Suspension of labour laws by UP, MP, Gujarat crushing workers’ rights, says Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh national general secy Virjesh Upadhyay

Amid COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, when the labour force across the country is at the receiving end due to suspension of work and no wages, three BJP-ruled states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat – have suspended labour laws for three years by issuing ordinances. The RSS-affiliated trade union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), undertook a nationwide agitation against ordinances on Wednesday, demanding their immediate revocation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly emphasised that the ongoing crisis is an opportunity to rebuild and emerge better. The message appears to be lost on states that seem to be in an indecent hurry to bring in anti-labour policies, at a time when the plight of migrant workers should have spurred sympathetic thinking on the life and living condition of the workers, who keep the economy moving.

In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, the national general secretary of BMS, Virjesh Upadhyay discusses the fallouts of the ordinances issued by the BJP-ruled states, a gross violation of labour laws, problems of migrant workers and the action plan. Edited excerpts:

Where does the problem lie?

Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have suspended labour laws for three years by issuing anti-worker ordinances. Law is meant to protect the weak and the poor, and withdrawing the support of law from poor means they would face exploitation. What’s the justification behind the suspension of labour laws? The labourers and factory workers won’t be protected by labour laws in these three states.

 Suspension of labour laws by UP, MP, Gujarat crushing workers’ rights, says Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh national general secy Virjesh Upadhyay

BMS national general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay. Photo courtesy Debobrat Ghose

If the state governments really wanted to bring reforms, first they should have focussed on the poor labourers, who have suffered the most due to COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Second, they should bring reforms in the enforcement mechanism to make labour laws more effective and far-reaching.

Instead the governments have come up with the fantastic idea of completely doing away with labour laws. This act will give industries a free-hand to do whatever they want to do, which anyway they have been doing so far. The presence of labour law is a kind of mental assurance and protection for the workers. But now due to suspension of laws, a worker can’t move labour court against exploitation of any kind. In a nutshell, this move is crushing the workers’ rights.

What changes does BMS want in the ordinances issued by these states?

BMS doesn’t want any changes in the ordinances, but complete withdrawal. We want the governments to bring reforms for better implementation of labour laws by developing better infrastructure.

Has any state responded to the letter written by the BMS regarding the withdrawal of the ordinance?

The state general secretaries of the BMS have written to the chief ministers of respective states concerned. However, except Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the others didn’t respond. Only Chouhan has shown the courtesy to have a meeting with the BMS and discuss the issue.

Some states have also extended the working shift from eight to 12 hours per day for workers in industrial units...

Yes, it’s a major problem again. Fourteen states, both BJP and non-BJP ones like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Punjab, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, etc., by unilaterally changing labour laws, have either extended or decided to increase the mandatory working hours for labourers from eight to 12.

The workers are human beings and not machines. They work to earn their livelihood and improve their quality of life. Why should they be compelled to work compulsorily for 12 hours? Even today, if the need arises they work 10 to 16 hours but it shouldn’t be made mandatory.

International Labour Organisation, the first specialised agency of the United Nations, mandated eight hours of working per day or 48 hours per week in 1919 on the basis of several parameters like the physical and mental health of workers, their hygiene, family life, etc. This compulsory 12-hour shift isn’t acceptable. We don’t want to know the reason but the justification behind such arbitrary decisions taken by the states.

But Uttar Pradesh has recently withdrawn its order of 12-hour shifts for workers.

Yes, the Uttar Pradesh government has done it after a notice from the Allahabad High Court. But that doesn’t solve the problem as the state government has suspended key labour laws for three years.

This pandemic and lockdown have brought the problems of migrant workers to the surface in a big way. Isn’t the law regarding the migrant workers strong enough to protect them?

The ‘Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979’ was enacted to prevent exploitation of inter-state migrant workers and, to ensure fair and decent conditions of employment for them. However, there has been gross violation of the act by successive governments for more than four decades due to lacunae in the enforcement mechanism. That’s the reason why after so many years, questions regarding the existence of migrant workers have arisen – who are they, from where they have come, how to reach them, etc.

India is a developing nation, but what kind of development is this? We’re not even aware of our workforce. There is no comprehensive data about these migrant workers. Even if government wants to reach out to them with benefits, how is it going to do so?

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on several occasions said on TV channels that his government had fed 5 lakh people or one crore in a day; whereas people complained of not getting food. Where is the money going? In the past, it was said that during a disaster, money used to get consumed by the system. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had rightly said that of every rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reached the intended beneficiary. It seems it’s still continuing.

Several state governments announced that they would facilitate the migrants in reaching up to the state borders, but no transport was provided to them. Like, the Maharashtra government didn’t provide transport to labourers to reach Madhya Pradesh border. As a result, they had to walk hundreds of kilometres and 16 died on a railway track. It’s so pathetic.

Only after this pandemic, people at large have come to know that there’s something called ‘migrant labourers’. But again, it’s a temporary phenomenon. Once the pandemic gets over, migrant workers will be out of mind. Who knows someday this act may also get repealed as happened with the labour law.

BMS staging a nationwide protest agitation in New Delhi on Wednesday, while maintaining lockdown norms. Photo courtesy: Debobrat Ghose

BMS staging a nationwide protest agitation in New Delhi on Wednesday, while maintaining lockdown norms. Photo courtesy: Debobrat Ghose

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has recently announced a slew of measures and packages. Will it benefit migrant workers?

I try to see merit in the announcements, not problem. They may have the will to deliver ration to migrant labourers. The Centre has given money to the states, asking the latter to distribute ration, but do they have proper infrastructure to reach out to all the migrant workers? The irony of our system is that a person drawing Rs 1 lakh salary per month holds a BPL ration card, whereas a true beneficiary runs from pillar to post to get a BPL card.

From day one, I have never questioned the intention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his first term, when he announced the opening of bank accounts for those in the unorganised sector, it was highly criticised by various social actors, who act differently due to vested political interests.

These social actors (also activists) can move the Supreme Court with a petition at midnight, but unfortunately, no one cares for the relief of labourers and workers. Whether in opposition or in power, one shouldn’t resort to playing political games during this pandemic.

Cases have been reported where labourers were beaten up by contractors when they asked their wages to go back home.

It’s not only about contractors. The question is about the kind of development that has taken place in the last 70 years. A fear pandemic was created immediately after the lockdown was announced on 25 March. The industries started saying that it would be extremely difficult to run units and pay wages. Are our industrialists so poor that they can’t pay wages to workers during a month-long lockdown?

The reason is that our system is driven by greed and is an outcome of capital-driven economy. These forces want to get benefitted at the cost of poor labourers.

In many states, contractors, employers or agencies didn’t pay salary or wages for the month of April. In addition, crores of workers have lost their jobs. We have decided to fight for our workers.

What is your action plan ahead?

BMS staged a nationwide agitation on Wednesday, by hitting the streets with our demands as a ‘Nationwide Protest Day’ while following the norms of social distancing and lockdown. The aim is to put pressure on state governments to withdraw their anti-worker ordinances and revoke the order of 12-hour working schedule. We have sent letters to district authorities on issues like payment of wages, job losses, relief measures to unregistered workers, etc.

We’re strongly against unbridled privatisation of public sector undertakings. Today protest demonstration took place in various parts of the country and included tea plantation workers in Assam, copper mine workers of Madhya Pradesh, electricity employees of Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, insurance and National Health Mission workers of Karnataka and Jammu & Kashmir, construction workers of Odisha, beedi workers of Telangana, marine fish workers of Kerala, coal mines workers, employees of several PSUs, railways and defence sector, and migrants workers of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The BMS has urged the Central government to issue stringent directions for immediate payment of wages to labourers, and simultaneously intervene and halt changes in the labour laws being initiated by the state government. We’ll hold conventions involving states and industries on workers’ demands on 30 and 31 May.

Updated Date: May 21, 2020 13:07:17 IST

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