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‘Impact of COVID-19, Reforms and Poor Governance on Labour Rights in India’ review: Sweeping changes in labour laws and their impact on rights

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of the nationwide lockdown last year, even as workers grappled with job losses and unpaid wages, and the nation witnessed the unprecedented exodus of migrant workers, the governments of several States extended the hours of work for factory workers. They increased the threshold numbers for the application of the Factories Act and the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act. A few States went further and took steps to exempt certain factories from the application of labour laws altogether.

The passage of the Industrial Relations Code, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, and the Social Security Code by Parliament amid an Opposition walkout dealt a further blow to labour rights in 2020. A number of industrial accidents too took place last year adding to the woes of workers.

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Adding to woes

Between April and December 2020, renowned labour economist, Prof. K.R. Shyam Sundar wrote a series of articles on the impact of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown on workers in the country as well as the sweeping changes effected to the labour laws, that were published in the print and electronic media. His writings and interviews have been published in a recent book, Impact of COVID-19, Reforms and Poor Governance on Labour Rights in India.

The book is divided into four parts. The chapters in Part I discuss the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on workers in the organised as well as unorganised sectors.

They review and analyse the advisories issued by the Central and State governments to protect the livelihood and wages of workers and the labour-related components of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package.

Shyam Sundar also takes a look at other labour-related policy initiatives of the State governments in the unlock phases. The changes made by various State governments to the labour laws in the name of kick-starting the economy too are discussed in Part I.

The chapters in Part II of the book analyse the provisions of the Code on Wages, the Industrial Relations Code, the Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions Code and the

Social Security Code and the draft rules framed under the Codes. They highlight the shortcomings in the Codes and the draft rules. The chapters in Part III highlight the flaws in the labour law reform process, the lackadaisical enforcement of labour laws and the gaps in the collection of labour statistics by the Labour Bureau.

The author underscores the importance of comprehensive, reliable and accessible data. The chapters in Part IV discuss the labour rights issues brought to the fore in the wake of the pandemic and the demands of the central trade union organisations.

Lack of dialogue

In several chapters, the author rues the absence of effective consultations with trade unions on issues concerning workers and the economy.

According to him, the rising trend of ‘neo-unilateralism’ has led to ill-conceived, poorly drafted laws characterized by mediocrity. He repeatedly emphasises the need for effective social dialogue while designing legal and policy responses in respect of issues concerning workers. He advocates for the revival of the tripartite Indian Labour Conference.

The essays compiled in the book are rich in detail and contain relevant statistics. They analyse the changes in the labour laws in the light of the international labour standards of the ILO. The book is the first of its kind and would be a valuable read for anyone interested in labour rights issues.

Impact of COVID-19, Reforms and Poor Governance on Labour Rights in India; K.R. Shyam Sundar, Synergy Books India, ₹1,695.

The reviewer is an advocate in the Madras High Court.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 3:54:56 AM |

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