Analyzing the Suspension of Labour Laws In Light of COVID-19

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Some states in India have made drastic amendments to the application of labour laws. Though, they claim it to be for a limited time –period. This is in response, to the current pandemic which has affected the whole economy. It has created an uncertain future for the companies and the labourers. The state governments claim that the amendment will incentivize the country. But this move has garnered extreme reviews from the public. While some support the action in light of the current pandemic. Others have criticized it and have moved to the President for intervention. Before delving into the issue, let’s have a clear picture of the labour laws in the country.

How did Labour Legislations Develop in India 

Industrialisation in India, as in other countries, brought some new socio-economic issues. The traditional concept of master-servant relationships changed. The gap between the rich and the poor grew into two classes of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-nots’. The Have-nots class are often subject to exploitation. The workmen realised that they could put a better fight if they get united. This feeling led to the emergence of strikes and lock-outs. The world saw two wars before workers got recognition for their rights. Which increased the cost of living and as a result, the labour started demanding an increase in wages.

Post-independence a new branch known as Industrial Jurisprudence developed in our country. Earlier the government only focused on amelioration of the conditions of labour. They did not deal provide social justice to the working class. Post the enactment of the Constitution, the emphasis was on ensuring self-resilience. This led to a new approach for the development of a labour policy known as ‘Tripart-ism’.

What are The Labour Laws in India 

There are over 250 labour legislations in India. These stand between the centre and the state, as labour falls under the Concurrent List. Different laws are dealing with different issues.

For example- 

  • The laws dealing with wages and payment are- 

The Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Payment of Wages Act, 1936, etc.

  • The laws dealing with conditions of work are-

Factories Act, 1948; The Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970, etc.

  • The laws dealing with social security are-

Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923; Employees State Insurance Act, 1948; Employees’ Provident Fund Act, 1952.

The Industrial Dispute Act, 1947 is the most contentious legislation. It deals with terms like layoff, retrenchment, strikes, lock-out, etc.

There are many legislations on this issue. But the term ‘labour law’ is not defined anywhere. The economy is advancing. The relation between the employer and the workmen is evolving. Hence, new disputes will continue to arise. This will lead to the enactment of new laws. The current labour laws in India are often criticized for being inflexible and outdated. Moreover, having so many legislations are difficult to understand, follow, and install.

What have the States Proposed

While most states including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab have introduced significant changes. The BJP led government in Uttar Pradesh introduced the most extreme amendments. Trade Unions are criticizing this move and terming it as regressive. These states have granted a complete exemption to employers from the labour laws. The pertinent changes introduced by some states are as follows-

Uttar Pradesh

The government has suspended most labour law provisions for three years. The Ordinance has exempted three laws. These relate to the issue of bonded labour and deployment of women & children. It also exempts laws relating to the timely payment of salary from its purview. 

Madhya Pradesh

The government has extended the daily working hours to 12 hours per day. It has moulded certain laws in favour of the employers by granting them exemptions. Such laws include- MP Industrial Relations Act and Industrial Disputes Act. The Factories Act exempts new factories from the Labour Department. They have permission to conduct third party inspections at their will. 

Punjab, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh

The governments have extended working hours in manufacturing units. The new limit is 12 hours from 8 hours per day or 72 hours per week. But the Punjab government has promised higher overtime wages for the extra hours of work. 

Leaders of seven political parties have written letters to the President. These letters request the President to look into the issue. They raised concerns about the livelihood, welfare, and future of the workmen. The letter terms the move as unconstitutional. It alleges that the suspension violates several rights of the workmen. This includes the right to organize themselves in a union. It is far from granting the fundamental right to life and dignity. 

Author’s Note

Since labour is a subject of the Concurrent list, both the Centre and the State have the power to legislate on it. This amendment violates the International Labour Organisation Convention, which India ratified years ago. Under the convention, the working hours continue to be 48 hours per week. This violation is censurable. Especially due to the history of India and the battle against exploitation. Moreover, it seems as if the government has turned from its statement. In the initial phase of the lockdown, the government appealed to the firms. It asked them to not fire the workers or deduct their salaries. Now it is doing even worse by stripping them off their power and protection. 

There is a need for a balanced reform to take place. Along with granting exemptions to the employers. The government should allow for a flexible hire and fire method. The governments should propose a scheme for compensating the unemployed during the lockdown.


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