The new labour laws being enacted by the Centre and various State Governments might create another lockdown even as the economy limps back to normalcy after having all but collapsed
In what is perceived as possibly the last phase of the lockdown, with States being given the powers to implement relaxations by the Centre and economic activity once again being started across urban and rural India, a wave of resentment is brewing among the organised sector of the working class and trade unions in the country.
Indeed, images of tens of thousands of migrant workers in dire straits, walking without food and water in this scorching heat on highways and streets to unknown destinations, especially in the Hindi heartland, have shocked the national conscience, even while death and highway accidents of the workers seem to have become routine.
It is in this context that the new labour laws being enacted by the Centre and various State Governments might create another lockdown, even as the economy limps back to normalcy after having all but collapsed, especially in the urban sector, with the agricultural economy on the threshold of a disaster despite a very good harvest. Indeed, the almost 77 million tonnes of foodgrains lying in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns, and the huge output post-harvest season, especially in States like Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Maharashtra, are bound to lead to another crisis, especially when the monsoon season sets in.
With the BJP-led Central Government refusing to release the overflowing foodgrain for the jobless and homeless migrant workers, or the poor, even while rejecting the proposals of several top economists like Amartya Sen, Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee, the rural economy will yet again find itself in a Catch-22 situation. Already, the crisis of the past has not been resolved: For instance sugarcane farmers in Western UP have largely not been paid the minimum support price while their payment from the mills is still pending. A similar situation might erupt in Maharashtra with onion farmers among others.
The migrant workers, who have gone back to their hometowns and villages, are not returning anytime soon despite the booster announced by the Union Finance Minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman. Sources say that the financial “bonanza” announced by the Centre might just prove to be yet another “jumla” while largely benefitting certain industrialists close to the Delhi regime. The real estate and construction industry has not recovered and even the cream of the industry, Information Technology has faced retrenchment of employees.
Almost 10,000 workers of a successful and cheap brand of biscuits like Parle G had to be sacked just because there was no purchasing power in small towns and rural India to buy these glucose biscuits. Hundreds of employees have been sacked in media organisations in recent times with not even a whimper of protest.
With coal mines and airports being privatised, among other public sector units (PSUs), a collapsing economy, faced with a gigantic unemployment problem among the organised and unorganised workers, including among the educated and white-collar professionals, the country can slip into a major crisis yet again. Almost 40 million workers are slated to lose their jobs. Indeed, post-demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST), the small and medium-scale industry had virtually shut down, affecting tens of thousands of daily wagers and small and medium entrepreneurs.
Even flourishing industrial zones like Surat in Gujarat had risen in revolt before the last Lok Sabha elections. It took major maneuvering and persuasion by Home Minister Amit Shah to get the pro-BJP traders to the polling booths. Indeed, sociologists had earlier predicted that the mass protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) all over the country were also triggered by mass joblessness and a state of perpetual anxiety about a stable future.
Besides, after the shocking and horrifying images of the poor and starving migrant workers, men, women and children, have hit social media, and the Western media, the international image of the country has taken a big beating. This kind of a national trauma on such a massive scale and as a daily and relentless public spectacle for almost two months has not been seen in any part of the world during the pandemic, not even in the sub-continent, in Africa or the Middle-East. Surely, India is on a sticky wicket not only in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or growth rate and per capita income. Its moral and ethical core has been disrupted and proved crudely transparent in front of the whole world.
It is in this pessimistic context that the one-day hunger strike by the leaders of 10 Central Trade Unions on May 22 against the new labour laws rattled the Central Government, which is still to find its economic scaffolding.
The demands of the unions included restoration of labour laws that have been changed or their implementation put on hold in about 10 States consisting of both BJP and non-BJP ruled ones. In a joint petition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the union leaders sought immediate relief to stranded workers and arrangements for safe return to their homes. They also demanded immediate halt to indiscriminate privatisation of PSUs. Even as the trade unions approached the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Government refused to engage in a dialogue with the leaders and they were detained for violating the restrictions of the lockdown. However, the trade unions have said that this protest was just the beginning and their struggle would continue.
Amid all this chaos, experts have declared that the latest Government booster for the small and medium enterprises is just not enough. It should be noted that the majority of the working class in India do not even fall under the organised or formal sector. They constitute almost 93 per cent of the workforce, have no trade union cover or other rights such as work guarantee, fixed-wage hours or wages, maternity leave, provident fund, pension and so on. They are just “free labour” out to be exploited by all concerned. Half of them are women, Dalits, extremely backward castes, landless labourers and the poorest of the poor. Understandably, the labour laws have been declared draconian by the unions, whereby the lockdown has been used to bulldoze them.
Some of them are outrageous, like increasing the work hours per day from eight to 12 hours, something the labour movement had gained after the famous May uprising in the Hay Market in Chicago in the 1830s, celebrated all over the world as May Day. The suspension of a large number of labour laws for three years by UP and the Madhya Pradesh Government’s decision to allow companies to “hire and fire” workers coincided with Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha and Maharashtra increasing the daily working hours. Significantly, the BJP trade union, BMS, did not join the protest while the Congress trade union, INTUC did, though the Congress State Governments, too, are tagging along on the new labour laws.
Among the “draconian measures”, the Yogi Adityanath Government in UP has made 38 laws meaningless for almost three years, including the Industrial Disputes Act, Trade Union Act, Equal Remuneration Act, Maternity Benefit Act, Act on Occupational Safety and Health, Interstate Migrant Labour Act and the Contract Labour Act.
The BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh Government has ushered in serious changes in the Factories Act, Contract Act and Industrial Dispute Act. Hire and fire seems to be the new pandemic doctrine, with most workers’ rights being taken away, including regarding wages, safety and compensation, and contractors and industry running without any regulations. May 22 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the working class’ struggle in India, even as the tragic narrative of mass migration of the unorganised workers continues relentlessly. Will it mark a paradigm shift in the current scenario? Only time will tell. But for now the workers are not giving up.
(Writer: Amit Sengupta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)