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No safety net for labour

The recent dilution of labour laws by some states must be reversed keeping worker interests in mind

No safety net for labour

The migrant labour issue brought forth during the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated into a humanitarian crisis. The relief announced by the Centre comes in as last-minute succour to a situation that has largely spiralled out of control. Initial critiques of the economic package suggest that the measures have come too late and that more funds need to be allocated to alleviate the woes of India's migrant workers; currently, Rs 3,500 crore has been earmarked.

I believe that there is no right time to correct wrongs than immediate, proactive action that ensures that the relief and sops reach the intended speedily. It is also vital to ensure that no policy or action henceforth attacks the well-being of our already beleaguered nation-builders. Unfortunately, even before the Central Government announced the economic package for migrant labour, some state governments went ahead and diluted labour laws with the aim of providing an impetus to the industry but also thwarting the workers' interests.

The fallout of the Coronavirus crisis has deeply impacted businesses. Many sectors have been completely wiped out while others are struggling. There is no denying that complete lockdowns with zero economic activity are not in the best interest of any country. The best way forward would be to open up the most essential activities while exercising caution and taking adequate precautions.

In all this, the most important aspect will be human capital, after all, it is our workforce that keeps factories running and services flowing. Companies in the services space such as IT and others that can afford to do so have extended work-from-home options to employees for extended periods. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said that his employees can work from home forever; a choice that many companies are likely to offer to their staff. These steps pertain to industries that can allow work from remote and is a much-needed initiative in a COVID-19 active world.

But what of the workers who have to be present on factory floors and construction sites? These workers (called 'migrant labour' even though many of us white-collar folk who work in non-native cities are also 'migrant labour') build the foundation on which our nation's economy stands. Thousands have spent days on the road with no support from governments fuelled by their desire to go home. Why did they choose to go home you ask? Well, when livelihood vanished overnight, these workers on meagre wages had no way to support themselves. Going back home, even if it meant traversing thousands of kilometres across state borders, seem a more viable option for survival.

These workers have now gone home or have boarded Shramik Special trains already. Most do not ever want to go back to the congested cities to earn paltry earnings. Sadly, the recent dilution of labour laws by BJP-led state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka is further inimical to those same workers. Other BJP states such as Goa and Himachal Pradesh, Congress states such as Punjab and Rajasthan, BJD-led Odisha, and Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra have also announced a few changes to labour laws as well. Of all the states, Uttar Pradesh's decision to suspend all labour laws including the 'Minimum Wages Act' for the next three years is most far-reaching.

To put succinctly, industries in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh can coerce their workers to work 72 hours every week (earlier this was 48 hours). This would also mean longer work-days for labourers stretching from 8 hours to 12 hours now. At least for three months, labourers will not be able to avail overtime pay either. And with most labour laws diluted, the physical health and safety of the labourer are also not safeguarded. Industries would also be able to hire and fire at will as per market conditions.

For years, India has been discussing the need for labour reforms that would be enabling to the industry while also protecting workers' interests and bringing the unorganised labour force into the organised fold. Better wages, health cover, are all essential components for workers and easing of restrictive labour laws is imperative for businesses to function. But one cannot come at the cost of the other.

The dilution of labour laws will lead to the exploitation of an already marginalised class of people who have been suffering most in the Coronavirus fallout. The new diktats across states also flout the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention where India is a signatory. Understandably, trade unions in India, including RSS labour wing, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, have been up in arms protesting this slew of changes.

With medical luminaries suggesting that COVID-19 is here to stay, the biggest hurdle in restarting the economy would be the availability of a healthy workforce. At a time, when staying home and practising social distancing is being encouraged, these workers will be bearing considerable risk in even re-joining work. Their safety and well-being should be top of the mind for all governments and businesses. Therefore, instead of impinging on the rights of the workers, providing them COVID-free working environments along with attractive wages including overtime, would incentivise rather than strong-arm the labour force.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are strictly personal

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