It is once again proved that a hardship anywhere the world is an opportunity to exploit the labourers and poorer sections of the world everywhere. Whatever be the form of the government, whatever be the status of the Constitutional values of a country is, the working class and the poor people had been and are still been oppressed and subjected to inequalities.
And it is visible in India as well when we see the plight of the migrant labourers and the poorer sections, especially in the last couple of months. And instead of redressing their plights, another major blow was thrown to them in the name of labour reforms being taken by various state governments to stimulate the economy.
In the last couple of days several state governments including the state of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh as well as the state of Assam have decided to make an amendment in the existing labour laws and thereby included several stringent provisions like increasing the working hours form 8 hours to 12 hours a day, not increasing the wages for overtime works, tightening the norms to get registered for enjoying the benefits of industrial laws to its employees, extending the number of labour requirement in an organization to be brought under the jurisdiction of the labour inspector etc.
All these seem to benefit the employers and industrialists who can have the liberty to exploit their employees and these workers and labourers are left with norights but to get exploited.
It is understandable that the world is going through a tough time due to the outbreak of the pandemic. No country in the world is in safe hands and has to face the blot of the onslaught of this disease. Nevertheless, whenever we read the ethos and values of our Constitution, we understand that our country is a welfare one and this has been evident from the enactment of various fundamental rights and directive principles of state policies that opt for several welfare measures to all sections of the population, be the rich or the poor.
Under such a scenario, a pandemic like situation that anyway causes greater harm to the poorer and the lower sections of the population, a change in the labour laws in the name of reform is unprecedented and uncalled for.
Our Constitution under Article 39 (e) provides that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocation unsuited to their age or strength.
Again Article 42 of the Indian Constitution provides a direction to the state for securing just and humane conditions of works. Given these constitutional requirements, the present decision of the state governments to amend the labour and industrial laws in a bid to exploit the labourers and employees is an unfortunate one. In the pretext of economic hardships, no welfare and democratic country in the world exploits its workforce.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on May 12 had proposed for Atma-Nirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India. This was appended with an announcement of a package of 20 lakh crores, around 10% of India’s GDP for the revival of Indian economy.
This sounds a good move given the fact that the prime minister himself advocated for the welfare of the marginal as well as the migrant labours in his address. But the fact of the matter is that the exploitation of labours in one hand and the welfare packages for them in the other hand can’t go together. This carrot and stick policy is not in tune of our Constitutional ethos.
Article 23 of the Constitution of India advocates for the prohibition of any form of forced labour. Though the term ‘forced’ is not defined in the Constitution itself, however, it was interpreted by the Supreme Court very widely in a landmark case of Peoples Union for Democratic Rights Vs. Union of India (AIR 1982).
In the case Justice Bhagwati said, “the word ‘forced’ must therefore be construed to include not only physical or legal force but also force arising from the compulsion of economic circumstances which leaves no choice of alternatives to a person in want and compels him to provide labour or service”.
Given the fact that the changes in the labour laws that calls for an extended labour period that might cause a detrimental impact on the health and psychology of the labour class, it does amount to ‘forced’ labour, and it is unconstitutional.
It is not unknown to the world that the industrial revolution in Europe had garnered several economic and industrial benefits to them. However that was followed by a consequence of widespread hardship to the labour class, their health and strengthening compromised and the emergence of two fold classes, the have and the have nots.
Today, if, India opts for this imperial policy of labour oppression and exploitations, the outcome will not be a desired one. No democratic country in 21st century can think of stepping to the ladders of economic surpluses on the hardships of its labours and workforces.
Given the backdrop of the ongoing critical situations due to the outbreak of pandemic, people might have no option other than to bow down to the government decisions and get exploited. But it is not a democratic and welfare decision on the part of India to allow this mischief being happened.
A call for status quo in these developments and protect the labour class and employees from these hardships and exploitations is the least that the authorities in power can do.
Dhirendra Newar is a writer based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: [email protected]