India: the suspension of labour laws is one more neoliberal cruelty by the BJP

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf discuss the impact of the assault on labour laws in various Indian states as the capitalist class seeks to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to attack trade union rights and working class living standards.

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf are members of Jammu Kashmir Democratic Youth Federation (JKDYF) which is affiliated with Democratic Youth Federation Of India (DYFI). Both reside in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district.

The suspension of labour laws in many Indian states will mean more exploitation of workers and more power for the bosses. Workers earned these rights through much toil, many sacrifices and consistent struggle.

The right to have ‘eight hour work day’ was not simply gifted to the working class. It was achieved by the working class through sacrifices and organised struggles. The month of May has a long revolutionary significance for the workers. It was during the month of May that workers sacrificed their lives to build the basis for a better future in 1886. And it is now during the month of May that workers are pushed back to the wall by suspending their hard won rights by the ruling class.

The decision to suspend labour laws mostly in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat is to safeguard corporate interests and ensure the subjugation of the working class.

By suspending the existing labour laws, the interests of the corporate sector is being promoted and is being given a free hand and more power to hire and fire the workers without any reason and also gives them immunity from facing any disciplinary action from labour department or resistance from the trade unions.

The of labour laws  in the constitution are designed to safeguard the interests of the working class and to provide them adequate means to fight for their legitimate rights. These labour laws have international significance and it is significantly noted that the suspension of such laws is a total violation of International Labour organisation (ILO) Conventions to which India is a signatory.

The laws, like the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, which include guarantees on heath and working conditions for workers and trade unions, contract workers and migration workers are being suspended for three years through the ordinance by Uttar Pradesh state government. This is an attempt to bar trade unions from raising their voice on workers issues. The management will be at full liberty to hire new workers on lower wages.

Majority of the workers were already facing the problems of lack of access to proper ventilation, toilets, potable drinking water, hygienic accommodation etc and by abolishing the existing labour laws the government has given a free hand to the corporate sector to put the lives of the workers at greater risk. Due to the suspension of labour laws, workers will hesitate to demand such facilities in fear of getting fired easily without any proper reason.

There are also some states which extended the working day from 8 hours to 12 hours. This is totally a gross violation of international labour laws which clearly states that working hour in a single day should not extend from more than 8 hours. Before striking down or making any amendments in labour laws, it is mandatory for the state or central government to meet with the labour bodies or trade unions in good faith as per the Tripartite Consultation Convention C144. It is imperative to mention that India is a signatory to Tripartite Consultation International Labour Standards Convention 1976, which clearly states that states need to consult workers bodies before taking any policy decision.

Indian Staffing Federation (ISF) President, Lohit Bhatia while addressing the suspension of labour laws, asserted, “The various states including Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and now Karnataka are now taking sharper chances with Labour laws to attract investment into their States.” He further remarked that such suspensions in labour laws will attract more investors and will be helpful in promoting the ease of doing business.

To refute the claims of ISF President, it is imperative to quote, Prabhat Patnaik, an Indian Marxist Economist and Political commentator, “The argument that Labour laws stand in the way of larger investment is completely fallacious. There is not a shred of empirical evidence to support it, infact, some years ago when neoliberalism was on the ascending some ‘scholars’ had begun ‘showing’ empriciallly that India’s  industrial growth had been restricted by its labor laws, but there ” demonstrations” have been so convincingly refuted that no further ‘demonstrations’ of this sort have been advanced since“.

He further stated, “even before the abrogation of labour laws, after all, Indian labour was much cheaper than Chinese labour. Why didn’t foreign capital express preference for India over china and other Asian destination at that time?… What is true of foreign investment is also true of Indian investment from other state.”

The economy of the country was in shambles before the emergence of Covid -19 pandemic and now it has reached an impasse due to the lockdown. This directly affected the livelihood of workers and particularly the migrant workers. At the crucial juncture the need of the hour was to strengthen the labour laws but the BJP ruled states took it as a opportunity to strengthen the corporate sector and weaken the working class by invalidating almost all labour laws. Corporate intellectuals penned down many articles in support of the abrogation of labour laws.

Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog goes one step ahead and recommend further reforms in other sectors as well. He said, “it is one of the boldest and bravest initiatives since reforms in 1991… It is now or never, states are driving bold reforms. We wiitl never get this opportunity ; seize it.”

To counter this argument, it is significant to quote, K Hemlata, Centre  of Indian trade union (CITU), President, “These attacks on the hard won rights of the working class, it’s display of authoritarianism are part of the attacks on the basic and human rights of the toiling people by desperate capital in crisis. These must be defeated and reversed through united struggles not only of the working class but by the entire toiling masses.

The freezing of these labour laws will have serious economic consequences and this will be disastrous for working class.

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf

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