Heartless reforms

by May 22, 2020 0 comments

Changes in labour laws have been long overdue in our country. But in doing away with necessary protection for workers, State Governments are playing with their basic rights

These are difficult times for any human being as the entire world is suffering due to the pandemic. Millions of people are at risk and every time we think we have  handled the situation, the virus one-ups us. It is a difficult time also because so many of our loved ones (especially the aged) are at grave risk. The virus has already claimed 3,27,000 lives across the world and this number is heavily on the conservative side. One such life that the virus claimed was of Willie Levi, one of the Atalissa boys who succumbed to the virus at the age of 73 in late April this year.

Levi did not create a large business that changed the world as we knew it. He was not an inventor nor an activist or a celebrity. Yet, his obituary was one that stayed with me. He was mentally challenged and started working for Henry’s Turkey Service in 1974 along with other men with the same disorder. Their pay was meant to be $750 a month but they received just $65 for their entire course of employment that spanned for decades. The rest of the fund was taken by the employer for provisions like bed, board, clothes and medical care (though they received hardly any). Besides, they were never given an option to seek other forms of employment and were lodged in an old school that had been converted into a bunkhouse. This inhuman treatment meted out to them was made possible due to a cruel provision in the law, which allowed the employers to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

Ultimately after years of inaction  Government agencies evacuated his bunkhouse in 2009. Levi was found with a broken knee cap and a debilitating depression. In 2013, in a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Levi, along with other claimants, emerged victorious. The courts finally ruled in favour of proper pay and working conditions for people with disabilities. It is fitting to come across the story of Levi when back home, some State Governments have decided to make some shocking changes to the labour laws.

The BJP-ruled State of Uttar Pradesh has proposed an ordinance that will exempt businesses from the purview of almost all labour laws for the next three years. The Gujarat Government, too, has announced that it intends to follow Uttar Pradesh’s stride by allowing 1,200-day labour law exemptions for new industrial investments. Madhya Pradesh, too, has sought to significantly dilute the labour laws although the Shivraj Singh Chouhan Government has tried to adopt a slightly more nuanced approach.

The changes in the labour laws are oppressive and without any basis as to what they seek to achieve: Attract investments into their States. An example of this oppressiveness is how Uttar Pradesh’s ordinance retains only the “safety and security” provisions of the Factories Act and excludes the chapter relating to “health” as well as the provisions relating to “hazardous processes.” These provisions mandate an employer to inter alia provide adequate ventilation to the employees, prevent overcrowding, ensure a clean working environment and sufficient accommodation for latrine and urinal. Are we comfortable with having our labourers work in an environment that does not even provide basic amenities to them?

Labour is one of the four typically cited factors of production. The other three are land, entrepreneurship and capital. When we say each of these factors of production out loud, certain mental images are formed in our minds. We do not have the same image for all of them. While the other factors of production are theoretical constructs, labour, by definition, is human. However, such a move reduces human labour to a mere number or a largely theoretical construct.

We must realise that unlike the other factors of production that are unidimensional ie, a means to further production, labour involves individuals who are closely interlinked with other human lives. When a father has no opportunity to spend time with his family or dies due to poor working conditions, it is not merely a factor of production that is extinguished but the entire life of a family is upended.

The Government cannot allow this to happen. There is no debating the fact that India’s labour laws need a revamp.  The country’s regulatory environment, too, needs to be eased so that businesses and entrepreneurship can flourish. But will doing away with basic labour protections achieve that objective? Stalwarts of Indian business like Azim Premji and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw certainly do not think so.

No organisation wishes to treat its labourers poorly because owners know that such treatment is not conducive to their business. Instead, what is needed is strong infrastructure, a skilled workforce and a healthier environment for businesses to flourish. Instead of addressing these substantive concerns that would require respective State Governments to work hard by instituting real change, many have taken the easy way out by taking on our labourers.

The role of the Government is encapsulated in the Constitution. A bare examination of the Articles on fundamental rights or the Directive Principles on State Policy clearly shows that the Government must advocate for its citizens. Businesses like Henry’s (Levi’s employer) are known to take advantage of the labourers whenever they get a chance and there are many such employers.

All they care about is their top line. This is why we have  democratically-elected Governments in place. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that businesses do not treat humans like other factors of production. There is a basic dignity and protection that the Constitution guarantees to the citizens. Governments have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to protect these values.

If we fail to do this and accept these changes, we are being hypocritical. Ask yourself: Would we allow our children to work in such conditions? Then what gives us the right to allow any worker to not have adequate ventilation or access to proper toilets? There is no economic benefit to such a move and even if there was, the price of human dignity cannot be reduced to mere numbers on a balance sheet.

(Writer: Ajoy Kumar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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