International Labour Day is celebrated on May 1 to honour workers. Labour has an undeniable role in shaping the nation’s fortune. Since the times immemorial, the working class has struggled and sacrificed for greater causes — first for Independence and then building the nation brick by brick. The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has brought temporary hardship for everyone, including workers. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has weighed life as being greater than livelihood and has now provided a blueprint for turning this crisis into opportunity in the post-corona world. The proposed change in work culture through adaptability, efficiency, inclusiveness, opportunity and universalism will open up more avenues for workers to build New India.
Many leaders have been a beacon for workers and B R Ambedkar was one among them. As the representative of the Depressed Classes in the Round Table Conference, Ambedkar forcefully pleaded for living wages, decent working conditions and the freedom of peasants from the clutches of cruel landlords. He also fought for the removal of social evils that blighted the lives of the downtrodden.
He went on to form the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936 with a comprehensive programme to meet the needs and grievances of the landless, poor tenants, agriculturists, and workers. In the polls held in 1937, the first election under the newly enacted Government of India Act of 1935, the ILP achieved spectacular success by winning 15 of the 17 seats it had contested for the Bombay Legislative Assembly. On September 17, 1937, during the Poona session of the Bombay Assembly, he introduced a bill to abolish the Khoti system of land tenure in Konkan. He opposed the introduction of Industrial Disputes Bill, 1937 because it removed the workers’ right to strike.
His profound knowledge of labour matters was universally acknowledged and demonstrated during his term as Labour member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council from 1942 to 1946. When the world order was in flux during World War II, Ambedkar was guiding Indian labour. The changing economy provided opportunities for the expansion of industries. While entrepreneurs and managers could hope for prosperity, labour was not given its due share. Ambedkar piloted and introduced measures for labour welfare by laying the foundation for the basic structure for the government’s labour policy. He tackled the knotty problems and won esteem and respect from employees and employers alike. The Indian Trade Union (Amendment) Bill, introduced by Ambedkar on November 8, 1943, compelled the employers to acknowledge trade unions.
On February 8, 1944, in the legislative assembly during the debate on the Lifting of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines, Ambedkar said: “It is for the first time that I think in any industry the principle has been established of equal pay for equal work irrespective of the sex.” It was a historic moment. Through the Mines Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 1943, he empowered women workers with maternity benefits.
Addressing the Indian Labour Conference held in New Delhi on November 26, 1945, Ambedkar emphasised the urgent need to bring progressive labour welfare legislation: “Labour may well say that the fact that the British took 100 years to have a proper code of labour legislation is no argument that we should also in India take 100 years. History is not always an example. More often it is a warning.”
Ambedkar did not accept the Marxist position that the abolition of private property would bring an end to poverty and suffering. In Buddha or Karl Marx, he writes: “Can the Communists say that in achieving their valuable end they have not destroyed other valuable ends? They have destroyed private property. Assuming that this is a valuable end, can the Communists say that they have not destroyed other valuable end in the process of achieving it? How many people have they killed for achieving their end? Has human life no value? Could they not have taken property without taking the life of the owner?”
Inspired by Ambedkar, the current government has taken steps to improve the quality of life of workers. For example, the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan Yojna was launched in February 2019 to ensure protection of unorganised workers in their old age. Through technological interventions like Shram Suvidha Portal, transparency and accountability are ensured in the enforcement of labour law. The government is working to simplify, amalgamate and rationalise the provisions of the existing central labour laws into four labour codes — Labour Code on Wages, on Industrial Relations, on Social Security & Welfare and on Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions.
In the extraordinary circumstances brought on by the COVID pandemic, the labour fraternity deserves a special salute. During his Mann ki Baat broadcast on March 29, the PM apologised for the inconvenience: “I extend a heartfelt apology to all countrymen. And I strongly feel from the core of my heart that you will forgive me — since certain decisions had to be taken, resulting in myriad hardships for you. And when it comes to my underprivileged brothers and sisters, they must be wondering on the kind of Prime Minister they have, who has pushed them to the brink! My wholehearted apologies, especially to them.” PM Modi has championed the fight against the pandemic and been acclaimed globally. Much of the credit for this goes to the perseverance of the labour fraternity.
As we recall the innumerable contribution of the countless labourers in nation-building, with an ever-increasing spirit of Shramev Jayate, we must remember the contributions of Ambedkar.
This article was first published in the print by the title ‘Labour’s leader’. The writer is Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. He is the Lok Sabha MP for Bikaner