Shailee Mishra, a 2nd year law student from University of Allahabad, reviews the suspension of labour laws amid COVID-19 pandemic by some States in India and its repercussions.

Genesis:

When we hear the word ‘labour’ a picture with distressed, poorly dressed, and carrying enormous responsibilities in his shoulder, etc. comes to one’s mind. This is the person who plays a significant role in pushing the economy of the nation upwards.  However, absurdity is that this person does not get a meal for one time, clothes to cover the body, and a roof for his shelter. As COVID-19 pandemic hit India the plight of generally suppressed labour has deteriorated. Meanwhile, some state’s Government has suspended basic labour laws temporarily which has taken the plight to another level. It has seen as a well-planned endeavor to accomplish economic escalation at the cost of these anguishes, discomfort, and pain of these vulnerable communities. 

The prerequisite: 

On 8th May 2020, the government of Uttar Pradesh has commenced an ordinance called temporary exemption from certain labour laws and exempted businesses from the scope of four basic labour laws viz., Building and Other Construction Workers Act[1]Section 5 of Payment of Wages Act[2]Workmen Compensation Act[3] and Bonded Labour Act[4] for a period of three years. It is also issued an announcement[5] relaxing the provisions concerning  working hours, overtime, intervals for rest, etc. as specified under sections 51, 54, 56, and 59 of the Factories Act. Accordingly, the State government of Madhya Pradesh also proclaimed exemptions of certain labour laws for the period of 1,000 days. Encouraged by these changes, the State government of Gujarat announced[6] exemptions of labour laws for the next 1,200 days and the State government of Assam announced a provision for fixed-term employment. 

During this crisis, the steadiness between demand and supply in the economy has been extremely effectuated. The industrial and manufacturing sectors is facing a serious downfall due to the lockdown measures and inter-state movement of the labourers. The government has taken the foremost step[7] to revive the economy which has been contracted in the wake of the tough situations created by the global pandemic. The object is to boost investment which in turn will balance the demand and supply. The action is taken to ensure ease of doing business. Even if we consider these objectives, the suspension of some laws seems unreasonable and baseless. If we have a look at the ordinance in UP, the government has exempted the employer from providing elementary duties viz., access of drinking water, first aid box, cleanliness, protective kit, etc. This is not the way to boost the economy and any reasonable investor would not be effectuated by these provisions. This would only lead to the affray of the most basic and primary rights of the vulnerable employees by the employers.

The test for legitimacy: 

The Constitution of India is a shred of evidence for establishing equality and liberty and ending the exploitation of the vulnerable. The drafters of the Constitution worked for the interests of many who sacrificed their benefit. The provisions drafted in Fundamentals Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) clearly specify that the dignity and integrity of each and every individual is sacrosanct and due to the reform in law it is under serious threat. 

The absence of protections like the Minimum Wages Act 1948, Factories Act 1948, and Industrial Disputes Act 1947 would lead to the condition of repression i.e. modern slavery[8] which is in contravention to the Constitution of India. Article 23(1)[9] strictly restricts the forced labour and reads as, “Traffic in human beings and beggar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law”. Any wage below the nominal wage is considered as bondage, the Supreme Court has observed further. In the case of Consusmer Education & Research Centre v. Union of India[10], the Supreme Court of India has observed that the employer is obligated to provide a safe and secure conditions of work as the same is a part of his right to life with dignity enshrined under Article 21[11] of the constitution. Hence, highlights the importance of safe and secure working conditions for workers. 

The move to suspend certain labour is seen as a direct contravention of the provisions of DPSPs given in the Constitution. To provide social economic justice to people and maintain social order is the sacred duty of the State. The manipulation of labour laws would further push labours into distress, further aggravating the evils like child labour and beggary. Further, the rights of the medically susceptible have been put to jeopardy, as pregnancy and other medical circumstances would now mean the termination of the employment, thus accumulating insult to the injury. The temporary revocation of some labour laws is not only against DPSPs but also contravenes the most basic and fundamental values enshrined in our constitution as aforementioned above. The values like equality, liberty, and dignity which are the heart of any democratic polity have been put at stake, which indicates that the said revocation is not only anti-social but also unconstitutional. This is the reason why the International Labour Organization, Central government and, Judiciary are taking a hard look at the severe step taken by states like UP, MP, and Gujarat.

Alternatives and Conclusion:

Through Advocates Vinayak Mitthal and Pranjal Shukla, the Uttar Pradesh workers’ front had moved the High Court confronting the legitimacy of temporary labour law exemption ordinance. The bench comprising of Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Siddhartha Verma heard the matter, issued notices to the government and posted it for consideration on 18th May 2020. Unfortunately, the State government of Uttar Pradesh, on 15th May 2020 withdrew its notification on relaxing[12] certain labour laws. In an interview[13], the Vice Chairman of Niti Ayog has mentioned that the Union government of India does not believe that the reform of laws implies the elimination of labour laws in-toto.  Hence, he instructed the State against it. He also suggested an alternative to this i.e. the financial sector and especially the banking sector should now become less risk-averse and convalesce the credit flow to the MSMEs as well other segments of economy which will not only revive the demand but also economic activities in the nation. 

Ensuring top-notch set-up, low-priced credit amenities, and accessibility of trained labour by providing them appropriate training would come handy in providing an incentive to the domestic production of the goods and services. Whatever the purposes may be, such an attempt is not only unlawful but also inhuman. Resorting to inhuman and unlawful approaches like postponement of labour laws may or may not recover the economy but they will, no doubt, destruct the social fabric of the country. Equality, liberty and, dignity are the fundamental values that should not be negotiated in the light of economic growth. The growth in the economy would be of no benefit if its reimbursements do not reach everyone likewise. Such growth would only lead to the concentration of income and wealth. It cannot be denied that the ends are bona fide and for the collective good of all but the means do not take into consideration the greatest good of greatest number as many poor people have been asked to compromise for the good of some rich.


Shailee Mishra is a second year law student from University of Allahabad.


[1]The Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Central Rules, 1998 (India). 

[2]Section 5 in The Payment of Wages Act, 1936,  (July 11, 2020, 01:16),Indiankanoon.org, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1624119/

[3]Workmen Compensation Act, 1923 (India).

[4]Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 Indiacode.nic.in, (July 11, 2020, 01:16), https://indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/1491view_type=browse&sam_handle=123456789/1362.

[5]Allahabad HC Issues Notice To UP Govt On PIL Challenging Relaxation Of Labour Laws On Working Hours, Overtime, Etc. Livelaw.in (July 11, 2020, 01:16), https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/allahabad-hc-issues-notice-to-up-govt-on-pil-challenging-relaxation-of-labour-laws-on-working-hours-overtime-etc-read-order-156763?infinitescroll=1.

[6]Why labour law rejig is no reform Livemint, (July 11, 2020, 01:16),  https://www.livemint.com/news/india/why-labour-law-rejig-is-no-reform-11589300644620.html.

[7]Mazdur : Suspension of Labour Laws Livelaw.in, (July 11, 2020, 01:16), https://www.livelaw.in/columns/mazdur-suspension-of-labour-laws-156637?infinitescroll=1.

[8]Relaxation Of Labour Laws: A Route To Modern Day Slavery Livelaw.in, (July 11, 2020, 12:29) https://www.livelaw.in/columns/relaxation-of-labour-laws-a-route-to-modern-day-slavery-156898.

[9]INDIA CONST. art. 23, cl. 1.

[10]Consumer Education & Research Centre v. Union of India, 1995 AIR 922, 1995 SCC (3) 42 (India).

[11]INDIA CONST.art. 21.

[12]UP Govt Withdraws Controversial Notification For 12-hour Shift For Industrial Workers Livelaw.in, (Jul 11, 2020), https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/up-govt-withdraws-controversial-notification-for-12-hour-shift-for-industrial-workers-156857.

[13]Reforms do not mean complete abolition of labour laws, says Rajiv Kumar The Economic Times, ( Jul 11, 2020), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/reforms-do-not-mean-complete-abolition-of-labour-laws-says-rajiv-kumar/articleshow/75941042.cms.

IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.

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