Faced with the prospect of legal challenges, states are beginning to swiftly backtrack on the labour law changes they had pushed through less than a month ago. After the Uttar Pradesh government’s withdrawal of its order extending the daily working hours, Rajasthan too has withdrawn its order extending the working hours to 12 hours from 8 during the lockdown against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move also comes close on the heels of the Madhya Pradesh government last week amending its proposed changes to labour laws, citing the need for legal consent before workers are asked to work overtime.
The pullback by Rajasthan is crucial given that it was the first state to have extended daily working hours from 8 hours to 12 last month, after which at least nine other states including Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Odisha followed suit. Subsequently, states such as UP, MP and Gujarat went ahead and brought ordinances to amend labour laws to effectively provide a blanket suspension of these laws over a three-year period citing the need to attract investments, a move which has invited criticism and could see potential legal challenges in the days ahead.
Amidst these changes, 10 trade unions — including Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) — registered an initial complaint with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on May 14, terming these moves as “an attack on human and labour rights”, asking for ILO’s intervention on “the extremely precarious and regressive moves” for the working class in the country. The ILO, in its response dated May 22, said it has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the issue.
“Please allow me to assure you that the ILO-Director General has immediately intervened, expressing his deep concern at these recent events and appealing to the Prime Minister to send a clear message to central and state governments to uphold the country’s international commitments and encourage engagement in effective social dialogue,” Karen Curtis, Chief, Freedom of Association Branch, International Labour Standards Department said in the letter.
On Monday, the 10 trade unions lodged a second complaint with the ILO flagging the “retrograde anti-labour exercise of the Government of India towards virtual nullification of most of the substantive laws in vogue in the country by the Government of India through the state governments”.
“This exercise has been aimed at total abrogation of the provisions of not more than eight hour-working day and Right to Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining,” they said in their complaint, attaching the orders and notifications by the various states proposing changes in labour laws.
The unions urged other states to follow Rajasthan in withdrawing the changes. “AITUC welcomes the decision of Rajasthan government to withdraw its earlier decision of increase in working hours from 8 to 12 hours which was meant for three months. AITUC would urge the other state Governments to follow the suit and withdraw all the changes being effected in the labour laws during Covid-19 lock down period. The economy would pick up if workers, the key components to provide their labour be it skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled in manufacturing, productions, and services are taken on board for ensuring them justice for workplace safety, health measures, proper wages, eight hours of working as per existing norms and social security coverage etc.,” Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary, AITUC, said.
While UP and MP had opted for a suspension of labour laws for 1,000 days, as many as ten states – including Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, MP, Haryana, Assam and Gujarat – have allowed extension of working hours to 12 through issuance of orders under the Factories Act.
On May 15, however, the UP government, in a communication to the Allahabad High Court following a notice for a public interest litigation, withdrew its earlier order regarding extension of daily working hours in industrial units to 12.
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