Both Houses of Parliament pass three labour codes amid opposition boycott

Published : September 24, 2020 21:43 IST

Trade Union activists protest against the Labour Codes in front of the Labour Ministry in New Delhi, on September 16. Photo: Kamal Narang

On September 23, the Rajya Sabha passed three crucial labour codes — on Industrial Relations; Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH); and Social Security — a day after the Lok Sabha cleared them. On both occasions, the government moved the Bills despite the fact that the opposition benches were empty, and passed them easily with minimum debate. The speeches by the treasury benches were less about the Bills and more about paying eulogies to the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Opposition MPs boycotted Parliament to protest against the suspension of eight MPs by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha on September 21 for the remainder of the session. The opposition’s demand for a division of votes on the farm Bills was ignored by the Deputy Chairperson and a ruckus ensued. The opposition decided to boycott Parliament for the remainder of the session which was to end on October 1. But Parliament itself was adjourned sine die by the government on September 23 citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason.

A common feature of all the three codes is that they have more to do with the welfare of industry rather than labour. The codes provide various exemptions to new industries as well as existing ones under the nomenclature “public interest” but essentially keeping in mind the interests solely of the industrial lobby. The Industrial Relations Code, for instance, empowers the Central government to exempt any new establishment or class of establishments from the provisions in the public interest. The 2020 IR Code legislation is worse than its 2019 avatar in that it gives a carte blanche to industry for closure, lay-off and retrenchment of employees in factories with up to 300 workers without having to seek the government’s permission. All labour codes give sweeping powers to the bureaucracy.

Union Minister for Labour and Employment, Santosh Gangwar told Parliament that many State governments had already amended their labour laws in tune with the 300-worker threshold provision. In the 2019 Bill, industries employing up to 100 workers were required to seek government permission before retrenching workers. This was revised to 300, which was tantamount to covering the entire industrial sector and making workers vulnerable to hire and fire. The 2019 Bill empowered the government to increase or decrease the threshold. The 2020 law empowers the government only to increase the threshold. The new law also removes the right to review, by anyone, any decision of an inquiry by authorised officers in matters relating to discrepancies in payment of Provident Fund or Employees State Insurance. Penalties against employers for obstructing inspection officers as well as reneging on PF payments have been substantially reduced.

Some of the new features also militate against the interests of employees. For instance, during an epidemic or a disaster, like COVID-19, the government had the power to exempt employers and employees from making PF and ESI contributions for a period of three months. Likewise, the OSH Code gives powers to State governments to exempt any new factory from the code’s provisions so as to create more economic activity and employment. All in all, the Labour Codes are tilted more towards benefiting employers than workers. They legalise contract employment, including allowing contract employment in core activities and in work of a perennial nature, which was prohibited earlier. The list of non-core activities that allow for the employment of contract workers includes sanitation work, security work and any other intermittent work that may be part of the core activity of an establishment.

Trade unions, including BMS, angry

Meanwhile, at a public meeting, trade union representatives and workers tore up copies of the labour codes. Tapan Sen, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, described both, the farm Bills and the labour Bills, as pieces of legislation designed to push farmers and workers into 19th century slavery-like conditions. All the central trade unions have opposed the codes and extended support to the all India protest against the farm Bills by opposition parties and farmer organisations on September 25.

Interestingly, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmer’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the trade union wing of the Sangh have opposed the farm Bills and codes respectively. The BMS issued a strong statement saying that none of the recommendations given by the other trade unions and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour were incorporated in the revised IR Code Bill. It said that the Bill was “tilted towards employers and bureaucrats” and “last minute mutilations will affect industrial peace in the country”. There was, it stated, a “clear attempt to diminish the role of trade unions”, and exempting of the Industrial Relations Standing Orders law in factories employing up to 300 workers violated the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 144 passed by Parliament. Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary of the BMS, said the most controversial feature was the one exempting industries hiring up to 300 persons from seeking prior permission from the government before lay-off and retrenchment. This would lead to “ease of closing business” rather than “doing business” he said.