14 May, 2020Some Indian states are using coronavirus as a pretext to attack working conditions. Many have increased the working day to 12 hours, while others have suspended or provided exemptions to labour law.
State governments, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, have increased working hours to 12 hours and 72 hours a week. In a cabinet meeting held on 6 May, the Uttar Pradesh government suspended 35 out of 38 labour laws governing trade unions, industrial dispute and contract workers. All establishments in the state are exempt from all the labour laws in for a period of three years.
The state governments that made sweeping changes are ruled by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is also the ruling party in the central government. Aggressive changes to the labour laws were made through executive orders when the legislative assemblies or parliament were not in session. The changes undermine fundamental principles and rights at work, reversing decent work gains made through decades of trade union struggle.
The Gujarat government exempted new industrial units from labour laws and norms for 1,200 days. Only three laws, the Minimum Wages, Act, Industrial Safety Rules and The Employee Compensation Act will be applied to them.
Madhya Pradesh provides exemptions from legal obligations under various labour laws, including the Factories Act, Industrial Relations Act, Industrial Disputes Act and the Contract Labour Act. It intends to increase the exemptions through amendments by executive order for a period of 1,000 days.
Eleven categories of industries, textile, leather, cement, iron and steel, electrical goods, electricity, public motor transport, engineering - including the automobile sector - will be exempt from the Madhya Pradesh Industrial Relations Act for an indefinite period. There will be no inspection in the firms employing fewer than 50 workers and no surprise inspection will take place.
Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tripura and Punjab have also increased working hours and exempted establishments from following labour laws.
During a meeting with the labour minister on 1 May, central trade union representatives made a number of demands of government:
- Do not increase working hours
- Maintain the strict implementation of labour laws,
- Provide financial support to workers who lost their jobs during the lockdown
- Support to migrant workers.
No union demands were acted upon by the government.
On 6 May the labour minister met with employers, whose demands include the relaxation of the Industrial Disputes Act to treat the lockdown period as a lay-off, to suspend labour laws for the next 2-3 years except for provisions like minimum wages, bonus and statutory dues, and to increase working hours to 12 hours per day.
Valter Sanches, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union stated that,
“We strongly condemn the Indian state governments’ attempt to increase working hours and suspend labour laws. Let us not forget that workers are in the frontline of the fight against Covid-19.
“The central government should not allow draconian labour law changes that are against internationally established human rights and international labour standards. The state governments should immediately withdraw anti-worker labour law changes. IndustriALL Global Union stands in solidarity with the Indian trade union movement to defend workers’ rights."
The joint platform of Central Trade Unions and Federations/Associations vehemently denounced labour law changes. Unions are planning nationwide action soon.