.
Watch: Contribution of Migrant labour to Indian economy
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath received calls from CMs of Karnataka, Punjab, Gujarat, and Haryana, insisting that migrant labourers needn’t leave; they’d be well looked after. The Karnataka CM had a meeting with prominent builders and canceled Shramik trains. The decision was revoked only after the state government faced stinging criticism from various quarters. The Delhi CM made a fervent appeal to workers, asking them to stay. Meanwhile, the powerful continued to make their voices heard.
In a video-conferencing meeting with Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar, representatives of a dozen industry bodies – including PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry and FICCI – requested the Government to suspend all labour laws, except a handful, for the next 2-3 years.
Sacrificing Workers’ Rights on the Altar of Industrial Growth
The urgency of restoring industrial growth among industry bodies and politicians is all too understandable, given the beating Indian businesses have taken on account of the lockdown and consequent losses to the economy. But to sacrifice hard-earned workers’ rights, won through decades of enormous struggle through most of the 20th century, on the altar of industrial growth is not just gravely unethical, but illegal.
Watch: Is UP labour law ordinance an attempt at Labour exploitation
Leading the industry-loving pack were Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh. CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced wide-ranging reforms to labour laws, exempting provisions related to workers’ entitlements such as toilets, ventilation, lighting, protective equipment, weekly holidays, canteens & crèches for 1000 days. The Uttar Pradesh cabinet passed an ordinance suspending 35 of the 38 labour laws in the state for 3 years. Others, including Punjab, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh swiftly followed suit and tweaked the Factories Act to increase the daily 8-hour shift to 12 hours.
It must be noted that labour is a concurrent subject, meaning both the Centre and states can legislate on it. To begin with, suspension of labour laws by states flies in the face of the Centre’s recent attempts to merge and codify these laws. Secondly, since a state ordinance related to a concurrent subject may require Presidential assent to be cleared, one can only hope that the Centre does not approve such sweeping exemptions from legal provisions aimed at protecting workers. Sadly, several legal experts and trade union leaders fear that by permitting states to change the laws, the Centre may be using the lockdown as a smokescreen to push through its proposed labour codes.
Eerily, all four codes seem heavily in favour of diluting legal safeguards with regard to collective bargaining, safety standards and fair wages.
It must be noted that the moves of the state governments are in flagrant violation not just of fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy in the Indian Constitution, but of various conventions of the ILO (International Labour Organization).
Pushed to the Precipice
India’s working class has been left psychologically battered, financially broken, and now with these relaxed labour laws, disempowered and disillusioned. Consequently, the likelihood of mass demonstrations, violent protests and even labour riots cannot be ruled out. The workers’ collective fury, indignity, frustration, and bitterness can’t just be wished away.
History abounds with examples of what workers, albeit under differing circumstances, did when pushed to the precipice. Britain’s chequered history of the Industrial Revolution – a period notoriously associated with poor wages, perilous working conditions, and appalling living conditions – is rife with worker uprisings.
In 1812, skilled artisans, led by the intriguing General Ludd, violently protested against low wages and mechanization of textile production which endangered their livelihoods. In 1817, a band of armed Derbyshire weavers and miners attempted to overthrow a government that didn’t care about their hardships and didn’t let them vote, in what became known as the Pentrich Revolution. The Canut Revolts (1831-1848) in France, one of the first well-organized worker uprisings of the period, took place when disaffected silk workers of Lyon rose against their exploitation and a sharp drop in wages. A crowd of starving, abjectly poor mineworkers – weary of hazardous working conditions and wage reductions – were behind the Shamokin Uprising of 1877 in Pennsylvania, which was part of the Great Railroad Strike. The role of Russia’s impoverished industrial workers, long reeling under the insufferable burden of long work hours, inadequate wages, harsh discipline, and poor working conditions, cannot be overstated in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
As much as we wish for it, to expect apathy to transmute into empathy is nothing but fantastic idealism. But to fore-sense the ramifications of provoking a marginalized group, deprived even of rights, is pragmatism. Is anybody listening?