The countrywide lockdown announced on 24th of March, 2020 with an extremely short notice left thousands of migrant labourers in India in the state of a lurch. The poorly planned lockdown caused immense distress and ramified endless stream of migrant labourers from economic centres of India in the scorching heat without adequate shelter and supplies. Incidents of these migrants facing accidents and losing their lives on their journey back home on foot have unfortunately become a common phenomenon. For instance, on 8th of May, 16 migrant workers were crushed to death by a goods train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra while sleeping on a railway track fatigued by their long journey on foot on. In a different incident, six migrant workers were run over by a speeding bus in the state of Utter Pradesh.
The situation was further worsened by incompetent and unconstitutional decisions of the states Governments. Upon the announcement of the plying of the Special trains to take the migrants to their native states by the Central Government, the state of Karnataka in an appalling move cancelled these trains without any reason, and the decision was allegedly taken after the State Chief minister K.M Yediyurappa met the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (CREDAI). The decision was in complete violation to the right under Article 19 (1) (d) under the Indian constitution (Right “to move freely throughout the territory of India”) and completely disregarded the personal autonomy and liberty of the migrant labourers for the economic interests of the state and was condemned as medieval barbarism by many.
It is a welcome step that National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken suo-moto cognizance of the issue after an image of a migrant woman pulling a suitcase with her sleeping child half hung on the suitcase took rounds on social media. Even though the Supreme Court has failed to effectively intervene in this humanitarian crisis to much disappointment, several High Courts have issued directions on the issue. The Madras High Court which suo-moto sought an action-taken report for the relief of migrant workers to the state and central government observed:
“One cannot control his/her tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant labourers shown in the media for the past one month. It is nothing but a human tragedy. Even after sorrow and sufferings of the migrant workers were reported to the media, nothing happened for the past one month as there were no coordinated efforts between the states”.
Adding to the plight of labourers in the country, at least three states in India have passed orders for dilution of labour laws in order to boost their economic recovery from the crisis and to attract investments.
The Uttar Pradesh government, being the forerunner, passed an ordinance that suspended 35 out of 38 labour laws in the state for a period of three years. The suspended acts include the Equal Remuneration Act, The Minimum Wages Act, Contract Labour Act, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act the Industrial Disputes Act, the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act and Unorganized Workers Social Security Act which effectively puts basic guarantees like equal remuneration for women and men, minimum wage, fair practices of hiring and firing and workers’ safety and sanitation at hold.
The state of Madhya Pradesh was second to follow by exempting around 11 types of industries from the application of the MP Industrial Relations (MPIR) Act of 1961. The state has now allowed to hire and fire at the convenience of the employees. The recent changes also exempt the new establishments under Factories Act 1948 from inspection under the labour department. The industries will no longer be required to follow standards of safety-related to working conditions and health of labourers as the industries will be exempted from provisions of disposal of waste, cleanliness, drinking water, restrooms, and other similar provisions.
The state of Gujarat too has announced dilution of various aspects of labour laws for 1200 days. Further, governments of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have extended the working hours from 8 hours to 12 hours. These labour law reforms aim to lure industrialists and unshackle the industry at the cost of the dignity and rights of the labourers stinks of modern slavery. These reforms will leave the poor labour force in India more vulnerable and prone to exploitation as they will be forced to work under these under harsh conditions to earn their bread as they don’t have any alternatives.
These reforms violate fundamental principles set down by the International Labour Organisation which includes employment protection, provision of social security, sex-based discrimination, safe working conditions, equal pay for equal work, protection of migrant workers, and other such facets. It is also a gross violation of the internationally accepted norm of 8 hours working day espoused by ILO core Conventions.
Article 23(1) of the Indian constitution prohibits forced labour. In the landmark case of PUDR v. Union of India, the Supreme Court India has held that the right against forced labour extends to the right to a minimum wage. The court held that “forced labour” should be applied to “compulsion of economic circumstances” as well rather than just physical or legal force. Further, the right to life and liberty protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has been construed as Right to “meaningful life with livable conditions and human dignity”. In Consumer Education & Research v. Union Of India, it was held by the Supreme Court that the right to health, medical aid to protect the health and vigour to a worker while in service or post-retirement is a fundamental right under Article 21, read with Articles 39(e), 41, 43, 48A and all related Articles and fundamental human rights to make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful with dignity of a person. The SC observed:
“The right to health to a worker is an integral facet of meaningful right to life to have not only a meaningful existence but also robust health and vigour without which worker would lead life of misery. Lack of health denudes his livelihood. Compelling economic necessity to work in an industry exposed to health hazards due to indigence to bread-winning to himself and his dependents, should not be at the cost of the health and vigour of the workman.”
Labour Law reforms are inevitable in the changed scenario, however, the fundamental question is if a constitutional democracy like India can make such draconian moves as the foundation on which a constitutional democracy is built upon is the rights and obligations of its citizens. The laws should be made to protect the weak and vulnerable and it should attempt to balance out the needs of the industry and welfare of the workers through a process of negotiation and socialization rather than suspend or rescind laws with stroke of a pen, like an authoritarian regime.
In a nutshell, these reforms by the governments further exacerbate the hardships faced by the poor and marginalized labour force in India instead of providing them protection and rectifying an already broken system as exposed by the coronavirus crisis.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Insaf Ahamad T.K.
Insaf Ahamad T.K. is a second-year law student from Gujarat National Law University, India. He is deeply interested in human rights law and has represented his university in 11th Nelson Mandela World Human rights moot court competition. He has also previously worked as a student researcher on a project titled “Human rights Education in Schools in India: A comparative study of syllabus prescribed by state Education board” granted by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com.