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Does India need industries to restart at the cost of diluted labour laws?

Shafiq Akhtar, a 34 year-old recently shifted from Mumbai to his native town in Uttar Pradesh to be closer to his family and save more money. While Akhtar was working as an air-conditioner technician in Mumbai and earning about Rs 12,000-15,000 a month, he was unable to save any money due to the high living costs in the city. He found a job at a chemical factory at his home state but is now worried about the sudden change in labour laws.

“We may be forced to work overtime and be still paid a pittance. This company I work at manufacturers chemicals used in making disinfectants. We barely get any safety equipment as protection and work more than the daily shift. Now the condition could get worse but I have no other choice,” said Akhtar to Moneycontrol.

Akhtar is among 450 million informal and contractual workers in India who may face a tough time amidst dilution of labour laws in states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh among others.

While the idea of the state governments is to boost economic activity that has seen a sudden dip due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, both trade unions and human rights activists are questioning this move.

The idea here is to increase the work hours and also dilute laws related to industrial disputes and occupational safety so that corporates can ‘get back to work’ and avoid disruptions. But the pertinent question here is that should the country force-start economic activity by pushing workers to a tougher work condition with barely any rights against exploitation and measly pay?

A report said that Labour and Employment Ministry pointed to 47 worker injuries and three deaths occurring every day in factories across India. With dilution of labour laws, the injuries owing to worker fatigue and overwork will only climb steeply.

With no responsibility being placed on companies to uphold worker rights and safety, mid-sized and smaller entities are expected to take full advantage of the COVID-19 situation and make 12 hour shifts in factories and construction sites the new normal.

Workers wouldn’t have any rights to protest employer decisions related to retrenchment, payment of overtime wages nor would be able to set up/join labour unions.

Several state governments are planning to pass ordinances giving employees virtually a ‘free-hand’. Workers may be forced to work long hours without breaks and in unsafe environments. Also, lawful organisation of workers through labour unions to protest ill-treatment of staff would also be outlawed.

Realistically speaking, a worker at a construction site could be forced to report to work even if he/she is unwell and may be sacked if they go on leave or complain about inadequate safety gear.

Worse still, workers would be at the mercy of the respective industry/site owner who could hire and fire at their will. For migrants and daily-wage earners with no source of income, these conditions could be the new normal as they would be forced to accept all regressive terms and conditions.

While there is a dire need to reform archaic labour laws in the country, there is a set constitutional process that needs to be followed. Unification of the 13 labour laws is in process by the central government and is in the right direction to bring a single code for wages and worker safety. But, abrupt dilution of labour laws to suit industry needs is not viable and will affect productivity in the long term.

Agreed that COVID-19 has presented India with a tough choice between starting up, resuming production and maintaining minimal infection spread, but opening up cannot be at the cost health and basic rights of of several million workers.

If economic productivity has to come at the cost of the health and safety of the 450 million strong workforce working in small and big industrial units across India, the state governments may need to ponder if this is worth the risk.