The British brought in the system of indentured labour in 1819 via the Bengal Regulations VII, which rendered workmen liable to criminal penalties for breach of contract and desertion. This set of Acts continued till 1865, when special police were used to stop workers from leaving.
Over 150 years later, amid a pandemic and an economic crisis that has rendered several jobless, as state governments such as Gujarat, UP, Madhya Pradesh and others bring in ‘labour reforms’ that, in some cases, have suspended almost all existing labour laws, the historical background of some of these laws provide a useful context.
For instance, the ‘eight-hour working day’ — an idea that is often attributed to Robert Owen, a mill owner-cum-Fabian socialist in Lancashire, who is said to have come up with it in 1817 — is closely connected to ideas about labour rights in India. Though it may seem odd now, a good deal of pressure on the British government in India was at the urging of British cotton manufacturers, who did not want Indian textiles to have a lead over them with very long working days, often 16 hours long, with women and children also employed!
But the first version of the Factories Act came in only after the Crown took charge, in 1881. Subsequent improvements were found necessary as the first one satisfied no one, neither workers nor owners.
But it was the 20th Century that ushered in big strikes, actions and an awareness of work, rights and remunerations.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s arrest and sedition trial in 1908 sparked a series of events in then Bombay, starting with a number of Greaves, Cotton & Co mill workers putting down their tools and walking out on July 13, despite a lot of tough measures by the British government. This was not to stop and by July 23, lakhs of workers joined in.
Mahatma Gandhi’s movement with indigo farmers in Champaran and the role it played in the freedom struggle is known. But equally significant was the Ahmedabad mill workers’ strike to which he rushed immediately after securing a win in Champaran with the Champaran Agrarian Bill in 1918.
Fasts followed and despite a strong under-current within the Congress, which frowned upon workers’ actions and was largely pro-industrialist, the working-class movement was only to intensify with the impetus that the Russian Revolution gave after 1917.
So strong was the connection between securing workers’ rights and calls for freedom that labour analysts say of that time that the trade union movement coincided with the building up of tempo for freedom and Independence of India.
So much so that interlinked events during 1917 to 1947 make it very hard to distinguish between “a purely economic struggle and a purely political struggle”.
Says trade unionist J S Majumdar, editor of the monthly The Working Class, “The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established in 1919 and just a year later, India got its first central trade union with Lala Lajpat Rai at its head. Hundreds of trade unions, several unregistered, followed suit. After the first attempt by the British to control Unions through the Trade Union Act in 1926, they introduced the Trade Disputes Act in 1928 to control strikes. Bhagat Singh and his associates in 1928 threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly protesting this and gave the call for ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. So the trade union and the national liberation movement were joined at the hip.”
The rights of workers to eight-hour days, guarantee of minimum wages and the right to organise were derived from a trinity of laws — the Industrial Disputes Act, the Minimum Wages Act, and the Factories Act — that came into force even before the Constitution was formalised. These laws went on to inform the Constitution and breathe life into the Directive Principles too, which mentions the promise of a decent living wage through a minimum wage.
The idea that labour had rights, and that too mediated through trade unions, had their heyday before opening up and ‘informalisation’ of the Indian economy in 1991.
S A Dange, B T Ranadive, Datta Samant, P Ramamurthy, Dattopant Thengadi came from different political stables but owed their heft to their influence among workers.
The intermeshing of politics and labour activities was clearly visible when Indira Gandhi was halted in her tracks by the All India Railwaymen Federation not letting trains run on time, eventually leading to the Emergency that led to her downfall.
The 1990s and the New Economic Policy brought a new wave of ideas into dominance and ‘contract labour’ greatly diminished the power of organised trade unions.
Says Amit Basole of the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, “A lot of laws had remained on paper and were beginning to be seen as arbitrary. The laws were not wrong, but there was some degree of harassment and small businesses did feel stifled, and this started poisoning ideas about labour laws themselves.”
The 21st century and the emergence of the gig economy, with inequality and asymmetry in the power equation coming to the fore again after the 2008 recession, have again steered the conversation to the precariousness of working lives.
The drive by certain states to take a “law holiday” for three years has met with some pushback.
Says Chinmay Tumbe, migration scholar at IIM Ahmedabad, “The debate on minimum wage laws across the world is on the level of the minimum wages, not their existence. Unfortunate that in India, some states are attempting to woo investment by scrapping this law in its entirety.”
Delhi-based labour economist Prof Praveen Jha says, “Now even the most elementary provisions for labour are proposed to be suspended for about three years, all in the name of attracting investments, boosting growth etc, even though there is powerful evidence and strong theoretical arguments that such assumptions are fallacious.”
Says Majumdar, “The challenge for trade unions is big and it is two-fold for informal workers and the migrants — those in and out of work, and those in and out of towns. Theirs is a shifting world. We need to be there, both at the village-level, at home and at work, and in the cities, too.”