Editorial

Workforce habits: On tweaking of labour laws

Instead of tweaking labour laws, States must inspire confidence in workers

Over two months into the national lockdown, India’s workforce, ostensibly blessed to be part of its much-vaunted demographic dividend, is in complete disarray. There is the visibly disturbing narrative of a few million workers trying to get back home from their respective urban lives as resources run out and lack of adequate living space hits hard in the face of a virus that requires physical distancing. They used their feet, often facing police wrath, till the administration allowed trains and buses to move again. While swathes of informal sector workers are moving away from their adopted base, the remaining 10% of the workforce that is formally employed with social security benefits are beset by pink slips, furloughs, or salary cuts. The trend, driven by the slump in economic activity, cuts across sectors. Restrictions have eased slightly, but a return to normalcy has proved challenging even for the firms that are allowed to operate, largely due to inadequate manpower. Industry representatives have pleaded with the Labour Ministry to cajole workers to return to their workplaces on being summoned, and if that does not prove effective, make them liable for action under relevant industrial labour legislation. Relaxations have also been sought in statutory wage payments for April and May when little work happened.

Several States offered a temporary fix — stretching permissible working hours from eight to 12, so that productivity can improve even with less-than-optimal staff strength. While Rajasthan withdrew such an order, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some others have used the occasion to embark on a purge of labour laws, citing the need to spur investor confidence and revive job creation. Labour unions have protested this wholesale scrapping that would leave employees vulnerable in many aspects. Being a concurrent subject in the Constitution, States, however, need the Centre’s nod to effect these changes and, for now, Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar appears disinclined to agree. Official instructions to keep paying employees amidst the lockdown have not worked evenly, while tweaks such as lowering the EPF contribution rate do not amount to much relief for firms or their staff. While the nature of work is changing and greater spending is needed on hygiene, the immediate challenge is to inspire employee confidence. Most migrant workers are running scared of the pandemic. Getting them home safely is a first step and giving them an emergency income support till the worst of the pandemic subsides is the next. But for them to return to work enthusiastically over time, it is equally critical to reorient India’s current approach to urban and industrial housing, workplace social security and minimum wage standards. The Centre must begin a dialogue with States on this front. Ineffective paper laws such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 can be reviewed thereafter.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 10:03:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/workforce-habits-on-tweaking-of-labour-laws/article31725754.ece

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