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Why is BJP-supported TU forced to question Modi government's new labour codes?

By Bharat Dogra* 

When the Government of India embarked on a very significant exercise with far-reaching implications of codifying a complex of existing laws in four labor codes, this was sought to be presented as overdue labor ‘reform’ which will be beneficial for workers. However the government has not been able to convince most labor organizations particularly the central trade unions about the benefits of these significant changes for workers.
In fact even the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh which is generally inclined to go with the BJP government on most issues has been constrained to oppose some aspects of these codes and this itself gives an indication of how widespread are the concerns regarding these changes. As far as the other central trade unions are concerned their opposition to this codification is even more basic and has covered a much wider ground.
Due to the more limited nature of its concerns the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh has asked for only a phased introduction of the new codes, starting with the least contested ones, while the more contentious issues should be discussed further. 
However, the objections of other trade unions are more basic and questions about the entire codification project and its real motives have been raised. One concern has related to the future of trade unions becoming more precarious and uncertain with new changes. If those who raise the issues of workers are themselves being made weaker, surely all workers are being weakened too. 
The possibilities of workers going on strike as a means of exerting pressure for acceptance of their demands in the course of this codification are also being reduced by increasing the range of industries that can be exempted as public utilities and/or by making the legal processes more complicated and difficult.
This should be seen with another concern which relates to a significant number of workers being taken out of the coverage of labor laws in various ways, even though those in smaller units often face terrible exploitation and poor working conditions. In the case of social security funds contributed by both workers and employers, there are concerns regarding how these will be managed in the interests of workers.
With increasing health hazards and risks of accidents, there is worry whether such concerns and the reasons of increasing risks and accountability are being adequately addressed in the codes, particularly the one on occupational safety and health. Several serious industrial accidents have been reported in recent times, increasing these concerns.
Several categories of workers earlier had laws specially dedicated to them, keeping in view the specific needs of workers. One example which readily comes to mind is that of construction workers whose number is huge, but there are other categories as well. Important legislation in the form of two inter-related laws was enacted in 1996 for many-sided rights and welfare of construction workers. It had taken several years to start its implementation in the right spirit, helped further by directions from courts including the Supreme Court of India. However just when workers were becoming more hopeful, the codification created a lot of new uncertainties regarding the implementation of various provisions, particularly regarding how the welfare funds will be administered.
There are concerns, which have increased with strong inflationary trends, whether appropriate, need based criteria will be followed for fixing minimum wages and for their periodic revision. There is also concern also regarding the Code on Wages placing a limit on keeping basic salary at 50% of total pay which can reduce take-home salary.
Keeping in view all these factors, there has been widespread resistance to the codification of labor laws. While the main legislation relating to these was passed on September 22-23, 2020, the progress after this in the form of framing rules by various states has been slow and the proposed date for implementation has been moved further from the earlier proposal of July 1, 2022.
The entire issue cannot be debated in isolation from the ground level realities in which often the workers’ side, despite having very genuine grievances, has to suffer much as the power equations are heavily tilted against them. There have been cases of even well-organized sections of workers suffering a lot of injustice, repression and distress due to the combined onslaught of employers, officials, police and powerful political leaders against them.
In such a situation, more protective laws are needed to increase the possibilities of justice for workers. This is why it has been argued very rightly that any changes that are made must be in the direction of enhancing and improving workers’ rights and not decreasing them. The opposition to the new codes must be understood and supported in this wider context.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Planet in Peril’ and ‘Man over Machine'

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