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by Sanjit Kumar Chakraborty and Kanchan Yadav
5th July 2021

As India goes through a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the threat of a third wave looming, it is time to look back at how we have treated the nation’s essential workforce. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been deadly for India on many fronts, particularly when one considers the state’s social, economic and political diversity. The pandemic has had devastating effects, and most nations throughout the world have been forced to impose measures like social distancing and quarantining with the aim of curbing the immediate danger. However, such measures have had inconsistent effects on different sections of the population in India. On the one hand, some sectors like education and information technology have survived and even thrived through remote working mechanisms. However, the situation has been very different for manufacturing and production, where the extended complete and partial lockdowns have caused many factories to shut down, while others are struggling to survive. Similarly, as the nation’s white-collar workforce makes the most of its remote working opportunities to spend more time with family and pursue personal projects, for blue-collar workers and labourers, in the absence of a stable source of income, livelihood has been difficult indeed.

Labour reforms enacted by the states

After the first wave of the pandemic, as various industries and manufacturing sectors began to open up, several Indian states believed that labour law relaxations were necessary to ensure the reinvigoration of the economy. While quite a few states undertook these legislative changes, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat enacted the most sweeping reforms. These reforms were promulgated via government ordinances and notifications published in the state gazettes, and they suspended the working of most major labour legislation in these states.

The primary focus of these reforms was to provide certain relaxations to industries, and exempt them from the purview of various important legislations such as the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, the Factories Act 1948 and the Minimum Wages Act 1948. In all three states, and in other states that implemented such relaxations, the scope of the relaxations has been set at three years or 1000 days, which will stretch well into 2023. Employers are likely to receive the primary benefits of these reforms because they no longer need to comply with essential requirements relating to the wages and overtime of their workers. As the maximum working hours requirements are relaxed, a 12-hour work day could now be imposed on labourers with no pay for overtime.

The implementing states have claimed that such reforms are essential to ensure their economic revitalisation by attracting investment. The lockdowns had left many daily workers without a job, and thus without a source of income. In this context, these relaxations are expected to achieve two distinct benefits. On the one hand, existing employers will be motivated to hire more workers and operate at increased efficiency. On the other, many new investors, both Indian and foreign, may be enthused to benefit from this window of relaxation. In this way, as the states claimed, these relaxations would be an essential component towards revitalising the economy.

Greater good or greater exploitation? 

While the apparent intention behind these reforms may have been noble, it cannot be ignored that such a move is a blatant violation of the fundamental rights of workers, as provided under the Indian Constitution as well as by the global standards for human rights set by various international instruments. The suspension of labour legislation means that the standards related to the workplace environment, such as lighting, temperature and dust and fumes, no longer need to be maintained by employers. Working for extended hours in such potentially unhealthy working conditions will be highly detrimental to workers’ physical and mental health, ultimately violating their right to life. The relaxations also provide lower inspection standards for the factories, which further paves the way for various illegal activities. Considering the power imbalance between employers and the workers, the absence of such a checks-and-balances system will essentially mean that employers can get away with almost anything.

Additionally, it is debatable whether these relaxations will result in economic recovery or facilitate a poverty cycle for a significant proportion of the population. Workers will now face a choice between having to join the workforce under these revised guidelines that do not consider their health and safety, or face unemployment. Considering that due to lax implementation and other socioeconomic factors, employers already have a liberal regime in India, it is also doubtful how far such relaxations will fulfil their objective of securing additional investment.

Sanjit Kumar Chakraborty is presently serving as an Assistant Professor of Law at the WB National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata. Teaching since 2005, his area of interest remains Law and Justice, Intellectual Property Law of Plants, and Human Rights Issues.

Kanchan Yadav is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, and a Research Assistant at the WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She is passionate about contemporary issues pertaining to International Trade Law, Climate Justice, Human Rights, and Law and Technology.

Read India’s labour force during a pandemic: how we have failed by Sanjit Kumar Chakraborty and Kanchan Yadav  from the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.

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