Labour laws are a conglomeration of close to 250 Central and state laws that grant protection to the labourer by regulating fair wages, conditions of work, overtime, leave, and social securities through employment security.

The urgent topic that we all need to pay attention to, more so the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, is the suspension of labour protection laws. BJP-ruled states UP, MP and Gujarat acted with lightning speed as if they were waiting for an opportunity to push the labouring class out of whatever little security they had. More notoriously, UP came up with an ordinance seeking exemption for companies from almost all labour laws. In addition to the BJP states, other Congress-ruled states (Rajasthan and Punjab) have also initiated changes along with BJD-ruled Odisha.

Labour laws are a conglomeration of close to 250 central and state laws that grant protection to the labourer by regulating fair wages, conditions of work, overtime, annual leave, social securities and dispute resolutions through employment security. Suspending labour laws is violation of Constitutional provisions (Art 21, 24) and international covenants (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) that gives rights to workers to unionise and bargain for fairness — the latter, however, has already been diluted by the Labour Codes on Wages Act enacted last year.

As a start, why did the state governments feel the need to change the laws in pandemic times? The common answer that is making the rounds is to revamp the economy by attracting investments, which, in turn, will produce more jobs and help us recover from the recession. Local and international experience don’t support the claim. A 2017 study by the V V Giri National Labour Institute found that relaxation of labour laws did not succeed in “attracting big investments, boost to industrialization or to job creation”.

Historically, labour laws were never fully respected and implemented by private companies. The organised sector managed to surpass regulations by hiring workers without contract while the babus sniffed the favours. Therefore, the problem that we are staring at right now is about India’s 93% labour force that is beyond the ambit of formal legal labour protection.

With over 90% jobs unregulated and unprotected, India is a planet of the informal sector. The informal sector has been craftly maintained by the state so it can plunder the hardworking labourer’s toil just for a day’s meal.

The NSS 55th Round Survey on Employment-Unemployment identified close to half a billion people involved in the informal sector. The apathy towards informal workers is such that there is no credible, unanimous agreement on the numbers of informal labourers. Within this, there is no clear tabulation on Dalits and Adivasis who form the foundation of the unorganised sector.

According to a 2010 Oxfam report on ‘Social Discrimination in India’, Dalits and Adivasis constitute the “highest proportion of the population”, with 89% of them distributed across four poverty groups: the extremely poor, poor, marginal, and vulnerable. Also, the report says, out of the total Muslims in the informal sector work-force, “85 per cent find themselves in the lowest four income groups”. The hardest hit will be the women, with 95% of them working in the informal sector.

The shameful state of the informal sector is an outcome of the casteist voyeurism in the lives of caste-d labourers. By suspending labour laws and pushing an entire economy to informal work, the state is committed to replicating the Varna model of production, wherein the huge mass of working, productive class is diminished by its worth and compensatory value by removing it from the regulation of humane protections that recognise and dignify the value of their labour. That is how Avarnas were created to prohibit any form of democratic working culture for the oppressed.

This issue is not limited to three or five states. Those three BJP-ruled states strategically and demographically constitute an essential base for the BJP’s rise to power. Injecting a Hindu propaganda through the Hindutva-Jaatitva nexus, the BJP has declared its anti-poor, anti-labour policy, which, in a caste society, is also anti-Dalit, anti-Adivasi and anti-Muslim.

With feathers of failures weighing in its hat, the BJP’s hype of Hinduwaad is going to get more credentials at the hands of their rich patrons while the poor Hindus will get high by rejoicing the greatness of a mythical Indian past, making them believe that they’re brokering a revenge upon their unreachable and unseeable rich bosses.

The labourers who died on the streets were mostly Dalits and Adivasis — those crushed on the railway tracks near Aurangabad were mostly Gonds.

The statement by the Bharitya Mazdoor Sangh, an offshoot of the RSS, asking state units to oppose changes in labour laws, is just a bid to salvage their dropping legitimacy. Not just the BMS, other Brahmin led-Left union organisations were also conspicuously absent during the migrant labour crisis.

In such times, the government should study other countries who are coping with this crisis. A serious effort could potentially lead us to some path — like topping up the income of the working class the way Canada and US did, or offering paid leave to those who have lost jobs.

Vietnam, UK, Italy and Spain offer good explanations on how to handle cash flows to the poor. If the labourers get dismayed, then it will take a generation to fix the broken trust. And in a fractured India, we cannot afford to leave our most essential colleagues to fend for themselves.

Suraj Yengde
The author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column.

Courtesy The IndianExpress