While announcing the first extension of the national lockdown on April 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had exhorted industry leaders in the country to be compassionate to their workers and not fire them though they, too, were facing tough times. His target audience operating in a recession-bound economy would have been in double mind on ways to put the Prime Minister’s advice to practice. They don’t have to worry anymore. Mr Modi’s colleagues in the political class in many a state have come up with measures which offer a labour law holiday to them, something that they would not even have dreamt of in these pandemic times.
It all started with the Uttar Pradesh government clearing the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, which suspends 35 of the 38 laws relating to industrial disputes, occupational safety, health and working conditions of workers, trade unions, contract workers, and migrant labourers. It was followed by the governments in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan keeping the labour laws in abeyance for varying periods on the plea that the industry needed freedom from strict labour laws to tide over the crisis.
In Madhya Pradesh, the state government will exempt new manufacturing units from all, but some provisions, in the Factories Act, 1948 for the next 1,000 days. The new units will now be able to operate without following safety and health norms; they can hire and fire at will. Among the laws put in cold storage are the acts governing minimum wages.
The obnoxious suggestion of extended working hours for Indian labour came first from N.R. Narayana Murthy, once czar of the Indian information technology industry, which has largely remained a body shopping enterprise for the last three decades of its existence. His demand has now found many takers as states would now vie with one another for a share in the investment pie, which, they hope, would fly off China and land in India.
It’s welcome that states want to attract investment and create jobs. But it should not be made possible by stripping the working class of all its rights. An investment-friendly atmosphere can be created by easing governmental processes, cutting the red tape and offering fiscal and tax incentives. The government of Kerala has announced certain steps towards this end.
The government must realise that it is illogical, undemocratic, immoral and inhuman to put the workers at the receiving end at a time when a virus threatens the future not only of the industry but also of the economy and even the human race. It is time the Prime Minister stepped in and advised his political colleagues to observe economic dharma, which he himself had suggested to the industry captains. And he has the power to make them fall in line, as most these legal changes need the concurrence of the Union government before their implementation. All the central trade unions, including the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, have decried the anti-labour move. The Prime Minister must walk the talk.