India’s Labour Laws Are About to Change, But It Won’t Happen Without a Pitched Battle


India’s Labour Laws Are About to Change, But It Won’t Happen Without a Pitched Battle

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

While addressing a press conference on the Atmanirbhar package last week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the government is working on combining 35-odd labour laws into four codes. She clarified that the Government would do it through the normal procedure in Parliament and not take the Ordinance route.

However, it has failed to do so in the past. “We have seen that since 2014 whenever the Central government wasn’t able to implement the changes to the labour laws at the central level it shifts the onus on to the state governments. The States have been able to primarily drive some of the contentious labour law changes in the past,” labour economist and XLRI professor KR Shyam Sundar said.

The Centre is pushing States to undertake labour law reforms, as it stays away from the ordinance route. The Central Government’s proposal to State Governments to increase working hours has already been taken up by upto 10 states, who have increased working hours from 8 to 12 hours. These include Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, MP, Uttarakhand, Assam, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

A letter sent by the Union labour and employment ministry to the Andhra Pradesh government has asked the State to “expedite” the increase in the daily working limit to 12 hours from eight and to introduce fixed-term employment “to address Covid-19.” Some State governments like Assam are initiating steps to change the labour laws in the same manner as was proposed in the letter sent by the Union labour secretary to the AP government.

The move by states has come into heavy criticism from central trade unions who have opposed the move. Some of the orders have even been challenged in courts and a legal battle is set to follow. Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the labour arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has asked the Centre to intervene to stop the state governments from making changes in labour laws against the interest of workers.

The BMS said that the workers affiliated to the organisation held protests in mines in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, besides a number of public sector units. “The BMS also raised the issue of massive job losses as well as few state governments allowing the increase in working hours,” said general secretary Vrijesh Upadhyay.

Days after some Indian states introduced changes to labour laws in a bid to revive the economy, the World Bank’s India director said it is important that labour policies of the Centre and states meet and help labourers work in better conditions. Commenting on the recent changes in labour laws, World Bank’s India country director Junaid Kamal Ahmad said, “There were changes at the state level and there have been changes at the national level. I think it is very important that the two must meet.”

As more states carry on law changes, the criticism from the opposition parties and trade unions is getting louder, and a plea has even reached the Supreme Court, against labour law dilution.