Labourers of India, unite!
Manipulated by inspectorates, governments and the system itself – labourers of our country are shackled by distrust and deceit
The trade union movement in India is today stuck between a devil and the deep sea kind of situation. Labour inspectorates have been the most corrupt outfits. In major industrial centres, labour inspectors would promptly visit industries once in every six months, only to take a fixed amount as bribe and leave. Whenever workers reported a complaint, they would promptly hand over the names of the complainants to the management. True, they would also pinch the corporate pockets with their bribe demands but they would harm the workers' interests much more.
Workers of the country will shed no tears if the factory inspection regime in its old form goes for a toss. But employers have been equating inspector raj with license raj, making enforcement of laws appear as harassment and crusading for its dismantling. The government did oblige and in the pretext of ending inspector raj, it is doing away with labour inspection and the enforcement of laws itself.
For apparent ease of doing business, it has been proposed that employers filing single unified annual returns in place of maintaining separate registers and filing half-yearly returns under eight different labour laws and 10 central rules would suffice. Earlier, employers had to maintain 56 registers and now, this has been reduced to five registers only. Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment Act, 2014, was passed to this end. Start-ups and MSMEs can file self-certified returns, implying that there would be no inspection. Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, 2014, sought to exempt small units (up to 40 workers) from the applicability of 14 labour laws. The very system of compliance with labour laws is being whittled down with the elusive promise of ending corrupt labour inspectorates. The baby too is going down with the bathwater. What is gradually replacing the inspector raj is lawless jungle raj.
But the issue will not vanish and labour struggles will only flare up with greater ferocity. This was clearly evident when 350 workers of Motherson Automotive Technologies & Engineering, an auto component unit rallying under AICCTU, went on a strike from August 26, 2019. One of the key demands of the workers was that all those who had put in 480 days of work over two years should be regularised as per law. Though there are more than 2,000 workers, the management shows only 568 as regular workers, around 500 as NEEM trainees and around 1,000 workers as contract workers. Further, it keeps trainees endlessly as trainees, in violation of the law. The industry, which is located in Pondur in Oragadam, supplies components to auto majors like Hyundai and Nissan.
This is particularly notable as workers have boldly embarked on a struggle, defying the threats of shutdown due to the auto industry slowdown. It should also be noted that the Tamil Nadu government notified a ban on strikes in auto component industries recently, after which, the AICCTU had moved the Madras HC and obtained a stay on that ban – and, in the very next month, this struggle unfolded. More importantly, workers and trade union leaders from both Hyundai and Nissan visited the spot of protest and sat with the struggling workers in solidarity. With the government giving a free license to evade compliance with labour laws, there would be many more Mothersons in the days to come.
It is not only a question of workers' own employment security. The enforcement of various labour laws covers vital issues like occupational health and safety, child labour prevention, equal remuneration for women, enforcement of maternity benefits and prevention of allocating them hazardous work, and payment of minimum wages. Enforcement of ESI and PF rights of workers also fall under the purview of inspections as also does the regulation of contract workers. There are wide variations in enforcement provisions across states, whose autonomy and federal rights to have their own labour regulation regimes appears smeared.
Under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, during 2010–14, more than 9.73 lakh inspections were carried out, resulting in approximately 0.24 lakh prosecutions and 6,101 convictions. This lends insight into the scale of violations. The license to criminality cannot be the essence of labour reforms under any rule of law.
The Indian Labour Year Book 2015, summarising data from the annual returns under the Factories Act, says that in 2013 there were 1,00,932 factories in India out of which only 22,447 were inspected. In other words, only around one-fifth of the factories were facing inspection on law enforcement and, even this paltry record of enforcement is now being abolished.
How effective the labour inspection regime in India has been is being revealed by the Motherson struggle itself. After the struggle began, when a team of labour inspectors visited the factory, even while they were entering through one gate, the management hurriedly sent out 300 workers through another gate! The workers are waiting for the inspection report and are preparing to take the labour inspectorate also to task if they give a clean chit to the management. The workers, not only of Motherson and the auto majors for which it is supplying components, but also of other component units in this Special Economic Zone area have volunteered to come and participate in the struggle to show solidarity as they understand clearly that under these labour reforms, the end of inspector raj implies an end of the inspection system – and, instead of ending
corruption in the inspection system, they are ending law enforcement itself. The consciousness is spreading fast among workers that the degree of compliance of employers with the labour laws is directly proportional to the strength of their unions, intensity of their struggles and the extent of solidarity among them.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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