“Slave-Like Working Conditions”: Does UP’s Ordinance on Labour Laws Violate Workers’ Fundamental Rights?


“Slave-Like Working Conditions”: Does UP’s Ordinance on Labour Laws Violate Workers’ Fundamental Rights?

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

As migrant labourers in many states continue to see the worst of the nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, an ordinance issued in Uttar Pradesh has set alarm bells ringing once again.

The state, on Thursday, accepted an ordinance that would do away with labour laws for the next three years. While the Yogi Adityanath-led government has said this would offset some of the losses incurred by the economy during the lockdown, observers and experts have implied that it may lead to “slave-like working conditions” in the state.

The idea behind the “Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020”, UP chief secretary RK Tiwari said, is to “provide employment to workers who have migrated back” as well as “protect the existing employment”.

As per the ordinance, only four labour laws will be retained for the next 1,000 days. These relate to payment of wages, bonded labour, and protection for workers with disabilities. The provisions related to the protection of women and children will also continue.

However, it’s the laws that have been excluded from the act, including a few related to occupational safety, the minimum wage, settling of industrial disputes, and health and working conditions, that have caught experts off guard.

“This move of the Uttar Pradesh government turns the clock back by more than 100 years. It will lead to slave-like conditions. It’s unacceptable, and in violation of human and fundamental rights. This move should be legally challenged,” labour law advocate Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan has been quoted as saying.

A day before Uttar Pradesh’s ordinance made headlines, another BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh, announced that it would make sweeping changes to labour laws. Since then, the state government has said that the working hours in factories will be increased from 8 to 12 hours a day. It has also allowed up to 72 hours in overtime.

Much like UP, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has said the aim behind leaving out crucial provisions of the Factories Act, 1948, was to generate employment opportunities. He has also said the working hours are “optional” and overtime will be paid for. But he hasn’t managed to convince everyone, especially those who went through the exemptions with a fine comb.

Both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh’s reforms have been sent to the Centre for approval, so this isn’t likely to be the last time labour laws make headlines. Hopefully the central government will take all of the criticism into account.