Even though the Prime Minister has championed importance of labour in India’s long march to progress and has wielded a new mantra ‘Shramev Jayate’ in his arsenal of verbal quick fixes to economic woes, it seems the government is in two minds when it comes to reconfiguring labour relations in the country. On the one hand, it is diluting MGNREGA and moving funds to make the scheme more capital intensive than labour intensive. However, on the other, it has brought in significant changes in the draft Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill 2014, released by the ministry of labour and employment recently, that look to reduce the red tape and make it easier to obtain jobs in the unorganised sector.
While it is making a single comprehensive law to take care of small factories employing less than 40 people, freeing it of various complicated laws such as factories act of 1948, industrial disputes act of 1947, there’s a flipside to the proposed legislation. It is also taking the small enterprise sector out of the purview of important legal safeguards such as the minimum wages act of 1948, the payment of bonus act of 1965, the maternity benefit act of 1961 and the employees compensation act of 1923. Unless the comprehensive law gives equal credence to these crucial clauses, which attempt to bring in a semblance of parity and justice in the much-skewed employer-employee relations, how can we say that the newly introduced changes are reformist in nature?
While digitisation and forming a unified labour portal are commendable moves, bringing in transparency, accountability and portability in labour inspection and job circuit, what does the scheme say about minimum wages or guaranteeing employment? As PM Modi stresses on skill development and improves accessibility to vocational training in lieu of white-collar jobs, why is he also inclined to take away safety nets that ensure at least hundred days of employment for the rural poor? It seems the PM is shifting the state gaze from rural unorganised sector to its urban counterpart. Moreover, digitisation and technologies of better record-keeping, while extremely important to ensure transparency, will not guarantee increase in minimum wages or better working conditions, particularly in smaller factories. How does the new law plan to combat ritual flouting of safety norms and hazardous conditions in our industries?