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With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing industries and working life to a staggering halt, the economy worldwide has plummeted. To combat the economic crisis, India has turned its labour laws to a worker’s worst nightmare.

With the entire world shut indoors in lockdown, the economy of not just India, but the entire world, has plummeted. The economic crisis that 2020 faces has been described to be even worse than the recession faced in 2007-2009. This global financial crisis is comparable to 1930s Great Depression, a period that saw devastating economic despair from 1929-1939, and led to mass unemployment, industry closures and human trauma worldwide.

The Indian unemployment rate in the week that ended on 3rd May 2020 rose to 27.1%, the highest that the country had ever seen. It is estimated that over 9 crore people lost their jobs due to the lockdown. In this calculated estimation, the ones hit the hardest were the daily wage labourers and small traders. In an attempt to battle this destructive economic decline, the Indian government has “suspended” major labour laws in various states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. UP government has suspended these laws for three years, under the ruse of “safeguarding the welfare of the workers and ensuring industrial safety”. 

In Uttar Pradesh, 35 of the 38 labour laws applicable have been suspended. The only three laws that have been exempted are the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996; the Workmen Compensation Act, 1923, and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, along with the Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, which relates to the timely payment of wages.

But does it really help India? For long, India’s labour laws have been criticized. They have been characterized as “too inflexible” and too many in numbers, making them hard to follow. Thus, reformed laws are needed in- lesser laws that are easier to follow would ensure that firms can contract and expand according to the market requirement, thus converting the largely informal sector that currently employees a large majority of Indian workers to a formal one that would provide with better salaries and social security benefits. 

However, the laws introduced do little to aid that. In fact, they have been largely characterized as slave laws, paving the way for exploitation in the 21st century. The provisions that have currently been terminated encompass basic rights like minimum wage, occupational safety, as well as minimum standards for working conditions. The Indian industries, many of which already lacked basic hygiene and safety equipment for their workers such as ventilation, toilets, daycare or even basic potable water, are now under no government obligation to provide these basic necessities. Keeping in mind that basic hygiene is probably more important in a post-pandemic world than any other, the introduction of these laws is not just ignorant, but downright inhumane. The basic minimum wage, that already was scant, to begin with, is now under no obligation to be met. Another heavily criticized decision was the increasing of working hours from 8 to 12. Not only would the increased hours prove to be exhaustive upon the workers, but the decision also does not aid towards utilizing more of the unemployed taskforce- it would do the exact opposite. Further, the laws risk the employment wages’ reduction as well, with nothing stopping the employer from firing his entire workforce and rehiring them on lower wages. 

Thus the reforms, which should be pushing towards formalization, can risk doing the exact opposite.

It is undeniable that the need for some sort of labour law exemption wasn’t necessary, or that it isn’t important to consider any opportunity that arises for marking an industrial revival in India and making its niche in the world. However, the justification that touts basic worker rights as the reason for the hindrance to some Indian manufacturing revolution is an inhumane and baseless one. The decision to scrap these laws was a poorly thought-out and untimely one. For now, the only purposes these reforms fulfil are stripping the workers of their basic rights and bargaining power, and making this the survival of the richest and the most privileged.

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Shreya Juyal

[email protected]