FRONTLINE|June 5, 2020
ANNOUNCING THE FIRST PHASE OF THE national lockdown on March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to employers to be compassionate towards their employees. On April 14 when the first phase of the lockdown came to an end, he once again appealed to employers not to dismiss their employees. By then there were reports of employers laying off their workers and of jobless migrant workers being anxious to return home. Perhaps anticipating that employers would resort to such tactics, the Labour Ministry sent a letter to employers on March 20, pointing to the catastrophic situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead to services of workers being dispensed with or workers being forced to go on leave without wages and salaries. Stating that coordinated efforts of all sections of society were needed to meet the public health challenge, it advised employers to extend their cooperation by not terminating their employees, especially casual contract workers, or reducing their wages. Strangely, the advisory also said that if the place of employment became non-operational due to COVID-19, the employees would be deemed to be on duty. It stated that reduction of wages or termination of employees would not only weaken their financial condition but lower their morale to fight the epidemic. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Ministry spoke about “labour reforms”. That the appeals proved ineffective became evident when thousands of migrant workers deprived of their jobs decided to return to their home States, many of them traversing hundreds of kilometres on foot or by cycle.
Taking advantage of the lockdown and the inability of workers to organise protests, some State governments, mainly those headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, announced sweeping changes in labour laws making it easy for employers to hire and fire workers and extend the working hours to 12 from the mandatory eight hours with a view to reviving industrial production. When the Centre announced easing of lockdwon restrictions outside containment zones from April 20, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh interpreted it as relaxation in labour laws. On April 22, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government invoking Section 5 of the Factories Act, 1948, issued a gazette notification that exempted all factories coming under the ambit of the Act from its provisions relating to weekly and daily working hours and interval for rest for adult workers for a period of three months. The relaxations were evidently not in labour’s favour. As per the notification, workers could now be made to work for not more than 12 hours a day as compared to eight hours before and not more than 72 hours a week; they would not be allowed to work for more than six hours without taking 30 minutes of rest; there would be no factory inspections for three months; third party inspection was allowed; and there would be no inspection for firms employing less than 50 workers. Factory licences would be renewed once in 10 years and new licences and registrations (of factories) issued in a day.
Section 5 of the Factories Act, allows a State government to issue a gazette notification exempting any factory or factories from all or some provisions of the Act (except Section 67) for a maximum period of three months under a situation of “public emergency”. Section 5 describes a “public emergency” as one where the security of India or any part of its territory is threatened by war, external aggression or internal disturbances. As the Centre had not declared the COVID outbreak a national or public emergency, the dilution of labour laws in the present circumstances was inexplicable.
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June 5, 2020