On International Labour Day 2017, Modi government’s Labour Ministry held an event in Delhi, where officials spent most of their time showcasing portals and apps launched by the government for ‘ease of doing business.’ That, in a nutshell sums up the BJP-led NDA government’s sham of “empowering” the vast army of workers, the backbone of India’s ‘robust’ GDP growth.
The motto of the Modi government in the last three years has been clear -- roll out the red carpet for foreign investors and industry and give them a free hand to hire and fire, while throttling labour rights and wages.
The last three years, therefore, have seen the worst attacks on workers’ rights and livelihoods. Adding to this onslaught was the sudden demonetisation in November 2016, leading to withdrawal of 85 per cent high-value currency notes in circulation that destroyed about 4 lakh jobs in the cash-dependent small and micro sector. So, while millions of workers were struggling to survive, digital payment agencies, such as Paytm made a killing.
The BJP-led NDA government has brought in labour law ‘reforms’ to take away whatever little protection workers had earlier, that too without thorough discussion with trade unions.
Simultaneously, the Modi government unleashed aggressive privatisation of even profit-making central public sector units, which threatens to take away more jobs. Once again, Reliance Mutual Fund has been appointed to provide consultancy and execute Modi’s privatisation project!
The Modi government’s aggressive privatisation comes at a time when the unemployment rate is rising (projected to rise from 17.7 million last year to 17.8 million in 2017 and 18 million next year. In percentage terms, the unemployment rate will remain at 3.4 per cent in 2017-18, as per ILO). There has been a marked decline in female participation in the workforce, lakhs of vacant posts are not being filled, there are massive closures & layoffs even in the IT industry, and the number of industries turning sick has risen. With real wages stagnant or falling, the rising prices of essentials, such as rice, wheat and dal, as well as of transport (despite falling global crude oil prices), the lives of workers have never been so miserable.
With over 90 per cent of unorganised sector workers having no social security and growing contractualisation and casualisation of labour, the Modi government is also hell bent on appropriating the hard-earned retirement savings (provident fund) of organised sector workers and invests these in the stock market, fooling them in the name of “better returns.”
The attack on labour rights began as soon as the foreign investor and industry-friendly Modi government took charge in 2014. A ‘labour law reform laboratory’ was set up in Rajasthan, which was later followed by other BJP-ruled States, such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh etc, with the sole agenda of climbing up on the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ ranking under the garb of ‘simplifying’ labour laws to suit corporate interests.
Amendments were brought in to the Factories Act and the Apprentice Act, a new law was formulated for small industries to keep 80 per cent units out of the purview of labour laws.
What’s more, unions would not be registered unless they have the support of 30 per cent employees, against 15 per cent earlier. Also, the Factories Act would apply on companies that have more than 50 employees. The earlier limit was 20 workers.
The Modi government also plans to amalgamate 44 Central laws into five codes. A code on wages has already been drafted. The second code on industrial relations will amalgamate three laws -- the Industrial Disputes Act, the Trade Union Act and the Standing Order Act. Three more codes are being planned -- social security, health and safety, and working conditions.
To sum up, the three years of Modi government saw intensification of multi-cornered attacks on workers and their rights, a complete disregard for the united voice of workers, which was so evident by the massive response to two general strikes called by 10 central trade unions in which 150-180 million workers took part.
The massive response to the general strike calls, the huge protest by women garment workers and anganwadi workers in Karnataka, which brought the government to its knees, and hundreds of strikes going on in factories across India, are all warning bells for the Modi government. Ignore workers at your own peril!
Following attacks have been launched by amending different laws
* The Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, 2014 seeks to exempt firms with up to 40 employees from compliance with six major labour laws. Makes it easier for the owners to hire and fire workers at will.
* The Labour Code on Wages Bill, 2015, seeks to replace four laws pertaining to minimum wages, payment of salaries and benefits.
* Virtual exemption for start-up firms, including five-year-old registered establishments with annual turnover of not more than Rs 25 crore, from obligations under nine basic labour laws.
*Amendments to the Apprentices Act that direct State governments to absorb half of the apprentices cost for a company having less than 250 workers, opening the doors for employers to replace regular workers with apprentices.
* Under the Industrial Relations Code Bill 2015, employers with up to 300 workers would not require government permission for retrenchment, lay off and closure.
What we demand?
1) End all moves to dilute and kill existing labour laws
2) Strengthen labour law enforcement machinery
3) Introduce punitive fines and jail terms for violation of basic labour laws
4) Stop privatisation
5) Stop contracterisation and casualisation. Regularise such workers
6) Stop concessions on labour laws for foreign investors
7) Allow free and untrammeled right of workers to organise and use all legal means of protest including strikes