THE Modi government has declared a veritable war on the working class of the country. Modi warned in his televised address that people should be ready for “bold reforms”. BJP-led state governments of UP, MP and Gujarat, of course under the blessings of Modi’s central government, have already scrapped or rendered labour laws totally ineffective. Several states, including Uttarakhand, Haryana, Assam, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Punjab have increased working hours to 12 hours a day, some with and some without overtime wages, and for three months if not three years as in the case of other states.
The BJP government has cunningly chosen this critical period of medical emergency to push through all its anti-people measures under the garb of Covid-19. Normally, the anti-worker measures would have met with a massive resistance from workers, but with the lockdown and Epidemics and Disaster Management act in force, workers are handicapped in responding to the government’s systematic assault on labour laws.
Self-reliant India cannot just be built based on dependence on foreign capital and certainly not by scrapping labour laws to attract capital from outside. For Modi, self-reliance is only a rhetoric and doesn’t really mean self-reliance of the country and its own people. Talking about self-reliance while pushing workers and toilers into slavery and bondage and making India subservient to global capital and imperialist powers is nothing but a mockery.
The biggest victim of unplanned and abrupt Lockdown is crores and crores of migrant labourers stranded without food, shelter and money all over the country. Overwhelming majority of these migrant labourers hail from a socially oppressed and disadvantaged background. With factories closed and work and earnings drying up, migrant labourers are understandably desperate to return to their homes, but the government is obstructing their return by all possible means. The cruelty meted out to the migrant workers reeks of a clear design to strip them of all their rights and dignity and reduce them to conditions of bonded labour.
Frontline workers, particularly ASHA, Anganwadi, mid-day meal, housekeeping and sanitation workers are offered only empty rhetorical respect as Corona warriors but in real life most of them are not even recognised as workers, not to talk of minimum wages or any kind of additional remuneration as pandemic pay for battling the pandemic from the front.
Initially after the declaration of lockdown the government appealed to employers not to cut jobs or wages. In one of its orders the Home Ministry had even made it legally mandatory. But with employers complaining against this order, the government surreptitiously withdrew this crucial provision in its subsequent notifications. Unlike the packages announced by most countries that ensured full or substantial payment of lockdown period wages to workers, Modi government’s so-called stimulus package of 20 lakh crores had no such component. In fact, the government took the lead to announce a wage cut of 30 percent for central government and PSU employees and freeze their dearness allowance. Wage cut and mass retrenchment appears to be emerging as a concerted strategy of the state and private employers.
The Modi government was already in the process of scuttling and rewriting India’s labour laws in the name of rationalisation. The pandemic and the lockdown are now being used as an opportunity to accelerate and intensify that process. The Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh has already promulgated an ordinance suspending almost all labour laws for a period of three years in the name of economic reconstruction. All inherent rights of workers earned through militant struggles, innumerable sacrifices and guaranteed by the constitution – right from 8-hour workday, minimum wages, ESI, PF, gratuity, grievance redressal and conciliation mechanism of labour departments and labour courts, system of inspection, right to form union and recognition, the question of regularisation - stand abrogated at a single stroke of the pen.
This is being presented as an incentive to wean capital away from China to India and thus as a tool of self-reliance. Several other BJP-led governments like Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka are also following similar measures. In Karnataka, the BSY government first stopped trains for migrant workers at the behest of the builder and mining lobbies and after it was forced to reverse the decision in the face of massive opposition it went on to transfer the labour secretary to appease the employers’ association in the state. Non-BJP states like Rajasthan, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Odisha have also begun to move in this direction of truncation of labour rights.
A common feature of the ongoing attack on labour rights revolves around increasing the length of a working day from 8 to 12 hours. By increasing working hours from 8 to 12 hours, the government claims that companies can operate with 50 percent or 65 percent labour force to fight Covid-19. But, this is nothing but a cunning strategy of the government to reduce existing workforce by 35 or 50 percent in each company. It has not protected the workforce from the threat of retrenchment or wage cut but has dedicated itself to protect corporate profits. The government is gleefully reducing PF contribution by 4 percent and is offering to pay the revised share of 10 percent of both employers and employees, but PF shares are still being deducted from workers’ wages by many employers.
The reverse migration of migrant workers is bound to increase labour availability in traditional labour-exporting states, but there is no plan to absorb and accommodate this labour by either expanding and improving the terms of NREGA or bringing in a similar employment guarantee legislation for urban workers. The net result will be increased unemployment leading to further depression of wages and erosion of the bargaining power of the working class. A lean workforce subjected to hire and fire and depressed wages seems to be the Modi government’s incentive scheme to appease global capital in the guise of its new found mantra of self-reliance.
The lockdown has resulted in massive miseries for vast sections of India’s working class. Now as the government moves towards a clumsy exit from the chaotic and cruel lockdown, it will seek to perpetuate these miseries through a permanent erosion of the legal rights and bargaining power of the working class. While resisting the cruelties of lockdown, the working class movement will have to get ready to fight back and foil this design.