Recently, the Lok Sabha passed three labour code bills – the Industrial Relations Code, 2020; the Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020; and the Code on Social Security, 2020. This merged the 24 remaining central labour laws, giving the country four labour codes altogether. This comes a year after the Parliament passed the first labour code in 2019 - The Wage Code.
In 2002, the Second National Commission of Labour suggested consolidating and streamlining the labour laws to bring in uniformity. The government now proposes that the four codes together will increase the scope of social security and allow flexibility for employers to hire-and-fire workers without the government’s permission.
The key proposals
The Industrial Relations Code, 2020 puts forth more conditions that limit the rights of workers to strike – they have to now give a 14-day notice if they wish to go on a strike. Presently, a notice is required only from workers in the public utility services. The new code also gives industrial establishments with 300 workers (100 earlier), some wiggle room to hire and fire employees in the hope that companies recover and add more jobs.
A report by the Standing Committee of Labour stated that “The Committee desires that the threshold be increased accordingly in the Code itself and the words “as may be notified by the Appropriate Government” be removed because reform of labour laws through the executive route is undesirable and should be avoided to the extent possible.”
The Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020 recognises the rights of contractual workers. It now defines a migrant worker – one who migrates to another state for employment and earns a family income less than Rs 18,000 per month. The existing act defined a migrant worker as one who is recruited by or through a licensed contractor in one state for employment in an establishment in another state.
The Social Security Code, 2020 proposes that a board be formed to advise the central government while drafting schemes for different sections of platform workers, gig workers, and unorganised workers. The government, the code states, shall formulate and notify, from time to time, suitable welfare schemes, including schemes relating to “provident fund; employment injury benefit; housing; educational schemes for children; skill up-gradation of workers; funeral assistance; and old age homes”. The government can tap corporate social responsibility funds (within the meaning of the Companies Act, 2013) or any other such source as may be specified in the scheme.
The impact on women workers
For most women workers in India, working is but a matter of survival. A large number of women are employed in the agricultural field for farm labour. They also work in non-agricultural services like construction, where they receive low wages and have no health protection whatsoever. But while they earlier had restrictions, the new codes bring in gender equality. For the first time, the codes also recognise the rights of transgender persons. It makes it mandatory for industrial establishments to provide washrooms, bathing places, and locker rooms for male, female and transgender employees.
The Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020 gives them the opportunity to do all kinds of work even before 6:00 am and beyond 7:00 pm, with consent. That means – women workers can now take up any job and work for however long. Where the work is potentially hazardous, the government is to direct the employers to provide women workers with safeguards. However, the code does not specify any guidelines or mention what these safeguards are. It also mandates that no establishment can knowingly hire a woman worker during the six weeks following a miscarriage, delivery, miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy.
While the new codes have been applauded for its positives, critics still have a few concerns. The IR Code now proposes that employees, irrespective of the industrial establishment, cannot go on strike unless they give a notice of fourteen days. This limits their right to voice concerns as employees. To top that, analysts say that this will not bode well for workers in smaller establishments with less than 300 workers.
“The increase in the threshold for standing orders from the existing 100 to 300 shows the government is very keen to give tremendous amounts of flexibility to the employers in terms of hiring and firing…dismissal for alleged misconduct and retrenchment for economic reasons will be completely possible for all the industrial establishments employing less than 300 workers,” XLRI professor and labour economist, KR Shyam Sundar, told the media.
While women do get more opportunity, the lack of safeguards and the implementation of the notion where they work ‘with their consent’ falls flat in a situation where economic pressure is the driving force for their choice of work. The codes will come into effect in December 2020, with very little assurance of the workers’ welfare or income security. While they do appear to bring in gender equality and boost investor confidence, there’s a large room for improvement.
(Edited by Kanishk)