Karnataka government and industry bodies have been speaking of the need to relax labour laws in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. We, at AICCTU (All India Central Council of Trade Unions), believe that in the crisis caused by the pandemic, we must strengthen labour laws, not weaken them. We submitted a memorandum to the state government in this regard on May 15. We hope that the government will consider our demands seriously and initiate action quickly.
- Government must strengthen labour laws to fight hunger and poverty, to build a secure society.
- Government must discuss with all trade unions on how labour laws are to be strengthened.
- The move to relax labour laws must be dropped immediately.
Need for strengthening labour laws
Several crores of workers, especially daily wagers, unorganised sector workers and migrant workers, have been badly impacted by the lockdown. The failure to ensure the payment of wages, the lack of savings and proper social security benefits brought workers to a precarious condition.
As per a report of the International Labour Organisation, about 40 crore informal workers in India are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the pandemic. In a pan-India survey conducted by Azim Premji University, two-thirds of respondents reported loss of employment, and half of salaried workers reported non-payment or reduction in salaries. Forty five per cent of the households did not have money to even buy a week’s worth of essentials, and 74% households were consuming less food than before. It is of the utmost importance that the laws protecting these workers are strengthened and their rights protected.
As regards migrant workers, a reason for their destitution during lockdown was that laws for their protection was not enforced, especially, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Condition of Service) Act, 1979. If this legislation had been implemented in letter and spirit, migrant workers would have been paid fair wages, guaranteed fair conditions of services and facilities as well as a journey allowance.
On May 7, we also witnessed three horrific industrial accidents – in Vishakhapatnam, Cuddalore and Raigarh – which resulted from failure to comply with the safety provisions in the Factories Act.
Various states across the country have chosen this time to dilute labour laws and increase working hours. Such a proposal would destroy the lives of workers and would, in fact, destroy the economy itself by drastically reducing purchasing power.
There appears to be discussions on increasing work hours from eight to 12. This would not only damage workers’ health, but would seriously hit the women workforce who would be unable to work extended hours.
Similarly, diluting labour laws such as the Industrial Disputes Act would only help the employer change service conditions and terminate workers arbitrarily, resulting in the dictatorship of the private employer. Similarly, reducing minimum wages would force the entire nation into a state of bonded labour.
On the other hand, strengthening of labour laws would provide security and safety to the workers and ensure that they have adequate purchasing power to allow for the growth of the economy.
In this context, we seek that the Karnataka government take the following steps:
- Ensure strict enforcement of the Ministry of Home Affairs order dated 29th March, 2020: The order mandated that “All the employers, be it in the industry or in the shops and commercial establishments, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their work places, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments under closure during the lockdown.” In many establishments, wages have not been paid for the period of the lockdown. This has led to complete desperation amongst workers. Hence immediate steps should be taken to ensure complete compliance with the MHA order.
- Amend the Factories Act, 1948, to reduce working hours from eight to six and for the work to be done in multiple shifts, to enable workers to learn other skills for upward mobility.
- Enact a legislation that mandates the recognition of Trade Unions by establishments. This will ensure strict compliance with laws, and the balance between employers and workers.
- Ensuring permanent status to all contract, casual and daily wage workers. Workers from the unorganised sector suffered the most during lockdown. Immediate steps should be taken to enact law on lines of the Assam Industrial Establishments (Conferment of Permanent Status to Workmen) Act, 1985, conferring permanent status to workmen who have been in continuous service – whether daily wage employees, contract or casual – for a period of 180 days within 12 months.
- Increase minimum wages to Rs 26,000: One of the main reasons workers were left in such an impoverished state is due to the low wages paid to them which do not allow them to have any savings and compels them to run up high loans on heavy interest rates.
- Equal Pay for Equal Work: This has been reiterated by the Supreme Court in its order dated 26th October, 2016, in State Of Punjab And Ors vs Jagjit Singh. Despite this, contract/casual/daily wage workers, including those who have worked in the same post for over a decade, earn less than half of those designated as permanent workers. Hence equal pay has to be implemented now.
- Ensuring rights of workers in the management of their establishment: Article 43A of the Constitution mandates that the State shall take steps, by suitable legislation or in any other way, to secure the participation of workers in the management of undertakings, establishments or other organisations engaged in any industry. This should be enabled by law.
- Take steps to strengthen the health of workers: During the pandemic, it is necessary to take all steps to strengthen the health of workers and to ensure that they have access to a healthcare system. Hence it is necessary to strengthen ESI Hospitals, and to ensure that workers who are not covered by ESI are covered by appropriate medical care for themselves and their family.
- Ensure strict enforcement of the law and strengthen the Department of Labour : Fill all vacancies in the Department of Labour and issue clear instructions to ensure complete enforcement of labour legislations.
- Scheme workers to be recognised as workers and paid minimum wages: The government must recognise them as workers, ensure payment of minimum wages and extend job security and socio-economic security to them.
- Bring in a law to recognise domestic workers as workers and provide social security: The plight of the domestic workers is well known – they have no proper wages, no social security and absolutely no security of tenure. Despite being covered under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, they are paid far lesser. It is necessary that a law be passed to specifically protect them.
- Amend the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, to mandate revision of minimum wages every three years and provide service weightage: The Karnataka Minimum Wages Advisory Board had made a unanimous recommendation in its meeting dated 17.4.2015, to reduce the outer limit for revision of minimum wages from five years to three, and to provide service weightage. This has to be immediately implemented by amending the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
- Enact an Urban Employment Guarantee Act: Keeping in mind the large-scale unemployment now, it is necessary to enact a law along the lines of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, that guarantees the right to work to persons in urban areas.
- Contract Labour: Amend the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970, to mandate the abolition of contract labour in all establishments, private and public, and simultaneous absorption of the erstwhile contract workers in the regular workforce with continuity of service and all benefits.
- Pourakarmikas: Recognise the caste-based nature of employment of pourakarmikas in solid waste management, and immediately implement the IPD Salappa Report and the recommendations of the Report of the three-member official Committee titled ‘Proposed Road Map and Guidelines for the Comprehensive Development of Safai Karmacharis’ dated 20.06.2013.
- Manual scavenging: Take measures to eradicate manual scavenging, including by the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and frame a “Rehabilitation Policy for Manual Scavengers” along the lines of the provisions of Part IV of the Act. The State Government must implement all the recommendations in the Report of the Committee constituted by the Hon’ble High Court in W.P. No. 30221/2009 (PIL) dated 28.03.2011.
- Street Vendors: State Government must bring about a programme under Section 31 and 32 of the Street Vendors (Protection Of Livelihood And Regulation Of Street Vending) Act, 2014, to ensure protection of street vendors’ livelihood by making available interest-free credit, insurance and other social security schemes, including dovetailing it with the central government scheme for street vendors.
- Construction Workers: A large number of inter-state and intra-state migrants are working in the construction sector. Laws should be strictly enforced to ensure fair working conditions and safe and dignified living conditions for them. Further, all workers are not registered under the Building and other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. Employers should be mandated to ensure that all construction workers are registered under the Act.
[This article is based on a press release from AICCTU, and has been published with edits.]