In the weeks after the imposition of the national lockdown, and in the midst of the migrant labour crisis unfolding across the country, several state governments had issued notifications intending to provide industry with a plethora of exemptions and relaxations from the existing labour laws. While the measures were ostensibly designed to reduce the compliance and regulatory burden on firms during a period of acute financial stress, in most cases the relaxations proposed by the states ended up stripping workers of the basic forms of protection afforded to them. They had the effect of chipping away at their bargaining power, and doing away with redressal mechanisms, at a time of greater vulnerability and deepening insecurity. While most states have withdrawn their proposals since, in a welcome move, the Supreme Court has stepped in. On Thursday, it quashed one such notification by the Gujarat government that granted employers temporary “relaxations” from provisions of the Factories Act, 1948, calling it “an affront to the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour”.
The notification, issued on April 17, by the Gujarat Labour and Employment Department under Section 5 of the Factories Act, increased the daily working hours from nine to 12, while also requiring employers to pay overtime wages at a rate proportionate to the ordinary rate of wages, instead of what was mandated under Section 59. The notification was subsequently extended on July 20. The state government sought to justify the changes on grounds that COVID-19 was a “public emergency”, and that it had caused “extreme financial exigencies”. However, doing so, more so in a period of extreme precarity, was tantamount to placing the financial burden stemming from the pandemic on the shoulders of labour. As the Court noted, “the notifications, in denying humane working conditions and overtime wages provided by law, are an affront to the workers’ right to life and right against forced labour”.
Both the controversial notifications in the states, and the pushing through of three labour bills in Parliament last week, have raised an important concern. At a time of acute distress which has exposed the absence of even the most basic of social security nets, and underlined the inadequacy of public health care systems, and with the economy unlikely to recover in the near term, it is vital that the concerns of labour must be placed at the front and centre of any reform that takes its name.
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