Workers are up in arms against the latest labour code bill. It amalgamates three old and very successful industrial laws — Trade Unions Act 1926, Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act 1946, and Industrial Disputes Act 1947 — to draft a new one that contractualises their work, introducing the concept of “fixed term employment” across sectors, and curtails their right to strike. Strikes will now be seen as mass casual leaves if engaged in without a 14-day notice.
The law also chips away at their collective negotiating power: a trade union will be recognised only if it has the support of 75 per cent or more workers, compared to the earlier 60 per cent. Termination of service on completion of tenure in a fixed-term employment will no longer be termed retrenchment. This bill is part of a four-bill package merging 44 labour laws. Industry has welcomed the bill, saying it will improve the ease of doing business and streamline the relationship between managements and workers.
It can’t be denied that strikes and lockdowns are a big loss of man-hours and have led to a tragic breakdown of ethical work culture among white collar workforces. But also remember that if an individual goes to court, or an industrial tribunal, they don’t have any staying power versus big business.
This is where support from co-workers comes in handy, and not only as witnesses. It becomes more pertinent as the bill doesn’t care to expand the definition of employee, while contractualising jobs.
With much unorganised labour already performed traditionally and technology changing the structure of other jobs, we have entered what is known as the “gig economy”, where the worker isn’t necessarily attached to a workplace and expects payment on the basis of tasks performed rather than hours worked. Will such a worker, say in the garments or bidi industry, then be sacked without notice or denied the minimum wage? What if they are working for two rival taxi apps, for instance? Will they be considered an employee of both companies?
These employees are being told that they are entrepreneurs without capital, when in reality they’re only poorly paid workers. There is much uncertainty and confusion in this new bill.
Like the minimum wages code passed a few months ago, which stopped short of defining a central floor wage even as MNREGA wages post-hike came out as less than the minimum wage set by states (and last month, the government released the Code on Wages Central Rules draft, under which the floor wage would be less than half of Rs 375 per day as suggested by its own ministry and far less than the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendation), the industrial relations code too left critical areas unaddressed. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the bill, in this form, is not, by far, labour’s most important legislative need.