Degrading Labour standards: The Pandemonium within a Pandemic

Mouboni Dutta - Visting Assistant

Picture credit: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

The years of struggle by the Indian workers to fight their way out of indecent working conditions, low wages, long working hours, and absence of social security under the stronghold of British factory owners in the pre-independence era, resulted in the formation of Trade Unions and the establishment of labour rights in India. The pages of history narrate how the fight for workers’ welfare began with the first labour agitation in Bombay (1875), under the leadership of S.S. Bangalee. The movement brought into light the plight of women and children workers. This eventually led to the appointment of the Factory Commission in 1885 and finally, Factories Act was passed in 1881, fixing 4 days compulsory leave in a month, besides prohibiting employment of children under the age of 7. This historic development was followed by the formation of the first organised labour union in India, known as the Bombay Mill Hands Association in 1890 by M.N. Lokhande. The ushering of the era of labour movements achieved its pan-Indian existence through the setting up of AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress) in 1920 with Lala Lajpat Rai as its first President. This not only provided an intellectual foundation to the struggle for labour reforms but also created a demand for legalising workers’ rights and functioned on the lines of organised unions in the industrialised countries. The sweat and blood of the Indian workers and their relentless struggle amidst degrading living standards and price hikes during the two World Wars, inspired by the Russian revolution, formation of the ILO, and the nationalistic fervour of the freedom movement in India gave life to the Trade Unions Act (1926), Trade Disputes Act (1929) and Industrial Employment Act (1946).

However, the liberalisation of the Indian economy in ‘91 and the effects of globalisation in the present times have downsized the influence of Trade Unions and the collective bargaining power of the workers. To make the situation of the workers even more deplorable the present NDA Government has proposed to dilute the existing 44 labour laws into four new Labour Code bills, causing anxiety within the working class, especially those in the informal sector. Amidst the pandemic, these labour reforms with their employer-friendly provisions such as pushing down of the minimum wage criteria, contractualisation of labour and longer working hours have received an impetus with the drastic onset of draconian labour laws in several states of India.

Picture Credit: The Economic Times

What changes have been introduced?

The prolonged lockdown phase came into effect to contain the spread of the coronavirus. But along with it, came a huge economic setback. MSMEs (Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises), firms, and industries have been seriously affected, accelerating the prevalent demand slump in the Indian economy. The ramifications of this back-breaking crisis eventually trickled down to the labourers. Therefore to facilitate ease of doing business through pro-employer policies numerous labour laws have been suspended in various states, with the most being in CM Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. As many as 30 labour laws under the State, for all factories and establishments engaged in the manufacturing process have been adjourned in UP for 3 years, including the Industrial Disputes Act 1947, the Industrial Employment Act 1946, and the Minimum Wages Act 1948. Another BJP-led state, Madhya Pradesh has followed a similar suit with the suspension of the Industrial Dispute Act, the Factories Act, and the Migrant workers Act and made provisions for reduced paperwork so that companies could settle in faster. The state of Gujarat has amended the Factories Act of 1948 to increase the daily working hours to 12 hours per day and has also offered an exemption from labour laws for 1200 days for the new industrial investments. Rajasthan, besides doing away with the Factories Act has increased the limit for lay-offs and retrenchments to 300 from 100. Very recently the Lok Sabha also passed the Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2020 imposing more restrictions on workers’ right to strike and giving more flexibility to employers in terms of layoffs. All these changes tend to systematically uproot the foundation of the labour rights movements and undo decades of struggle which brought the social and legal reforms in India. The workers’ rights are slowly marching towards the pre-colonial times with their basic structure being challenged and changed.

What has been the impact of these reforms?

All these feigned reforms have dealt a heavy blow on the basic rights of the labourers and the trade unions which were already weakened and demobilised due to the pandemic. With protracted working hours, with no compulsion of over-time payments, and a lack of binding legal enforcements related to safe and sanitised working conditions would put the workers in a more vulnerable state. With their accessibility to collective bargaining being curtailed, the employers would enjoy an upper hand in matters related to wages and with the Industrial Disputes Act being suspended means labour courts and tribunals would not function, thus, making labour rights all the more enervated. Further, employers can now fire and hire workers at cheaper rates without the guarantee of permanent employment. These, not only defies the dignity of the working class but also implies a sharp contradiction to the very principle on which the International Labour Organisation’s Philadelphia Declaration (1944) is based on: “Labour is not a commodity.”

Picture Credit: The Business Standard

The worst-hit section of the society, which is facing the wrath of these labour law modifications, is the women in the informal sector. The long working hours can severely impede the female labour force participation rate. Already being burdened with domestic labour, investing 12 hours in a manufacturing unit can take a heavy toll not only on their physical well being but also their psychological health. Given the wide wage gap between the formal and the informal sectors, along with a yawning gender gap embedded within it, the abolition of certain labour laws can further disadvantage and marginalise the female workers, who unfortunately lie at the lowest strata of the hierarchical pyramid of income. With the bid to increase flexibility in the working of the private companies, revive the economy, and compensate for the losses during the shutdown phase, relaxation of labour laws has become a norm for several states. While procuring cheap labour at maximum efficiency has taken precedence, the significance of gender dimensions in making labour reforms have taken a back seat.

The very foundations on which labour standards were built on the international level was the establishment of social justice or social decency, in the absence of which conflicts, revolutions, and violence can erupt. Neglecting it can make nations pay heavy prices. The dire state of labour laws in India has caught the eyes of the ILO. Alarmed by the recent escalation of incidents and a letter from the Indian trade unions, the ILO Director General has expressed his deep concerns.

India consists of an overwhelming number of unskilled labourers, belonging to the lowest stratum of the society, grappling with poverty and illiteracy. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the government to represent their interests and simultaneously create an awareness building mechanism, educating the workers of their rights and legal issues associated with those, instead of victimizing them. Moreover, the very narrative that pulling down labour standards can boost economic growth and entrepreneurial activity is in itself flawed and ambiguous. In reality, it is not the restrictive labour laws that affect the businesses but the lack of skilled employees, inadequate resources, bureaucratic complexities, inaccessibility to smooth transport systems, and ineffective labour management strategies.

Picture Credit: Jayanta Dey/Reuters

The Untreated Path:

Several measures could have been taken while procuring these labour law changes to prevent the mismanagement of the labour force and protect them from this environment that enables nothing short of exploitation:

  • Firstly, the tri-partisan model followed by the International Labour Conference could be implemented at a national level before finalising any drastic decision related to labour reforms. A holistic discussion comprising Government officials, employer representatives, and employee representatives (with adequate representation of women) can prove to be more inclusive and transparent in reaching conclusions.

  • Secondly, it is of utmost importance on the part of the government bodies to strike a balance between the creation of an easy-to-do business environment for private players and at the same time, safeguard the labour standards.

  • Thirdly, women-friendly developments in informal sectors must also be undertaken. Provisions for day-care facilities for working mothers, restrooms for breast-feeding, safe and sanitized washrooms for women, more flexibility in working hours, and availability of remunerations must be addressed through inclusive policies.

  • Finally, a counselling system must be installed in these sectors to augment and provide help related to the mental health of the workers. It can be accompanied by facilities of pro-bono help to those who feel their rights and dignity have been violated.

India is largely dependent on its labour force for the survival of its 130 crore lives and at this juncture when the pandemic has hit every possible sector in the country, disrupting the supply chain, crumbling the economy, escalating unemployment, layoffs, and salary cuts, the government must step up for the poverty-stricken and marginalised groups and provide them a durable shelter under its responsive governance.


Mouboni is a visiting assistant at CRRSS under the mandate of Gender Equality. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University. Her arena of interests includes labour studies and gender relations, allowing her to undertake research works in the respective fields. She also possesses substantial experience through her association with various NGOs.

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