KAUSTUBH SINGH THAKUR
A shabbily dressed person, looking distressed, sweating in hot winds and carrying bricks on his head; believe it or not, this is the picture that comes to one’s mind when we hear the word ‘labour’. But what we often fail to realize is that this person is the reason for the sustenance of mankind. We get to eat because this person works hard on farms, we get to wear because this person sells his services in the factories and we get to live under a roof because this person carries heavy weight on his head. He is the one who pushes the wheel of the economy with his strong and determined arms; but the irony is that he does not have ‘food, clothing and shelter’ for himself. The plight of the generally suppressed labour has worsened as the Covid – 19 pandemic hit India. Unfortunately, it is ready to suffer even more at the hands of the existing power structure as their plight has been taken to another level by abolishment of certain labour laws by states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The suspension of such laws means taking away the little protection this vulnerable collective had. It is a well-planned attempt to achieve economic growth at the cost of suffering, discomfort and pain of this powerless group.
The Uttar Pradesh Government on May 8, 2020, cleared the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, exempting factories and other manufacturing establishments in the state from the obligations contained under various labour laws, for a period of three years. It also issued a notification relaxing the provisions relating to working hours, overtime, intervals for rest, etc. as stipulated under Sections 51, 54, 56 and 59 of the Factories Act. The newly formed Madhya Pradesh Government also announced certain labour law exemptions for the next 1000 days. Inspired by these moves, the Gujarat Government announced labour law exemptions for 1200 days and the Assam Government announced a provision for fixed-term employment.
The equilibrium between demand and supply in the economy has been seriously affected during this health crisis. Due to the lockdown measures and inter-state movement of the labourers, the manufacturing and industrial sector is facing a serious downfall. From the government’s point of view, primarily, the step has been taken to revive the economic activity in the wake of tough situation created by the global pandemic. The aim is to encourage investment (both domestic and foreign) and domestic production of goods and services which in turn will increase the income and demand in the market. The move is to ensure ease of doing business, a necessary corollary of which is that it is employer-centric as it exempts him from many legal duties and obligations under various state and central laws. Even if we keep this objective in consideration, the suspension of some laws is very irrational and baseless. For instance, the ordinance in UP has exempted the employer from elementary duties of providing access of drinking water, first aid boxes, cleanliness, protective equipment, ventilation to workers. There is no way this could act as catalyst for investment, as the decision to invest or not of any prudent and reasonable investor would not be affected by the presence of these provisions. In fact, this would just lead to the denial of most basic and primary rights and requirements of the workers by the employers.
THE CONSTITUTIONALITY TEST
The Constitution of India, often adorned as transformative constitution, envisaged a change in social structure on the lines of equality, liberty and dignity of all. The drafters of the constitution worked towards establishing equality and ending exploitation of the vulnerable, thus moving away from traditional and hierarchical society in which interests of many were sacrificed for the benefit of remaining powerful lot. A collective reading of the provisions for fundamental rights and DPSPs clearly indicate that dignity of each and every individual is sacrosanct, which is under serious threat due to the so-called reforms in law.
The unavailability of protections like Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act and Minimum Wages Act would lead to the situation of bondage and it is en route to modern slavery. The constitution strictly deals with the evil of forced labour and it is clear from Article 23(1) which is read as, “Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” Further, the Supreme Court has observed that, “any wages below the nominal wages amounts to a situation of bondage”. Similarly, highlighting the importance of safe and secure working conditions for workers, the Supreme Court in Consumer Education & Research… v. Union of India has observed that, “employer is duty-bound to provide safe and secure condition of work as the same is a part of his right to life with dignity enshrined under Article 21 of the constitution.”
The move to suspend labour laws is in direct contravention of directive principles given in the constitution. It is the sacred duty of the state to maintain social order and to provide socio-economic justice to the people. The exploitation of labour class would push them into destitution, further aggravating the evils like beggary and child labour. In this way, the states have omitted to perform their responsibility of ensuring holistic development of the children. Further, the rights of the medically vulnerable have been put to risk, as pregnancy and other medical conditions would now mean termination of the employment, thus adding insult to the injury.
The temporary revocation of labour law is not only against the directive principles but it is also in direct contravention of the most basic and fundamental values cherished by our constitution, as already discussed above. The values like equality, liberty and dignity which are crux of any democratic polity have been put at stake, which implies that the said revocation is not only anti-social but also unconstitutional. This is the reason why International Labour Organization, central government and judiciary are taking a hard look at the harsh step taken by states like UP, MP and Gujarat.
The UP Workers Front, through Advocates Pranjal Shukla and Vinayak Mitthal had moved the High Court challenging the constitutionality of temporary labour law exemption ordinance. The matter was heard by the bench comprising of Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Siddhartha Varma, which issued notices to the Government and posted the matter for consideration on May 18. On May 15, 2020, the Uttar Pradesh Government withdrew its notification on relaxing certain labour laws. Niti Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar, in an interview said that in recent weeks various state governments had made amendments to existing labour laws. Further, he mentioned that the Union Government does not believe that the reform of laws implies complete abolition of labour laws and has hence instructed the states against it. As an alternative to this he suggested that the financial sector and especially banking sector should now become less risk averse and improve the credit flow to the MSMEs as well other segments of economy. If that happens, then the demand will revive and we will see the revival of economic activities in the country. He emphasized that if we get our act together and we get the right policies to target companies which are making plans to move out of China, there is no reason to believe that they will not shift to India.
Ensuring top notch infrastructure, cheap credit facilities and availability of skilled labour by providing them proper training would come handy in providing an impetus to the domestic production of the goods and services. Whatever the objectives may be, such an attempt is not only unconstitutional but also inhuman. Resorting to inhuman and unconstitutional methods like suspension of labour laws may or may not revive the economy but they will, no doubt, destruct the social fabric of the country. Equality, liberty and dignity are the fundamental values which should not be compromised in the light of economic growth. The growth in the economy would be of no avail if its benefits do not reach everyone equally. Such growth would only lead to concentration of income and wealth. It cannot be denied that the ends are bona fide and for the collective good of all but the means do not take into consideration greatest good of greatest number as many poor people have been asked to compromise for the good of some rich.
- LiveLaw News Network, Allahabad HC Issues Notice to UP Govt On PIL Challenging Relaxation of Labour Laws on Working Hours, Overtime, Etc. LiveLaw https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/allahabad-hc-issues-notice-to-up-govt-on-pil-challenging-relaxation-of-labour-laws-on-working-hours-overtime-etc-read-order-156763?infinitescroll=1
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- A.M. Jigeesh, ILO expresses deep concern at ‘suspension’ of labour laws, THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/ilo-expresses-deep-concern-at-suspension-of-labour-laws/article31673364.ece#
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 LiveLaw News Network, Allahabad HC Issues Notice to UP Govt On PIL Challenging Relaxation of Labour Laws on Working Hours, Overtime, Etc. [Read Order], LiveLaw (May 14, 2020, 5:43 PM) https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/allahabad-hc-issues-notice-to-up-govt-on-pil-challenging-relaxation-of-labour-laws-on-working-hours-overtime-etc-read-order-156763?infinitescroll=1
 Rakesh Dwivedi, Mazdur : Suspension of Labour Laws, LiveLaw (May 12, 2020, 4:11 PM) https://www.livelaw.in/columns/mazdur-suspension-of-labour-laws-156637?infinitescroll=1
 LiveLaw News Network, Relaxation Of Labour Laws: A Route To Modern Day Slavery, LiveLaw (17 May 2020, 1:27 PM) https://www.livelaw.in/columns/relaxation-of-labour-laws-a-route-to-modern-day-slavery-156898
 Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors., (1989) 10 S.C.C 549.
 Consumer Education & Research… v. Union of India, (1995) 3 S.C.C 42.
 A.M. Jigeesh, ILO expresses deep concern at ‘suspension’ of labour laws, The Hindu Business Line (May 25 2020) https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/ilo-expresses-deep-concern-at-suspension-of-labour-laws/article31673364.ece#
 LiveLaw News Network, UP Govt Withdraws Controversial Notification For 12-hour Shift For Industrial Workers, LiveLaw (May 16, 2020, 2:22 PM) https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/up-govt-withdraws-controversial-notification-for-12-hour-shift-for-industrial-workers-156857
 PTI, Reforms do not mean complete abolition of labour laws, says Rajiv Kumar, The Economic Times (May 24, 2020, 9:40 PM) https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/reforms-do-not-mean-complete-abolition-of-labour-laws-says-rajiv-kumar/articleshow/75941042.cms