The entire labour law architecture of the country will be destroyed if the Modi Government’s proposed Labour Codes are enacted by Parliament, warned senior advocate Colin Gonsalves at a recent meeting organised in Delhi.
Leaders of several Central Trade Unions who echoed these warnings included Deepak Sharma of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), Swadesh Dev Roye of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Vidya Sagar Giri of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Other trade union speakers included Pawan Kumar of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) as well as Shyambir of the Inklabi Mazdoor Sangam Kendra. They were speaking at a meeting organised at Kerala House by the Delhi Union of Journalists, jointly with the Kerala Union of Working Journalists and the National Alliance of Journalists, on July 13, 2019.
Advocate Gonsalves observed that the Codes reflect an evil design in to do away with all labour protections. Referring to the Industrial Relations Code he said it would do away with the independence of trade unions It would become virtually impossible to register new unions, with the Registrar of Trade Unions being given arbitrary powers to refuse registration. The existing trade unions would be tied up in chains, he said, with the government deciding who can be officebearers, how many of them can be from within an establishment and without. Government would control spending of money by unions, with big fines for helping solidarity strikes. The fines would be punitive, with any minor irregularities (not illegalities) in record keeping being punished with fines of five to ten lakhs or more. This is in sharp contrast to the way in which corporates are allowed to get away with fudged records and falsification of accounts. No managing director of a company and no auditor pays such fines, he said.
Recourse to the courts would be difficult as the entire system of industrial adjudication would be demolished. There will be no fair hearing by an independent judge, no judgement, no order that is binding on both parties. Instead workers will be forced to go in for mediation. The mediation system means being at the mercy of decisions by corrupt labour commissioners who have no judicial experience, he said.
He said talking about a national minimum wage is pointless as this and other rights would not be enforcible through labour courts. Further, the entire system of labour inspection would be replaced by self-certification. This would mean that company owners would be able to say they have less than ten workers and are exempt from various laws while they actually have a hundred workers. But there will be no one to inspect and find out the truth, no one to enforce any law. There will be no safety inspections. This will lead to goonda raj in the industrial setting, he said. We had one of the finest labour laws in the country, despite all its delays, he observed. They have decided to do away with them and bring us down to the level of a banana republic, he said.
Gonsalves said those in the unorganised sector should not be under any impression that the government will give them some benefits. On the contrary they too will be deprived of various laws that exist for them.
Gonsalves also spoke of the increasing physical and legal attacks on journalists countrywide and said he would like to collaborate with other organisations to defend such journalists.
Speakers at the meeting pointed out that among the 44 labour Acts on the chopping block are the Working Journalists & Other News Paper Employees (Conditions of Service & Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1955 and The Working Journalists (Fixation of Wages) Act, 1958. These two Acts are the bedrock of the newspaper industry, setting basic standards, wages, working hours, night shift hours and entitlements like earned leave, medical leave, provident fund, maternity benefits etc.
S.K. Pande, President of the Delhi Union of Journalists said the government’s intentions are clear. He read out a letter from the Labour Ministry that said, in response to an appeal from the DUJ, that there would be no announcement of a new wage board as the Working Journalists Act is to be subsumed in the Labour Codes. The cat is out of the bag. What the previous BJP government proposed, the present is moving with speed to implement. Ironically all this is in a situation, when journalists are confronted with twin dangers of increased attacks on press freedom and on their livelihood. All this, when the labour ministry has been devalued to preside over new labour laws, reducing the average worker to a starving and bonded slave. A united front, based on phased struggle was the need of the hour. As for journalists and press workers- there would be no protection at times when legal protection needed to be extended to the wide spectrum media to save the industry from the jungle law of hire and fire.
Swadesh Dev Roy of the CITU said while the government claims that it is enacting pro-labour measures such as a national minimum wage, this is mere rhetoric. A low minimum wage will only lower wages around the country. He pointed out that the nomenclature itself is dangerous, with statutes being replaced by codes. He warned that the big danger lies in the forthcoming Code on Industrial Relations that will do away with basic working class rights including the right to form trade unions, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. The Registrar of Trade Unions will be given unlimited powers to refuse to register a union and collective bargaining and strikes will be curtailed through provisions such as imprisonment and huge fines for workers. All forms of solidarity and strikes would be crushed.
Deepak Sharma of the INTUC asked why this policy? Why compress the sea of labour laws? He said there is no proper consultation with the Central Trade Unions, the government takes its own arbitrary decisions, then stages the drama of a consultation. He observed that the changes in labour laws are entirely for the benefit of the business class; the corporates are being given red carpet treatment at the expense of the workers. This is not the promised “sabka saath, sab ka vikas”. Let there be a level playing field, he demanded. The powers of the Labour Courts are being diluted, they are being virtually demolished and the intention is to finish off all trade unions, he said. He called for a united protest on these issues.
Vidya Sagar Giri of the AITUC said the government is flouting the core ILO Conventions although it is a signatory to several of them. The ILO’s Centenary Declaration of 2019 clearly says that all governments are bound to implement the ILO’s fundamental principles including the right to association. However the proposed Industrial Relations Code will demolish this right. The government’s intention is to finish off all trade unions in workplaces, he said. The Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2015 was brought to the Lok Sabha but met with strong opposition and could not be passed. It was sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour which suggested several amendments. The government then brought in its provisions though some states, through the backdoor, he said. The Bill itself lapsed when the last Lok Sabha’s term ended. Now two bills have been hastily passed by the Union Cabinet without tripartite consultation, ignoring the recommendations of the Standing Committee. For instance, the Standing Committee had insisted on an eight-hour work day but the Codes will permit state governments to increase working hours at will. Many other recommendations have been ignored, he pointed out.
Shyambir of the Inkalabi Mazoor Kendra said the government is attacking the rights of the working class by bringing in new provisions such as ‘fixed term employment’ instead of permanent jobs. This is a use and throw policy. He pointed out that no worker on a fixed term contract would be willing to join a union and fight for rights. He also referred to the damage being done by the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana that promotes apprenticeship rather than jobs. Why should workers be exploited as apprentices for three years, he asked.
Pawan Kumar, organising secretary of the BMS, had a different viewpoint. He said the BMS does not object to simplification or codification of the laws as long as workers’ rights are protected. He welcomed the Wage Code Bill saying there is no need for laws that provide various definitions of workers and a Schedule of types of employment. The Wage Code has no Schedule so it will apply to all. He said it was alright to fix a floor level wage, as currently minimum wages vary enormously from state to state, ranging from Rs 2500 to Rs 14000 per month. However, he questioned the formula for fixation of a minimum wage, pointing out that the old formula assumed a worker’s wage would support a family of three units. Today that is not the case, he said. Children’s education needs have increased and they are no longer independent workers at the age of 18 but are often dependent on parents till they complete their education at 25 years. Moreover, according to the Senior Citizens Maintenance Act a person who does not support old parents is liable to punishment including imprisonment and fine. Therefore, he said, the family should be considered as six units and the minimum wage must be fixed accordingly. He said he was not in favour of labour reform but of labour review. On the Working Journalists Act he said it has some good provisions such as a three month retrenchment wage and gratuity provisions after three years. These should be extended to all workers.
Striking a different note senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta spoke of the growing attacks on the media and the attempts to control the media through various means, including squeezing it financially. He pointed out that the biggest advertiser today is the government, followed by the Bharatiya janata Party. The government holds the purse strings and has recently denied advertising to three of the most prominent media groups, the Times of India group, the Hindu and the Anand Bazar group. The government has also introduced 10% duty on newsprint imports, which again is a blow to the industry. He referred to pressure on all these groups, particularly the ABP, with the Patanjali group withdrawing its huge advertising from their TV channel until independent journalists like Prasun Bajpai, Abhisar Sarma and Milind Khandekar were dismissed. He spoke of the raids on NDTV and the arbitrary SEBI order saying Prannoy and Radhika Roy could no longer be directors of their own company. He also spoke of the ED raids on an independent group like Raghav Behl’s Quint. He said the media has never before been muzzled like this. He also spoke of the misuses of social media, particularly during the elections and the spread of violence and hate through Facebook and Whatsapp campaigns. He regretted that the Internet is no longer the hoped for universal commons but is controlled by half a dozen multinational corporations.
Sujata Madhok, general secretary of the DUJ summed up the discussion. Prasoon Kandath Treasurer of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists Delhi unit, spoke of the leading role played by his union in various issues of journalists from wage boards to attacks on journalists. Chandrakanth secretary of the National Alliance of Journalists thanked all those who attended the meeting.