POLITICS
08/05/2020 7:00 PM IST | Updated 09/05/2020 1:29 AM IST

UP Govt’s Suspension Of Labour Laws Could Greenlight Bonded Labour. Here’s Why

The Yogi Adityanath govt’s move will lead to a dangerous situation, said Gunjan Singh, head of litigation at the Human Rights Law Network.

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Migrant workers stand to board a special train to return to Agra, Uttar Pradesh, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of new coronavirus, at a railway station in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Saturday, May 2, 2020.

NEW DELHI —  The Uttar Pradesh government has cleared an ordinance that suspends almost all labour laws in the state for three years, including those that guarantee minimum wage, equal remuneration for women and men, fair practices of hiring and firing, and worker safety and sanitation. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP, led by chief minister Yogi Adityanath, said the move was necessary in order to revive economic activity and attract investment after the devastating fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The laws that remain are Section 5 of The Payment of Wages Act, 1936, The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and The Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996.

On Friday, a day after the UP government passed the ordinance, 16 migrant workers walking home from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh were run over by a goods train when they stopped to rest. Thousands of exhausted workers are attempting to walk home from cities, where they don’t have enough work, and in the absence of a support system from the government.

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Gunjan Singh, the head of litigation at the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), said it was the poor implementation of labour laws that led to the terrible suffering of migrant workers during the poorly planned national lockdown, and explained how the suspension of these legal protections will leave India’s poorest citizens vulnerable to the worst exploitation. 

Singh, who specialises in labour laws, said, “The consequence of suspending The Minimum Wages Act is forcing labourers into bonded labour. Indian jurisprudence recognises that payment below minimum wages amounts to a situation of bondage.”

The consequence of suspending The Minimum Wages Act is forcing labourers into bonded labour.

Edited excerpts:

When one reads a headline like ’Uttar Pradesh suspends all labour laws (with the exception of four laws), well, it just sounds unbelievable.

Definitely. During the lockdown, the main reason that migrant workers suffered is because of how poorly our labour laws have been implemented. We have to think about not just the consequence but the source as well. States had no idea how many migrant workers were in those states. There is an Act called the Interstate Migrant Workers Act that requires registration of migrant workers when they go from their home state to a destination state. Had it been done earlier, we would have had a record of the number of migrant workers in the state. If today, the government is planning to relax labour laws in order to focus on business, the first question that arises is ‘can any healthy democracy or any industrial relation exist only focusing on the business relation and not the labour aspects?’ It is going to be a huge crisis even in terms of capital management. No industrial relation can be healthy if the labour concerned is not being taken care of. 

Let’s break this down. How many labour laws are there in UP? Are these central or state laws?

It is a mix of both. There are 38 labour laws in UP of which 35 laws have been done away with and three have been kept. There are a few central acts like the Industrial Disputes Act, but Uttar Pradesh has its own Industrial Disputes Act that takes cognisance of the central Act.

What is an example of just a central Act that has been suspended in UP?  

The Employees’ Provident Funds Act. 

Can the state pass an ordinance suspending these laws?

The question that arises is ‘can the state pass an ordinance that does not pass the constitutional test?’

‘Can the state pass an ordinance that does not pass the constitutional test?’

What is the Act that has been suspended that is the most cause for concern?

In my opinion, the most important is the Industrial Disputes Act that governs the fields of employment and termination of workers. The suspension of the The Industrial Disputes Act would lead to complete lawlessness—employers will be at the liberty to hire and fire workers at their own will. 

The second Act that is being done away with is the Minimum Wages Act. What they have done is kept the Bonded Labour Act but they have exempted the Minimum Wages Act. Now what is the rationale behind keeping the Bonded Labour Act and keeping the Minimum Wages Act?  An employer has to give Rs. 100 per day for eight hours of work as per the Act. When the Act is suspended, what is stopping an employee from giving Rs. 40 per day? And the worker will not have any remedy to go to a court of law. The consequence of suspending The Minimum Wages Act is forcing labourers into bonded labour. Indian jurisprudence recognises that payment below minimum wages amounts to a situation of bondage. Right now, what is the situation? Labourers will work for any amount of money because their situation is so desperate. On the one hand, they are keeping the Bonded Labour Act to show that we are not forcing labourers into a situation of bondage, but on the other hand, exempting employees from paying minimum wages. The impact will be the same. If you are not giving minimum wages, the situation is of bondage. There are Supreme Court judgments on bonded labour — the most celebrated Bandhua Mukti Morcha judgment of 1984 — says that any payment below the nominal wages amounts to a situation of bondage. The government has created a situation where workers will not have the right to claim their minimum wages. 

If you are not giving minimum wages, the situation is of bondage.

Any other Act that is of particular concern?

The Factories Act, which has detailed provisions for safety of workers — any establishment has to have drinking water facilities, electricity, canteen — these labour laws were the product of a long workers’ struggle. Now in one blow, you have removed all these laws, putting labourers in a very precarious situation. We have already done a very poor job of implementation of labour laws, but with this ordinance, there is no statutory backing for basic rights.  

The Equal Remuneration Act ended the discrimination between men and women in terms of wages. Without the Act, women could be paid less than men.  

Without the Equal Remuneration Act, women could be paid less than women.

Could you summarise the main concerns?

First, there will be no job security. Employers can hire and fire at will. Second, by exempting minimum wages, the government is forcing workers into bondage. Third, no statutory requirement for worker safety. Fourth, women could be paid less than men. 

First, there will be no job security. Employers can hire and fire at will. Second, by exempting minimum wages, the government is forcing workers into bondage.

What are some of the other Acts that have been suspended?

The Industrial Disputes Act, The Minimum Wages Act, The Factories Act, The Equal Remuneration Act, The Bonus Act, The Interstate Migration Act, Contract Labour Act, The Employee Provident Fund Act, The Gratuity Act. 

Let’s talk about the Acts that have not been suspended. What is Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936?

For example, an employer has to give Rs.100 per day for eight hours of work as per the Act. Minimum wages varies state wise and is different for different categories of workers. 

What is Workers’ Compensation Act, 1923?

It guarantees compensation for injury or death of the workers in the line of duty. 

The Building and Construction Workers Act provides for the state to collect cess that is to be used for various benefits like pensions, education, disability compensation. It is poorly implemented and there are thousands of crores of unspent funds. 

By keeping this Act, they will continue collecting the money, but will not actually use it for the welfare of the workers. 

On the face of it, it looks as if construction workers will at least get the benefits from the Act, but on the ground, retaining the Act means that cess collection will continue but implementation will be subpar like earlier. 

Yes. 

The Acts that will not be suspended offer some protection for the worker?

There is some protection but it is not sufficient. This is creating a situation where labour will be exploited more. 

Meaning I will get paid but how much will I get paid? 

Yes, and if I’m not paid what I’m entitled to under the Minimum Wages Act, what recourse do I have? The only recourse I had was that I could file a claim and I could get ten times the amount if my wage was defaulted. There was a criminal prosecution provision for an employer who was not paying minimum wages. All that has gone now. 

Is this likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court?

It will first have to be challenged in the High Court since it is a state ordinance. We are contemplating legal intervention since it will create a situation that will be dangerous. 

There are those who argue that India’s myriad labour laws have hurt the ease of doing business and are counterproductive. 

The main argument — even behind the introduction of the four labour codes* in Parliament — has been that we have too many labour laws that have created a babu culture and delayed industrial growth. But what is the situation today? Can it be denied that there have been poor implementation of labour laws, and there has been a situation of bondage?

Every day, we find there are thousands of labourers who are still working under bondage where there is no payment of minimum wages. You cannot have a business where basic rights of workers are violated. If you see how capital shifts from one country to another, they are looking at cheap labour. We saw the growth of the garment and automobile industry in Manesar and Gurgaon at one point of time. And now you see the shift to Bangladesh. The reason behind this is cheap labour and the poor implementation of labour laws. The business might grow but at what cost? At the cost of exploitation of workers. That is the pattern we see across the globe. 

(In an endeavour to reform labour laws, the BJP government at the Centre is amalgamating 44 labour laws into four labour codes). 

The business might grow but at what cost? At the cost of exploitation of workers.