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Bharat Bandh: Has Modi’s vision for India left our workers behind?

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Angshukanta Chakraborty
Angshukanta ChakrabortySep 02, 2016 | 12:44

Bharat Bandh: Has Modi’s vision for India left our workers behind?

As over 18 crore workers from at least ten Central Trade Unions (CTU) protest against the Narendra Modi government’s "unilateral labour reforms and anti-worker policies", bringing the "system" to a grinding halt and affecting day-to-day services like banking, transport, among others, let’s look at what exactly is the agitation all about.

Calling it "Bharat Bandh", the trade union strike is about demanding fairer pay, a minimum wage of Rs 18,000 for all unorganised work, better compensation and social security for the unorganised sector, among others.

The CTUs’ strike is a rallying cry against what they have termed the central government’s "apathy" towards their 12-point charter of demands, including a monthly minimum wage of Rs 18,000, the urgent need to rein in food inflation and an assured minimum monthly pension of Rs 3,000.

Interestingly, the Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, the RSS-affiliate trade union that protested against the Modi government earlier this year for the latter’s stance on FDI in nine sectors, is not participating in the nationwide CTU strike.

Neither is the Indian Railways, as well as other central government employees since their demand of raising the monthly minimum wage from the current Rs 18,000 to about Rs 26,000 under the Seventh Pay Commission is already being looked at by a specially constituted committee.

So why has the Bharat Bandh been called by CTUs? Here’s the answer.

Modi’s labour law reform agenda

Modi government is interested in seriously overhauling what it thinks is an intricate maze of backdated labour laws hindering India’s growth story and stopping it from reaching its full potential. According to this corporate-friendly worldview, the government has a bouquet of labour reform legislations in their draft stages, with which it intends to straighten out the tangled issue.

With the Child Labour (Protection and Regulation) Amendment Bill already passed in Parliament, that allows children under 14 years to work in "family enterprises", the stage is set for a climate for more intense labour law overhaul that will make India a favourite destination for domestic and foreign direct investment, but will certainly aggravate an already sinking corporate-labour relations.

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Since 1991, the labour movement in India has undergone a slow and definitive weakening.

In the pipeline are a slew of bills.

The Small Factories (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Bill, 2014 seeks to exempt firms with up to 40 employees from compliance with six major labour laws, including the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 and the Shops and Establishment Acts of respective states essentially making it easier for the owners to hire and fire workers at will.

The Labour Code on Wages Bill, 2015 seeks to replace four laws pertaining to minimum wages, payment of salaries and benefits with an easier on paper legislation.

The Labour Code on Industrial Relations Bill, 2015 seeks to replace three labour laws, including the Trade Unions Act of 1926, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act of 1946 and the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, thereby heavily compromising the trade unions’ power and legal recourse in case of injustice towards workers and employees.

India’s suffering working class

Since 1991, the labour movement in India has undergone a slow and definitive weakening, which culminated in the 2012 Manesar tragedy with 147 Maruti workers jailed for having defied the management and forming a close-knit union that demanded better and equal pay for the same amount of work.

While the maximum number of working class persons belong to the unorganised sector, the earlier political unity between labour unions across the length and breadth of the country has significantly eroded, especially after the electoral defeats of the communist parties in the recent times.

Moreover, trade unions continue to be demonised as stumbling blocks for a country hell bent to ride the high horse of development at the expense of pay parity, with ever widening income gap sending inflation through the roof.

Although India is one of the founding members of the International Labour Organisation, it is yet to ratify a number of ILO’s eight core Conventions against forced and undercompensated labour. These include C87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention); C98 (the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention); C138 (Minimum Age Convention), and C182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention). India also refuses to ratify another major convention, C131, or the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention.

India not only lags behind in human rights index, it is equally far below even mediocre in the global rights index, according to ILO and International Trade Union Confederation standards. In fact, there’s little to no guarantee of workers’ rights and the flimsy edifice of legislation that existed so far is being sought to be demolished by a government eager to deliver "good governance" to its people by substituting a smartphone for almost every basic human and civic right.

Because of its enormous unorganised sector, about 93 per cent of India’s workforce has little or no access to the 144 labour laws, intended to protect the rights of the workers. Instead of bringing more and more underemployed workers into the ambit of legal protection, the government, in the garb of reform, is easing it out for the companies to hire and fire at will, making the climate even more labour-exploitative than it happens to be already.

Reform for whom?

While it’s perfectly understandable to simplify the labyrinthine maze of Indian labour laws, the point of the gargantuan exercise must not boil down to corporate stenography, with dollops of caste and class biases fed into it.

Increasing contractualisation and making more corporate-friendly labour laws will only ensure that the Make In India boat becomes a luxury cruise-liner for a few, and not even ten per cent of India 1.25 billion people will benefit if the ILO core conventions are not all accepted by our government.

While the "antiquated" labour laws should be made more accessible, direct and suitable for a digital age that intends to banish papers from private and public offices, and dreams of turning every individual, no matter what’s his/her background, into a self-made start-up entrepreneur, the legislative elegance and the unified theory of Indian labour must not obliterate concerns that actually plague the workers themselves.

Bharat Bandh is a reminder that as far as plight of the Indian worker is concerned, India needs reform geared more towards the bottom 90 per cent, and not just the top ten per cent.

Last updated: September 03, 2016 | 13:46
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