They grease the wheels of India’s economy with their sweat and toil. They plough the land, sow and harvest in the scorching sun and pouring rain. They bend their backs to carry food from the farms to the forks. They build air-conditioned towers of glass and steel for the comfort of the privileged. They polish the rough stones into dazzling gems that adorn dainty necks and elegant fingers. They cook and wash cars. They deliver convenience at the doorsteps. They are the invisible 130 million—according to 2011 Census—who provide muscle to the machines of progress.
And then COVID-19 happened. The Coronavirus might have travelled from China to India, hitching a ride inside the bodies of the well-heeled, jet-setting lot that is projected as the shiny, spit-polished embodiment of #NewIndia hiding a corroded core, but it was the millions earning minimum wages, who were treated as grist for the millstone in the five-part lockdown scenes of the Theatre of The Absurd that played out from the zero hour of March 25.
The conspicuous absence of the trade unions, both in words and deeds, as the migrant labour crisis unfolded is a telling commentary on the state of disarray the movement finds itself in. The fightback from the unions to the dilution and weak implementation of labour laws over the past two decades has been sporadic at best and abject surrender at worst
In a matter of hours, they lost their livelihoods and pending wages swindled. With the spectre of hunger and deprivation looming large, they walked, peddled, hitched rides on trucks, in the belly of concrete mixers and milk vans and on push-carts towards the safety of their homes and hearths. Millions of hungry and tired men and women, young and old made up the cast of the horrors scenes of the great Indian labour exodus that began to unfold. The sound of marching of blistered and bloodied soles was lost in the din of banging pots and pans and the dark melange of exhausted faces got overpowered by the light of glowing lamps.
Some of them died on the roads due to exhaustion, got mowed down by trains and vehicles; all nameless and faceless. At last, when the government grudgingly resumed special train service, so aptly named Shramik Express, they got lost in transit. In more cases than one, 24-hour journeys transformed into three to four-day life-threatening ordeals, without much food or water. According to various news reports around 40 trains lost the way to their original destination. Around 80 people died in these trains. Rough estimates indicate approximately 800 people died since curtains went up on the first act of the Theatre of The Absurd during the lockdown period due to non-Covid reasons.
The absence of concrete data makes the task of assessing the impact of the lockdown on India’s labour force, both in the organised and unorganised sectors, particularly difficult. With more than 90 per cent of India’s labour force engaged in the unorganised sector, comprising small and medium scale enterprises, they were the worst hit. Estimates tend to indicate that approximately 40 million people and counting have been rendered jobless since March end.
Limited amount of research done during this period, like the COVID-19 Livelihood Survey conducted by the Azim Premji University, paint a dire picture. The survey indicates that the average fall in the earning of self-employed, non-agriculture workers, is a whopping 91 per cent in the rural areas and 86 per cent in the urban areas and the average reduction in the earnings of casual workers is an alarming 50 per cent in rural areas and 46 per cent in urban areas. The job losses figures are equally staggering. A massive 82 per cent female and 80 per cent male casual workers lost their jobs due to the unplanned lockdown, add to that another 89 per cent of female and 77 per cent of male self-employed workers who lost their livelihood. These are hard numbers and not some fake portraits of dystopia painted by the “prophets of doom” as India’s Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, made the Supreme Court believe.
In the case of Karnataka, it shouldn’t come as surprise where the government stands vis-à-vis labour relations given that South Bengaluru MP, Tejasvi Surya, hailed an earlier intemperate order by the government that restrained construction workers from leaving at the behest of the builders’ lobby as a “good decision” in a throwback to the slave traders of yore, who kept up the steady supply of gladiators to keep the decadent Romans entertained
The great reverse migration split wide open the rotten core of India’s labour market. It put in harsh focus a number of disturbing issues that had so far been whitewashed by the prima donnas of the industry and stalwarts the union movement. The urgency to undertake meaningful labour reforms is greater than ever before. Yet, the reaction of the ruling political class, both at the centre and the states, and labour unions, ranged from autocratic diktats with shades of slavery to befuddled confusion. In the most bizarre sense of dark and twisted logic, the political dispensation has come to the conclusion that the labour class will subsidise the losses suffered by industry.
With labour going back to their native land in the face of urban antipathy, the industrial lobbies worked overtime to convince their political masters to come up with ingenious ways to hold them back against their will for setting the cogs in motion once again as and when full operations resume. It isn’t surprising that the chief ministers of two of India’s worst-governed states, UP and MP, were first off the block to mutilate some of the major laws that protected the labour force, at least on paper.
UP, with one of the lowest literacy rates in the country, repealed 35 out of 38 labour laws, retaining only the Employee Compensation Act, 1923; Bonded Labour Act, 1976 and Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1996, through the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, in the name of reviving the state’s economy post-lockdown. Some of the other laws such as the Child Labour Act, Maternity Act and Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act have also been retained. The euphuistically titled “temporary exemption” is not just for few months; it’s for a period of three years. Among some of the major laws that have been consigned into the dustbin are the Trade Union Act, Working Journalist Act, Minimum Wages Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour Act and Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act among others.
Similarly, the Shivraj Singh-led government carried out large-scale dilution to the Factories Act, Madhya Pradesh Industrial Relations Act and Industrial Dispute Act, besides extending the working hours. Other states such as, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have also amended labour laws to increase the working hours from the globally-accepted norm of eight-hour shifts to 10 to 12-hour shifts. Apart from Punjab, none of the states that have modified the laws in order to pander to the industrial lobbies will be paying overtime wages.
Karnataka deviously invoked the rarely used Section 5 of the Factories Act that allows the government to declare industrial emergency in the face of “external aggression or internal disturbances” to extend the working hours. The disruption caused by Covid-19 cannot be classified as external aggression or internal disturbance by any stretch. In the case of Karnataka, it shouldn’t come as surprise where the government stands vis-à-vis labour relations given that South Bengaluru MP, Tejasvi Surya, hailed an earlier intemperate order by the government that restrained construction workers from leaving at the behest of the builders’ lobby as a “good decision” in a throwback to the slave traders of yore, who kept up the steady supply of gladiators to keep the decadent Romans entertained.
Make no mistake, a large-scale overhaul and reform of India’s antiqued labour laws is long overdue. A maze of close to 44 Central and dozens of state-specific labour laws weaved cobwebs of nightmare for any entrepreneur, often leaving them at the mercy of potentates of a corrupt inspector raj. Labour being on the Concurrent List made it a particularly complicated subject. In fact, the red tape of labour laws, often overlapping, made a lot foreign investors chary of setting up business in India, especially in the manufacturing sector.
To get around the byzantine labour laws, entrepreneurs happily gamed the system by outsourcing labour supply to contractors, for whom they are mere cannon fodder. In effect, the men and women who toiled in the factories remained dispensable commodities, without accruing any of the benefits that they are entitled to under the various laws on paper. The practice of relying on contracted labour is most prevalent in the small and medium scale enterprises—though in some cases, large enterprises too happily resort to the workarounds—which employ approximately 90 per cent of the country’s workforce.
Despite the multitude of laws safeguarding labour rights, the International Trade Union Confederation gave India a rating of five on a scale on 1-5 in 2019, where 5 stands for “no guarantee of rights,” according to a study published in the Economic and Political Weekly. The pitiful ranking reflects the shoddy implementation of the laws, many of which exist only paper. The large-scale dilution of labour laws in several states in the garb of Ease of Doing Business has drawn the attention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Soon after UP repealed most of the labour laws, the ILO reminded India of its obligations towards upholding labour rights as a signatory to various international treaties. Wrecking the existing legal framework, in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to attract investments and boost economic activity is nothing more than a cheap sleight of hand of a con-artiste rather than mind-bending magic performed by an illusionist.
The migrant labour crisis in the wake of the lockdown also shows the state of India’s trade unions in extremely poor light. Since the wind of liberalisation started sweeping across the land in 1991, industry made conscious, and constant, effort to chip away at the hold of the trade unions by resorting to the contract system of employment. But the greater blow to the influence of trade unions has been dealt by the waning influence of left parties in India’s political milieu. The loss of popular support on the ground has stripped the left parties, which still control some of the biggest trade unions, of the political heft needed to shape policies and opinions. The trade union movement in India too must share a portion of the blame for not grooming the next generation of leaders who have their ears to the ground.
The conspicuous absence of the trade unions, both in words and deeds, as the migrant labour crisis unfolded is a telling commentary on the state of disarray the movement a inds itself in. The fightback from the unions to the dilution and weak implementation of labour laws over the past two decades has been sporadic at best and abject surrender at worst. The muted reaction of the unions to the UP-government’s scrapping of the Trade Union Act offers further evidence of their irrelevance in the current context. The sickle has become blunt and haft of the hammer is broken.
In effect, as we emerge from the world’s most ill-planned, lockdown slowly, with weakened unions and rapacious corporate greed forming the two millstones of the labour market, the hand on the machine will remain as the grist that will continue to pay with its blood, sweat and flesh as a subsidy for the economic loss. g